Man drowns in police custody, officer who speaks out is demoted and harassed

Brandon Ellingson

On May 31, 2014, 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson was stopped by a Missouri Highway Patrol officer for suspicion of boating while intoxicated.

The events that followed Brandon's arrest are shocking, horrible, and tragic.

Ellingson was taken into custody by Trooper Anthony Piercy while boating on The Lake of the Ozarks after the officer claimed to see a beer can fly off of the young man's boat.

Piercy ended up arresting Ellingson. He cuffed the college student's hands behind his back and placed an ill-fitting life vest on him.

The wrong kind of life vest. Piercy used a Type III vest on Ellingson. But that kind of vest has armholes and cannot be properly secured on someone who is already handcuffed. Type I jackets go around a person's head, so even if they are handcuffed their head will float to the surface of the water. Type I life vests are the kind which troopers are trained to use on handcuffed subjects.

They were available on Piercy's boat.

One was just feet from where Ellingson was seated during field sobriety tests.

But Piercy was "in a hurry," as he explained during a phone call to Sgt. Randy Henry after the incident. That was his excuse for using the wrong life vest, placing Ellingson in the boat improperly, and driving the boat recklessly when heading back to the station.

Piercy's profound lack of competence and disregard for proper procedure cost Ellingson his life. The young man fell overboard and drowned.

A series of lies and cover-ups followed, naturally.

And, to date, no one has been held accountable for Ellingson's death.

The Kansas City Star published an update on May 29, 2015. Here's an excerpt.

In the year since Brandon Ellingson died, slipping to the bottom of the Gravois Arm, legislators have worked to make state waterways safer, and family and friends have pushed for answers. They have fought to hold the trooper, Anthony Piercy, accountable. More than 133,000 have signed an online "Justice for Brandon Ellingson" petition.

So far, family members say, they haven't gotten that justice. Although a special prosecutor has been investigating — taking on the case in March after another prosecutor recused herself — charges have yet to be filed. The U.S. Department of Justice also is reviewing the case.

"I probably spend more time in frustration than anywhere else," said Sherry Ellingson, Brandon's mother. "I'm frustrated all of the time. It's just the lack of accountability. ... In a normal situation, there's a boss that holds their people accountable. There's no one holding anyone accountable."

Now, an officer who dared to speak up and break the blue wall of silence is suffering the consequences.

Sgt. Randy Henry, the Missouri Highway Patrol trooper who spoke with Piercy the night of Ellingson's death, gave investigators a recorded statement, and told them that he had concerns about inconsistencies and changes in Piercy's story.

Henry was not invited to testify at the coroner's inquest. Neither was a family who witnessed the drowning. That's likely because their testimony would have supported an involuntary manslaughter charge - at the least - for Piercy.

Yesterday, it was announced that Henry has been demoted to corporal and moved from Lake of the Ozarks, where he's worked for nearly three decades. He is now assigned to Truman Lake, according to his attorney, Chet Pleban of St. Louis, who sent out a release Thursday detailing the discipline and referring to his client as a whistleblower.

Pleban told The Star:

"Randy Henry doesn't have a horse in the race. He's not on one side or the other. He has testimony to give that's material. The truth is the truth. He went to his superiors to say, 'This is wrong. This is what happened.' And they blew him off. So now here we are."

"You're going to make that man move from his home, where he's lived for 19 years, and force him to move to Truman Lake? And you're going to say that's not retaliation, malicious and vindictive?"

In May, Henry was deposed in the civil suit the Ellingsons have brought against the patrol.

Pleban said Thursday that the patrol set out to retaliate against Henry:

In recent months, the patrol sent Henry to a mental-health provider for an examination, according to a letter Pleban sent to patrol commanders. No cause for concern was noted, the attorney said.

Henry was sent for a second exam. Again, no concern.

"Ultimately, the mental-health provider warned that because she found nothing wrong with Sgt. Henry, it would be unethical for her to see him a third time at the insistence of the patrol," Pleban wrote to Johnson. "When the mental health route failed, a Professional Standards investigation surfaced."

Pleban told KRCG:

"They don't remove his service revolver, they don't take that, so that kind of tells me that there's something else going on here, other than a good faith that he needs a mental health examination and we believe that it's all because of his willingness to tell the truth and allege essentially that there's a cover up by the highway patrol in connection with that tragic drowning."

Pleban said Sgt. Henry is prepared to fight the disciplinary action and said a future hearing will occur. He also said that he believes the demotion and transfer of Henry was designed to force the trooper to retire.

Craig Ellingson, Brandon's father, said Henry's discipline is wrong.

"It's retaliation," he said. "They shouldn't be doing that."