A Missouri state trooper pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor boating violation three years after he handcuffed a college student and left him to drown in a lake.
Brandon Ellingson and his friends were celebrating the start of summer break with a boating trip in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks in May 2014. But as he and his friends were leaving the dock one afternoon, trooper Anthony Piercy stopped them and accused Ellingson, 20, of boating while intoxicated. Piercy handcuffed Ellingson, placed him in the back of his Water Patrol boat, and sped off. The boat was traveling 46 miles per hour when it hit a wave, flinging the handcuffed young man into the water. Piercy called his supervisor an hour after Ellingson drowned.
Piercy faces a maximum six months in prison and a $500 fine for Ellingson’s death. Ellingson’s family says it’s the closest they’ll get to justice.
“He’s an evil person,” Ellingson’s father Craig told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “The reason we decided to go to the plea deal was it was tainted down there,” in Morgan County, Missouri’s court system.
The family also reached a $9 million settlement with the state of Missouri in November 2016. “We weren’t going to go through that again,” Craig said of the two-year ordeal.
The family had to fight to learn even the basic facts of their son’s death. Four months after Ellingson drowned, a local coroner ruled his death an accident, despite testimony from Ellingson’s friends who described Piercy as negligent.
After Piercy cuffed Ellingson, he tried pulling a life vest over Ellingson’s cuffed arms, instead of choosing another available life vest that allowed a person to wear handcuffs.
“He tried to pull [it] over his shoulders… and was having a very hard time doing so,” Ellingson’s friend Myles Goertz told investigators, according to the Kansas City Star. “It clearly was not the proper way to wear a life jacket. It was not how the life jacket was designed to be worn.”
Forgetting to fasten a buckle between Ellingson’s legs, Piercy “shoved a life jacket over his head and took off like a bat out of hell,” Craig said.
The misapplied life vest fell off as Ellingson hit the water. Ellingson was an “all star” football player, his father said. But with his hands cuffed behind his back, Ellingson struggled to stay afloat. Piercy did not jump in to save him.
When a bachelorette party passed on a nearby boat, the passengers threw Ellingson a life ring “but they didn’t know my son was handcuffed,” Craig said. “Piercy didn’t say he was handcuffed.”
The women told investigators that they screamed at Piercy to extend a pole to Ellingson, which he did “but he knew he was handcuffed,” Craig said.
Piercy did not call a supervisor for help until an hour after Ellingson drowned. Footage from his boat shows Piercy having a chillingly casual conversation with his colleague, referring to Ellingson in profane terms.
“I’m banged up a little bit, but I’m alright. I don’t know if I’m sore from treading water with the bastard,” Piercy told a supervisor of the dead 20-year-old.
Many of the records on Ellingson’s death only emerged later, through his family’s persistent legal efforts against the department.
In September 2016, a circuit court judge ruled that the state had “knowingly” and “purposely” violated the state’s Sunshine Law to withhold documents about Ellingson’s death from his family. “These documents could all be considered highly damaging to the [Highway Patrol], and the wrongful nondisclosure of these documents is troubling to the Court,” a judge wrote.
Piercy’s criminal case presented the Ellingsons with a different challenge: small-town Missouri law.
Morgan County’s population hovers just above 20,000. During an inquest jury on the cause of Ellingson’s death, a juror told the Kansas City Star that the criminal trial should be held outside Morgan County because the local courts ran on a “good ole boy system.” And Piercy was reportedly well-known in the small community.
“That whole town’s been tainted,” Craig said. “His wife’s a teacher, he was on the school board, he was a cop.”
The Ellingsons wanted to move the case to Kansas City, or closer to their home near Des Moines, Iowa, but the case was locked into Piercy’s hometown venue, where they worried Piercy would walk free.
“It would have been a hung jury, or he would have gotten off,” Craig said. Special prosecutor William Camm Seay interviewed locals about their stance on the case and arrived at the same concerns.
“I had a great fear of a mistrial and just seating a jury,” Seay told the Star. Instead, Seay agreed to offer a drastically reduced plea deal. Instead of facing involuntary manslaughter charges, Piercy would plead guilty to a misdemeanor boating violation, a slap on the wrist that could result in a maximum six months behind bars.
Piercy’s lawyer asked that Piercy be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, should he be sentenced to more than probation. But after three years of fighting his son’s case, Craig said the closest thing to justice will be the opportunity to address Piercy during the sentencing.
“It was probably the best alternative, rather than have him walk free. This way we can sit in front of him and say what we want,” Craig said. “I’m a Christian. Ultimately, my belief is he’ll be judged by God.”