KANSAS CITY — The death of a handcuffed Iowa suspect who went overboard as a Missouri State Highway Patrol boat was transporting him was accidental, jurors ruled Thursday after a coroner's inquest.
The decision means the Morgan County jurors saw no negligence on the part of Trooper Anthony Piercy in the death of Brandon Ellingson. The 20-year-old went into the water May 31 as Piercy was transporting him from the Lake of the Ozarks on suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
Piercy put a Type III, ski-vest style of life jacket on Ellingson instead of a Type I or Type II life jacket with straps that go around the torso. Witnesses have said that Ellingson's arms weren't in the life jacket's arm holes and that the safety device came off when he went into the water.
"I think it's a joke," said Craig Ellingson, Brandon's father. "It's a hometown decision. They (Piercy) didn't put the life jacket on right. If they had put it on right, Brandon would still be here. ... It's a sad day for Brandon, but hopefully we get justice on the civil side."
Piercy, who had not previously commented on the drowning, testified during the hearing that he lacked training to handle the situation.
"It's hard," the trooper said. He started to choke up and began to cry. "I used to think that when I went to work, I can handle anything thrown at me. This has let me know how vulnerable I am.
"... I think about it all the time. It's a hard situation."
The drowning of Ellingson, who grew up around West Des Moines, Iowa, and had just finished his sophomore year at Arizona State University, occurred three years after the Missouri Water Patrol merged with the Highway Patrol in 2011.
After the merger, troopers assigned or transferred to the water full time received less field training than Water Patrol recruits did before the merger. Officers assigned to the water part time — troopers such as Piercy who primarily work Missouri's roadways — are required to have just a fraction of the field training.
Jurors also heard information from the autopsy, including that Ellingson had a blood-alcohol content of 0.268 percent, more than three times the legal limit. He also had a small amount of cocaine in his system.
The jury's decision isn't binding, but it will be passed to a special prosecutor for consideration.