Missouri has agreed to pay $9 million to relatives of a handcuffed college student from Iowa who drowned in 2014 after falling off a Highway Patrol boat into the Lake of the Ozarks.
Brandon Ellingson, 20, whose hands were cuffed behind his back, slid out of a life jacket put on him by Trooper Anthony Piercy, according to the federal lawsuit just settled. Piercy should have used a different type of jacket, it claimed.
Meanwhile, Piercy faces trial in Morgan County on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in Ellingson’s death. A hearing in the case is set for Monday. Piercy is on unpaid administrative leave.
The Ellingson’s family attorney, Matt Boles, of Des Moines, Iowa, said a review of public records suggests the $9 million was the most Missouri ever paid over a death caused by a state employee. The Missouri Office of Administration said it was the most since at least 2004, as far back as its records were accessible.
“That’s a sizable amount of money, and it shows they were at fault,” Brandon’s father, Craig Ellingson, 55, said after Boles announced the settlement Thursday. “The money was way less than what we wanted, and no amount of money was ever going to bring Brandon back.
“It was never about the money. It was about uncovering the truth,” Ellingson said.
The parties agreed in principle Monday but were still working out the final wording, Boles said.
Patrol Capt. John Hotz said in a prepared statement that “any loss of life is a tragedy,” adding, “With this case now settled through the court system, the Patrol will have no additional comment on this matter.”
The attorney general’s office also declined to comment.
Police said Piercy arrested Brandon Ellingson, an Arizona State University student from Clive, Iowa, on suspicion of drunken boating on May 31, 2014. They were returning to shore when the patrol boat hit a wake and Ellingson fell overboard; Piercy was unable to reach him.
An autopsy put Ellingson’s blood-alcohol level at 0.268 percent, more than three times the limit to drive a car or boat. Craig Ellingson said he believes the number is incorrect. Craig Ellingson said an earlier blood draw was lower; he also pointed out that his son's body wasn't recovered from the lake, in 80 feet of water, until the next day, and alcohol content can increase under those conditions.
That October, Sgt. Randy Henry testified to a Missouri House panel that troopers on water duty lacked necessary training, and he claimed the patrol wanted him to lie. Henry claims he was forced out of his job, and he has filed suit.
In December 2014, the Ellingson family filed a federal suit against Piercy and the patrol, with various claims that attacked the troopers’ training and accused the patrol of trying to shift blame to Ellingson. It alleges that Piercy drove his boat at upwards of 46 mph at times despite rough water and heavy traffic.
Piercy, an 18-year veteran of the force, testified at the coroner’s inquest that he was never trained specifically on how to arrest someone on the water or how to put a life vest on a secured suspect.
Brandon’s grandmother, Gloria Ellingson, said Thursday that she would like to see Piercy sent to prison. “Probably seven years or so,” she suggested.
“There’s so many good cops, but these in Missouri just lied to cover up their lies,” she said.
The Ellingson family established a memorial at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, where Brandon was once football captain. The family also supports a scholarship in his memory.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include additional information from the family.