The state of Missouri recently agreed to pay $9 million to the family of a 20-year-old Iowa man who drowned in police custody. Although the wrongful death lawsuit was settled this week, the state trooper responsible for the young man’s death has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and is currently awaiting trial.
On May 31, 2014, Trooper Anthony Piercy pulled over 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson for suspicion of boating while intoxicated. Ellingson had been vacationing with his friends on the Lake of the Ozarks when Piercy arrested him and cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back.
Before taking Ellingson aboard his patrol boat, Piercy placed a Type III life vest over the handcuffed man’s head without properly fastening the straps or securing the vest over his torso. Driving at speeds up to 46 mph, Piercy claimed that his boat hit another boat’s wake when Ellingson was accidentally ejected from the vehicle and fell into the water.
According to Ellingson’s friends who witnessed the incident, Piercy eventually dove into the water to rescue Ellingson but the handcuffed man had already lost his unsecured life preserver and sunk to the bottom of the lake.
“He never did anything,” eyewitness Larry Moreau recalled Piercy’s hesitation. “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.”
A few hours later, the Missouri Highway Patrol called Brandon’s father, Craig Ellingson, falsely informing him that his son had drowned after his boat capsized.
In a recorded conversation with another officer, Piercy recalled only driving approximately 15 to 20 mph. But according to his patrol boat’s GPS, Piercy had reached speeds up to 46 mph when the handcuffed man fell into the water.
Earlier this year, Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled that the Missouri Highway Patrol “knowingly” and “purposely” violated the state’s open records law in the days and months after Ellingson’s death by repeatedly denying information requested by attorneys representing his family. In December, Piercy was charged with involuntary manslaughter despite the fact that a Morgan County Coroner determined Ellingson’s death to be an accident.
Before patrolling on the lake alone, Piercy had only received two days of field training prior to Ellingson’s arrest. Piercy has been placed on administrative leave and currently awaits trial.
On Thursday, Ellingson’s family released a statement concerning the recent settlement: “On November 14, 2016 the State of Missouri agreed to pay the Estate of Brandon Ellingson and Sherry, Craig, and Jennifer Ellingson the sum of $9 million dollars to settle the lawsuit filed in federal court against the Missouri Highway Patrol, Trooper Anthony Piercy, and several other Defendants on December 5, 2014.
“The Ellingsons wish to express their deep and sincere appreciation to the tens of thousands of people in Iowa, Missouri, Arizona, and across the country who have supported them during this very difficult time. No amount of money will lessen the suffering that the Ellingson family, relatives, and friends have endured since his death two and a half years ago. The family established a memorial at Valley Stadium and supported a scholarship at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa to make certain that Brandon will never be forgotten.
“The Ellingsons now look to the Missouri state court to ensure that the manslaughter charges pending against Piercy are prosecuted expeditiously and fairly and that Piercy never again serves as a law enforcement officer. Justice for Brandon will be achieved by ensuring public safety in Missouri.”