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Trooper: ‘I feel like I drowned that kid’

It has been six months since 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson drowned while in Highway Patrol custody at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Ellingson was pulled over by Trooper Anthony Piercy for boating while drinking in May.

Currently the Highway Patrol Drug and Crime Control Division is investigating the circumstances surrounding the college student’s death.

Meanwhile, Ellingson’s family in Iowa is pushing for a federal investigation while pursuing a civil lawsuit.

A memory card was missing from Piercy’s boat on May 31, meaning there is no concrete proof of how Ellingson fell off the boat.

ABC 17 News gathered phone records, dispatch calls, video from other boats, and listened to eyewitness accounts trying to determine what happened.

However, even after months of investigating the question still remains: Who is responsible for Ellingson’s death?

The trooper who did not follow protocol?

Those who failed to properly train him?

Or did Ellingson’s own actions cause his own death?

Whatever the case, what ABC 17 News uncovered was a pattern of truth stretching- ranging from spin to distorting the story.

“I don’t know if I’m sore from treading water with the bastard, but I just feel spent. God **** that felt like a marathon,” said Piercy minutes after Ellingson’s drowning.

Video footage ABC 17 News has is from the first boat to arrive to assist Piercy that Saturday evening and shows him talking with his superiors moments after Ellingson went under.

“I know the cameras are on right now, but I feel like I drowned that kid. I should have done more for him,” Piercy later went on to say to those on the boat with him.

After spending 18 years on the road in the Highway Patrol, May marked Piercy’s second summer on the water.

He pulled over Ellingson and his six friends after they left Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar and Grill around 5:15 p.m. on May 31.

After ordering Ellingson on his boat, Piercy gave Ellingson sobriety tests and then arrested him while his friends watched just feet away.

“That life jacket, it was an orange one. It was already strapped up and everything he just pulled it over him. He was already handcuffed and everything he just pulled it over him,” said Louis Guiterrez, one of Ellingson’s friends to Highway Patrol investigators.

ABC 17 News obtained records showing that was Piercy’s first mistake.

He needed to put Ellingson in a Type I life vest.

That’s the type of vest that goes around a person’s head, so even if they are handcuffed their head would float to the surface of the water.

Piercy put Ellingson in a Type III vest.

The kind that does not go around someone’s head, but rather has holes for their arms.

However, Piercy failed to put Ellingson’s arms through the holes before handcuffing him.

Something Capt. Gregory Kindle, the commander of Troop F, did not want dispatch to report.

Radio: So the life jacket came off in the water?
Kindle: Yeah.
Radio: Wow.
Kindle: Yeah it went, came off over the top of his head.
Radio: Oh. Was it just one of those orange ones? That flips over the head.
Kindle: No. No. It was… we don’t need to put this in the message or anything (inaudible) it was one of those real good ones that wraps around you like an e-vest (inaudible) but Tony didn’t have his arms wrapped through it.

When Piercy got his boat back to where Ellingson was in the water, he tried reaching for him with a pole.

Moments later he jumped in the water after Ellingson who at this point had slipped out of his vest.

While Piercy was in the water and struggling himself, according to multiple accounts, his fanny pack Type V vest never inflated.

Sgt. Randy Henry with Highway Patrol spoke with Piercy the night Ellingson drowned and told investigators Piercy did not know the ripcord to inflate his vest even existed.

“I said, ‘Tony, did you inflate your life jacket? And he goes, ‘Well I was waiting for it to auto-inflate. I said Tony those life jackets don’t auto-inflate. He said oh I thought they did. And I said you have to pull the ripcord,” said Henry to Patrol investigators.

Four days later, Henry ran into Piercy at the zone office where they talked again.

“He kind of went over through it again. He said something about, ‘man if I would have just pulled my ripcord,’ and he didn’t say nothing about it auto-inflating again. I don’t know how that conversation went but I could tell he didn’t want to go down that road,” said Henry.

Piercy had to talk about it again at a Morgan County coroner’s inquest September 4.

The coroner called the inquest to determine the manner of Ellingson’s death.

Six jurors listened to testimony, and deliberated for only eight minutes to find Ellingson’s death was accidental, which is what the Morgan County coroner thought all along.

“I think they made the right call. After reading everything and going through that thing four or five times trying to find things, I think it was an accident,” said M.B. Jones, Morgan Co. coroner, minutes after the inquest.

The decision prompted a special prosecutor not to file criminal charges.

No video was allowed in the courtroom during the inquest, but ABC 17 News requested and received the transcript of Piercy’s account to the jurors.

His story and his understanding of his safety equipment seemed to change.

Piercy said, “I knew that it was not the auto-inflate, so I dove in at that point for him,” going on to say while crying, “And I was trying to get that ripcord pulled, or to find it so- and I knew I couldn’t get it with one hand. I briefly let go of Mr. Ellingson to pull the life jacket apart to find that ripcord.”

Again, recordings suggest Piercy did not know about the ripcord on the vest.

Henry, the source of that information about the ripcord, was told his account of things was not needed by investigators.

Phone calls ABC 17 News obtained show Capt. Kindle wanted to be selective with what dispatch sent out.

Radio: As far as the situational reporting, do you want me to exclude MIAC?
Captain Kindle: Yeah, yeah don’t send it to MIAC just yet.
Radio: OK.
Kindle: And I don’t even know, I’d just send it to troop F staff for right now and Maj. Johnson. Don’t send it to the whole troop.
Radio: Well I’m going to send it to radio.
Kindle: Yeah, yeah radio and superintendent staff. Yeah I wouldn’t do MCD officers and I wouldn’t do MIAC.

MIAC is the Missouri Information Analysis Center and its work with federal agencies could have given those agencies access to the information.

Minutes later, new information came in and dispatch asked again about what to send.

Radio: Do we need to send out another message to the select few or just…
Kindle: I don’t think so.
Radio: Or what they sent out is good?
Kindle: Yeah what was in the first message was pretty factual actually.
Radio: OK.
Kindle: The ones who need to know, know about the life jacket.
Radio: Yeah, I wouldn’t put that anywhere.

As that conversation continued, it was getting dark and the search for Ellingson’s body was called off even though Highway Patrol had a clear sonar image of Ellingson 80 feet underwater.

Kindle: His Dad is seven (inaudible) of pissed off that we are not going to dive tonight.
Radio: Well.
Kindle: And I understand. I mean I got that. But I’m not gonna get somebody hurt trying to recover somebody that’s dead.
Radio: Yeah. Exactly. Alright.
Kindle: And I want to just tell him he’s not going to be anymore dead in the morning than he is right now.
Radio: *Laughing*
Kindle: But I didn’t.
Radio: Ha ha, probably wouldn’t have appreciated that very much. Ha ha.

The Patrol recovered Ellingson’s body about 18 hours after he went under.

During that time, Henry said a lot was discussed among the officers on the water, including whether the speed of Piercy’s boat played a role in the incident, something that was never brought up at the inquest.

“I wasn’t going real fast. I guess 15 to 20 mph. No more than that,” said Piercy on Cpl. David Echternacht’s boat after Ellingson’s drowning.

But GPS records ABC 17 News obtained show Piercy’s boat reaching speeds of 46 mph.

Ellingson was sitting in the co-captain’s seat with his feet not being able to touch the floor, hands behind his back, and the edge of the boat just a foot away.

Ellingson’s father was in disbelief when he first stepped onto a Donzi, the type of boat the Highway Patrol uses.

“No my feet don’t touch the ground and I am 6-foot-1, 3 1/2 inches taller than my son,” said Craig Ellingson.

With a coroner’s inquest calling it an accident, and the state declining to file charges, Craig Ellingson is running out of options.

He said he’s fighting for the truth, a fact some in the patrol thought would be the standard.

“I brought it up, I said, ‘guys, they are going to want full transparency on this thing.’ I said, ‘did we ask ourselves, did he use the highest degree of care here? Missouri statute 306.125,” said Henry to investigators who quickly turned the recorder off.

Missouri Statute 306.125 states, “Every person shall operate a motorboat, vessel or watercraft in a careful and prudent manner and at a rate of speed so as not to endanger the property of another or the life or limb of any person and shall exercise the highest degree of care.”

Henry’s recording ends there, but Craig Ellingson told ABC 17 News he is nowhere near ending his fight for his son.

“Hopefully we will get justice eventually with digging deeper. People are going to have to step up and tell the truth and quit hiding and shoving it under the rug,” said Craig Ellingson.

ABC 17 News reached out to Highway Patrol officials multiple times for this story to see if they would like to comment.

Each time, they said no one could talk because of pending litigation.

That is also what Piercy’s lawyer said.

ABC 17 News has not been able to get a clear answer as to what exactly Piercy’s punishment was.

Sources said it was a five day suspension and he has been back patrolling the roads.

In the meantime, hearings are underway around the state about the 2011 Highway Patrol- Water Patrol merger.

The merger put Water Patrol under Highway Patrol command.

So far in the hearings, the truth has come out that road officers working on the waterways have not been trained properly.

The next hearing is Wednesday, Nov. 19, in Hollister.

These hearings are open to the public.

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