Questions remain over handcuffed man drowning in police custody

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - A handcuffed 20-year-old man sank to the bottom of a lake and a state cost cutting measure may have led to his death. Many police officers have been asking for changes, but they won’t speak publicly as they fear retribution.

The drowning occurred on Memorial Day 2014. There’s been no announcement of a federal investigation and no announcement of charges. Only more questions arise.

Friends snapped a final picture of Brandon Ellingson, as MO Highway Patrol Trooper Tony Piercy took him away for suspicion of boating drunk. Ellingson had just left Coconuts Bar.

Another Highway Patrol boat captured Trooper Piercy explaining why Ellingson was dead. You can hear Piercy say, “He was being real nice and cooperative. It`s not like we were fighting or arguing.”

Piercy also said “I`m sore from treading water with the bastard. I`m spent but goddamn, I feel like I ran a marathon.”

Piercy hinted that maybe Ellingson jumped

Piercy said, “I probably wasn't even doing ten miles an hour and then he just went over the edge and I can`t say 100 percent for sure if he did it on purpose or if it was the wake.”

GPS technology later revealed the trooper’s boat at one point was going more than 4 times that speed, 43.7 mph. Witness Larry Mareau said he was running at 32 mph when Trooper Piercy passed him. Later he said he saw Ellingson struggling in the water, a life vest floating away with Trooper Piercy standing over him.

Witness Mareau said “He never bent over, never did anything. He stayed in that position for what I would say, 10 seconds, maybe something like that and let the boat drift away from him.

The witness said he had no idea Ellingson was handcuffed. Trooper Piercy spoke to his colleague Sgt. Randy Henry. He documented the conversation for the Highway Patrol. During an audio recorded interview he said, “They`re going to want full transparency on this thing so did you ask ourselves, did he use the highest degree of care here?”

According to that interview, Trooper Piercy handcuffed Ellingson and brought him to the middle of the boat where he leaned against a seat.

Sgt. Henry added, “He told me he put the Type 3 on the guy after he was handcuffed.”

We demonstrated what it might look like to put a type 3 life jacket on someone handcuffed.


Sgt. Henry said he challenged Piercy about this and we demonstrated why.


Obviously, the jacket shoots to the surface. Sgt. Henry said he questioned Piercy, “So I said you didn't you grab the Type 1 that was sitting next to the kid’s feet? Or his leg? I was just in a hurry.”

This is what happens with a Type 1 jacket when someone can`t use their arms.


Just how did Ellingson go overboard?

Trooper Piercy admitted he hit a giant wave when “…he turned his back to me and I don`t know if he tried to stand up or what, but he just went right over the side and I grabbed his foot temporarily but he just slipped out of my hand.”

Last October, Sgt. Henry testified to Jefferson City lawmakers. He had concerns about training for Highway Patrol troopers who were put on the water. He testified “The training for the part time help, we may go a week and train a day or two with a guy, skip a week or two, train again and it was inconsistent training.”

Several sources tell me officers lost weeks of critical training after Governor Jay Nixon merged Highway Patrol with Water Patrol in 2011. It’s what put Trooper Tony Piercy on the Lake of the Ozarks.

Highway Patrol won't answer my questions about Piercy's training, but former Water Patrol Lt. Eldon Wulf testified about training in general after the merger. He told the committee "47 out of 88 troopers were evaluated as "very poor" or "poor" swimmers.”

Highway Patrol Colonel Ron Replogle defended the merger as a way to free up Troopers for other emergencies.

He said, “You all have seen the Ferguson unrest. We had more officers we were able to send there because of the merger under one unified command. So I don`t know how you put a dollar amount on some of those things.”

Meanwhile, Brandon Ellingson`s family in Iowa wants accountability.

Dad Craig Ellingson said, “Anthony Piercy who was responsible for my son`s death, he was not trained properly and he`s the sole result of why Brandon`s not here. (The case) needs to be reopened and he needs to be charged with manslaughter. If I did it, you did it, we`d be in trouble.”

Trooper Tony Piercy faces no criminal charges and he remains working out of Troop F highway patrol as a road officer. The Trooper who questioned Piercy's actions, Sgt. Randy Henry, was transferred an hour and a half away from his home.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisHayesTV

Web extras:  WARNING:  Language in these audio and videos may be offensive to some viewers.

Audio of Sgt. Randy Henry talking to Highway Patrol investigators about Ellingson drowning. June 19, 2014

Highway Patrol boat camera video of Trooper Tony Piercy talking about the Ellingson drowning. May 31, 2014

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