An attempted coverup lasting more than a year came to a surprising end today after criminal charges were filed against a Missouri Highway Patrol officer in the death of Brandon Ellingson, the 20-year-old man who drowned while handcuffed in police custody.
State trooper Anthony Piercy was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the first degree, which can land him in prison for seven years.
The decision to charge Piercy was made by special prosecutor William Camm Seay, who called his actions reckless.
Last year, another special prosecutor named Amanda Grellner said she would not charge Piercybecause Ellingson’s death was merely an accident.
But then Ellingson’s family and friends launched a petition to have Piercy charged.
And then a Missouri State Trooper named Randy Henry turned whistleblower, accusing his fellow officers of covering up for themselves in Ellingson’s death, leading to him getting retaliated against, which forced him into early retirement as we wrote about here.
The Arrest and Coverup
Piercy arrested Ellingson on Memorial Day Weekend 2014 on suspicion of boating drunk, pulling his police boat next to Ellingson’s boat.
He sat Ellingson in the police boat, then handcuffed him, then dropped a life jacket over his head, but not securing it by placing his arms through the sleeve because Ellingson’s arms were cuffed.
When he began boating towards the facility to process Ellingson, the boat struck a large wave, sending the handcuffed man into the water.
But the life jacket slipped off as soon as he fell into the water, leaving the handcuffed man to sink to the bottom of the lake, unable to swim or float.
And then began the attempted coverup began with Piercy claiming that the boat was traveling about 10 mph when Ellingson either purposely jumped in the water or fell in because he was so drunk.
But the boat’s GPS determined the boat was traveling at about 40 mph.
Henry also has contended that patrol officials tried to paper over serious problems revealed by Ellingson’s death, in part to shield Gov. Jay Nixon from criticism for pushing the 2011 merger of the state Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol.
“There’s been a cover-up from the beginning,” Henry recently told The Star. “They wanted to protect the governor and the merger and protect Piercy from criminal charges because criminal charges would be a black eye for the patrol.”
In January, Grellner reopened the investigation after receiving what she described as new information.
Seay took over in March after Grellner, the Osage County prosecutor, stepped aside. Family and friends were waiting for Grellner’s decision on charges when she announced, without giving details, that a conflict had developed and she could no longer stay on the case.
Grellner asked the court to appoint another prosecutor because she thought additional information she had received deserved attention.
Because of the 2011 merger between the State Highway Patrol and the State Water Patrol, Piercy, whose background was with the highway patrol, found himself working water patrol.
However, he was not properly trained for that job, which is why he used a life jacket instead of the required flotation device designed for handcuffed suspects.
Hours after Ellingson drowned, Henry said, Piercy told him key details that differed from accounts the trooper subsequently gave to Highway Patrol investigators and jurors at the coroner’s inquest.
According to Henry, Piercy said he was “in a hurry” when he put a life vest on Ellingson. Piercy also told the sergeant that the Ellingson was on his feet, leaning against the boat seat, before he went into the water. That corresponds with what two witnesses saw when the patrol boat passed them moments before Ellingson went into the lake.
However, Piercy told investigators that Ellingson was sitting in the boat and then stood, turned to the water and went in.
An investigator asked Piercy, “Did he jump over? Or did he fall over?”
“I don’t know,” Piercy said. “I’ve, believe me, played this scenario through my mind a million times, and I don’t know. All I know is he’s beside me, and then he’s not.”
At the inquest, Piercy said he saw Ellingson stand, turn toward the water and step to the right side of the boat. As he told the story to jurors, Piercy began to choke back tears: “I reached for him and wasn’t able to grab ahold of him.”
Below is a video from the boat that shows Piercy talking by phone with Henry, who was his supervisor at the time, trying to explain what had taken place.
UPDATE: Below is a new video of the prosecutor speaking to the media about his decision to file charges against Piercy.