VERSAILLES, MO. – A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper will spend 10 days in jail for his role in the drowning death of a handcuffed Iowa man.
In addition to the “shock time” in the Morgan County jail, Judge Roger Prokes sentenced Trooper Anthony Piercy to two years of supervised probation and ordered him to complete 50 hours of community service. Piercy will serve time in jail in five, two-day increments with his first stint scheduled to begin Friday.
For Craig Ellingson, whose son Brandon Ellingson drowned in May 2014 in Piercy’s custody on the Lake of the Ozarks, it’s not nearly enough.
“Ten days is like a vacation,” Craig Ellingson said. “It’s a joke. … He knows he’s guilty and he’s damn lucky to get what he got.”
Special Prosecutor William Camm Seay requested Piercy receive 30 days in jail and have his law enforcement certification revoked for life. Prokes, however, said the decision on Piercy’s certification was for the state, not him.
Seay left the courthouse disappointed and said he was determined to follow up on the certification and plead with the state to revoke it.
“I wished we would have gotten what we asked for,” Seay told The Star after the hearing. “It’s my hope he (Piercy) never ever serves as a law enforcement officer again. I’ve fulfilled my obligation but I feel like I have an obligation to the Ellingson family to see this out.”
Reached Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman with the patrol said Piercy is still a member of the patrol and is on extended, unpaid leave. What happens now with Piercy’s employment “is a personnel issue,” said Lt. Paul Reinsch.
In late June, Piercy avoided an involuntary manslaughter trial by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor boating violation. On a charge of negligent operation of a vessel, Piercy faced up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. He received a suspended execution of sentence and could face more jail time if he violates probation.
The decision to go with a misdemeanor plea came after Seay sent two investigators to measure the pulse of the community, where potential jurors would be pooled.
“The community in general thinks Anthony Piercy walked on water, that it was a mistake,” Seay said. “It’s not a mistake. It’s criminal negligence.”
Tuesday’s hearing ends the Ellingson family’s nearly 3 1/2 -year fight for justice. Craig Ellingson traveled from his Clive, Iowa, home to attend roughly 35 depositions, several legislative hearings dealing with lake safety and watched as a coroner’s inquest in September 2014 ruled that his son’s death was an accident.
He finally got the chance to speak to Piercy directly as he sat Tuesday afternoon in the witness stand and read from a three-page statement. Before he could get the first full sentence out, he began to cry.
“Anthony Piercy, it has been almost 3 1/2 years that I’ve waited to tell you face to face that you’re the reason why my son Brandon is dead,” Ellingson said, pausing and staring directly at Piercy for several seconds. “You had no compassion for my son.”
As Ellingson spoke several members of his family — including his nephew who was there the day Piercy arrested Brandon — sat behind him in support. They wiped away tears as Craig talked about his only son, who he described as having a kind heart, a determination to excel in school and sports and who, above all, clung to family.
Brandon’s mother, Sherry Ellingson, and sister Jennifer didn’t attend the sentencing.
“They didn’t want to see the guy who killed their brother and son,” Craig Ellingson said.
Piercy pulled Brandon Ellingson, 20, over May 31, 2014, on the Lake of the Ozarks for suspicion of boating while intoxicated. During the stop, Piercy handcuffed the Iowa man’s hands behind his back. Witnesses told authorities that the trooper then stuffed an already-buckled life vest — the wrong one for a handcuffed person — over Brandon Ellingson’s head.
On the way to a field office for more testing, Piercy traveled at speeds of up to 46 mph. At one point, after the boat hit a wave, Ellingson was ejected. While in the water, his improperly secured life vest soon came off. Piercy eventually jumped in to try to save him, but couldn’t.
A toxicology report would later show that Ellingson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.268, more than three times the legal limit. His family thinks the test was inaccurate because Ellingson’s body wasn’t recovered from the water for more than 18 hours.
Before the hearing began, Piercy walked into the courtroom and sat in the middle of the front row bench next to a group of three women. His presence visibly upset them as Theresa Townsend, sitting closest to the trooper, turned her back to him.
Piercy assured her he would move in a moment.
“That would be good,” said Townsend, who took an interest in the case and is angry with Piercy’s actions that day in May 2014. “An apology would be better.”
At one point during the hearing, Piercy had an opportunity to speak. He first looked over at Craig Ellingson and then spoke.
“I apologize for the loss that I have caused the Ellingson family,” the trooper said from the defense table. “I know that nothing that I will say will ease the pain that they are feeling. And I will never forget that I am the cause of that pain. I am truly sorry for that. Brandon should be here with them today. Thank you.”
Nearly four months after Ellingson drowned, a coroner’s inquest determined the death was accidental and the special prosecutor assigned then to the case declined to file charges. During the inquest, Piercy told jurors that he wasn’t trained for what he encountered May 31, 2014. A road veteran, he had just recently started helping on the water after the highway and water patrols merged.
After the first prosecutor reopened the case in early 2015 for more investigation, she soon recused herself. In December of that year, special prosecutor Seay charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter.
Late last year, the family received a $9 million settlement from the state and earlier won a lawsuit over records. A judge in that case ruled that the patrol knowingly and purposely violated the Sunshine Law by not handing over some information or delaying the release of other documents.
Days after Ellingson’s death in the Gravois Arm of the lake, The Star began investigating. Through interviews and records requests, the newspaper discovered that after Missouri merged the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol in 2011, some road troopers weren’t adequately trained to work on the water.
Piercy — who at the time of Ellingson’s death was an 18-year veteran of the road — received just two days of field training before he was cleared for “solo boat time.” Before the merger, Water Patrol recruits were required to receive at least two months of field training.
The merger and any action by the patrol barely came up in Tuesday’s hearing. It was the judge who addressed it, saying he hoped “whoever is in the position to learn from the decisions and the consequences of those acts have done that.”
Prokes also told the courtroom that this case, and thinking of Brandon’s death and his family’s grief, had kept him awake the night before. At one point, he said, he lay in bed and listened to his wife’s breathing.
He said he thought, “OK, Roger, if that breath stopped of somebody you loved like that, what would you feel like?” Prokes told the court. “I can’t fathom what it would be like to cope with that.”
There’s nothing he, or anyone else, can do to bring Brandon back, he said. But he did apologize to the family for the loss of Brandon.
“If the state has not in some manner formally expressed their condolences and sorrow, I’m a state employee, please accept them from me on behalf of the state,” Prokes said.
He soon reminded everyone in the courtroom that he wasn’t sentencing Piercy on the involuntary manslaughter charge he initially faced.
“I’m sentencing him on the charge we have,” Prokes said. “The plea of guilty in front of the court.”
And for the Ellingson family, the punishment wasn’t enough.
“I don’t think the judge knows anything about this case,” Ellingson said outside the courthouse. “… He (Piercy) could have saved him. He was taunting him. What he was portraying in there is not Tony Piercy.”
In the end, Ellingson said, justice will come.
“Judge Prokes and his authority and what he did is a minor thing when Piercy has to answer to the Lord.”
He left the courthouse and Versailles thinking of his son, who he last saw nearly 3 1/2 years ago.
“I think he would be disappointed in the outcome, but he knows I fought hard for him,” Ellingson said, standing outside the Morgan County Courthouse for what he said would be the last time. “And he knows I did the best I could for him based on what we got here in this little town.
“It was never going to be fair.”