Missouri trooper charged in drowning death of handcuffed man
03/28/2016 11:18 am PDT
All new charges are leveled against Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Anthony Piercy after one of the most shocking allegations you'll ever hear one cop make about another.
It was supposed to be a fun time on the lake. But when Brandon Ellingson was pulled over for boating under the influence, things would take an unbelievably tragic turn.
"We killed, as an agency, we killed Brandon Ellingson," said Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Randy Henry.
Ellingson was a 20-year-old All-American college student, a champion football player and a beloved son. His life cut tragically short while boating on May 31, 2014 on Lake of the Ozarks.
It's a story Crime Watch Daily first reported in December.
Brandon Ellingson and six friends spent the afternoon at a lakeside bar and grill. When they left on a boat Ellingson was arrested by Trooper Anthony Piercy on suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
One of Ellingson's friends snapped a picture of the arrest -- the last photo taken of Ellingson alive.
Trooper Piercy handcuffed Ellingson, and then in a mistake that will destroy untold lives, places him in a life vest, a Type-3 vest.
The vest has arm holes, but it's already reportedly buckled when Piercy pulls it over Ellingson's head with his arms handcuffed behind him.
Piercy takes Ellingson away alone in his patrol boat. A short time later his parents get a call: There has been a tragic accident.
"Proceeded to tell me that the boat had capsized, Piercy was the driver, Brandon was tossed out and drowned," said Craig Ellingson, Brandon's father.
But we now know that's not how Brandon drowned. The patrol boat did not capsize. And it's the first of many discrepancies that will lead to accusations of an alarming conspiracy that reeks of a cover-up.
Shortly after Brandon Ellingson's death, Piercy radios in telling another officer he was driving the patrol boat at a safe speed. The exchange is recorded.
"I wasn't going real fast 'cause it was real choppy. I'm guessing 15 to 20, no more than that," Piercy says on the recording.
But the patrol boat's GPS records tell a very different story: It shows Piercy hit speeds of 46 miles an hour while Ellingson was in custody. While racing along the lake's surface, Ellingson is sitting in the co-pilot's seat, his hands cuffed behind his back, his feet off the ground, less than a foot from the edge of the boat.
According to Piercy, his patrol boat hit another boat's wake and Ellingson went overboard. But when Piercy radios in, he says Ellingson may have jumped.
"And I don't, I can't say 100 percent for sure if he did it on purpose or if it was the wake," Piercy says on the recording.
Ellingson's life vest slips off and surfaces, but his hands are still handcuffed behind his back, and he's sinking fast.
Eyewitness Larry Moreau says he saw the whole thing. He claims Trooper Piercy did little to help as Ellingson desperately fought for his life.
"He never did anything," Moreau said. "He stayed in that position for maybe 10 seconds, something like that, and let the boat drift away from him. It's hard to comprehend how this officer could have known that this kid was handcuffed and it took him that long to get back to him."
Piercy ultimately leaps in to save Ellingson. But his efforts fail. Ellingson, his hands still cuffed behind him, sinks to the bottom of the lake. Moments after losing Ellingson, you can hear Piercy complain that the incident has left him worn out.
"I'm sore from treading water with the bastard. I'm spent, but ---damn, I feel like I ran a marathon," Piercy says on the recording.
Later, according to transcripts from testimony, Brandon Ellingson's buddies are actually told by police that he "had gotten aggressive" and he's going to be held in jail overnight. They're told they can "get him in the morning."
That was another lie. Ellingson had already been dead for four hours. At the time, his body was still at the bottom of the lake. In fact, Missouri Highway and Water Patrol decided not to even retrieve Ellingson's body until the next day. Then they joke about it over the radio. .
"His dad is seven kinds of pissed off that we're not gonna dive tonight," an officer is heard on a call to dispatch. "And I wanted to tell him, he's not going to be any more dead in the morning than he is right now."
Retired Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Randy Henry had heard enough. He stepped forward to blow the whistle on a fellow cop, a colleague of Piercy's.
"I was the supervisor who signed off on Piercy to work the water," said Henry.
Sergeant Henry interviewed Trooper Piercy immediately after Ellingson's death.
Sergeant Henry believes Piercy was negligent in his duties. But according to Henry, when he takes his concerns to his superiors, they try to muzzle him, and don't even want him to write a report.
"I knew right then the fix was in," said Henry.
Brandon's father agrees. When a coroner's inquest takes only eight minutes to rule Brandon's death is accidental, Craig Ellingson calls the hearings "a joke" and "a hometown decision."
Meanwhile, Sergeant Henry is reprimanded and demoted, which he claims is punishment for blowing the whistle and calling unwanted attention to the merger of Missouri's Highway and Water Patrol, a cost-cutting measure enacted that allegedly put inexperienced troopers like Piercy on the water, resulting in Ellingson's death.
"The truth hurts. And when we kill somebody in custody, the family deserves to know the truth, and not just bits and pieces of the truth that we want to release," said Henry.
Finally, a development that might bring long-awaited justice for Ellingson: A special prosecutor charges Piercy with involuntary manslaughter in the first degree, accusing the trooper of "recklessly causing the death" and taking "an unjustifiable risk."
The charge is a Class C felony that could mean seven years in prison for Piercy, who has pleaded not guilty.
The trial is set for September. Brandon's loved ones hope this is the first step in finally avenging his death.
"It was just totally gross negligence," said Craig Ellingson. "Tony Piercy is guilty of manslaughter and he needs to pay the price for what he did to my son."