Missouri settles after man with Arizona ties drowns while in patrol custody

Posted at 10:09 AM, Nov 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-17 12:09:10-05

The state of Missouri will pay $9 million to the family of an Iowa man who drowned after he fell out of a boat handcuffed and in an improperly secured life vest while he was in custody of a state trooper, an attorney for the family announced Thursday.

The settlement ends a civil lawsuit filed by the family of Arizona State University student Brandon Ellingson after he died in May 2014 at the Lake of the Ozarks, the Kansas City Star reported. Ellingson, from Clive, Iowa, was arrested on suspicion of boating while intoxicated and was being transported by Trooper Anthony Piercy, who jumped into the lake but could not save Ellingson. The family alleged the trooper, the state and the Missouri State Highway Patrol were liable in Brandon's death.

As the civil case went through the courts, several counts and claims against multiple defendants were dismissed, leaving only three counts against Piercy, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter. The criminal case is set for a hearing Monday in Morgan County. Piercy is on unpaid leave.

"The money isn't going to bring Brandon back, but at least that amount shows they are at fault," his father Craig Ellingson said. "If they weren't at fault, they would have kept fighting us."

Des Moines attorney Matt Boles said the settlement indicated "there was clearly an undeniable liability on behalf of Tony Piercy and his actions." He added that the family still has not received a sincere apology from the state or highway patrol, other than from retired Sgt. Randy Henry, a whistleblower who spoke out after Ellingson's death.

"The silence is deafening," Boles said. "No apology, no `Sorry for your loss."'

Highway Patrol Capt. John Holtz said in a statement that "any loss of life is a tragedy," but that with the settlement, "the patrol will have no additional comment on this matter." The Missouri Attorney General's office, which represented the patrol and the troopers, declined to comment Thursday.

An investigation by the Star found the 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol and the Highway Patrol contributed to the drowning. Some road troopers were assigned to patrol on the water, and Water Patrol officers sometimes were put on the road. Piercy, an 18-year veteran road trooper, received only two days of field training before he worked on the lake alone.

In September 2014, a Morgan County jury found that Ellingson's death was an accident. During the trial, Piercy said he wasn't properly trained for what happened.

Road troopers no longer patrol the lake alone, and training for troopers who work the water has increased, as has the patrol's swimming requirement.