A Highway Patrol officer is on leave as the investigation into the death of an Iowa college student taken into custody continues.
A charter boat captain who stopped to assist the Missouri State Highway Patrol said he attempted to help as he watched the tragic drowning of a 20-year-old college student near the 3.5 mile marker on the Gravois Arm of Lake of the Ozarks.
Brandon Ellingson's body was recovered Sunday shortly before noon by the Highway Patrol Dive Team after going overboard while in the custody of the highway patrol. Ellingson, a college student from Clive, Iowa attending Arizona State University, was arrested for suspected boating while intoxicated early Saturday evening after being taken into custody following a routine stop by the Highway Patrol.
Jim Bascue was headed back from Coconuts from the Saturday Bar Hop Cruise he runs as a charter service. He said the lake was busy, which is typical for that time of the day on the main channel. Bascue operates Playin Hooky charter and taxi service. More often than not, around 5 p.m. is a busy time on the water. Seeing a Highway Patrol boat is normal but as the officer slowed down and started to turn around in the main channel, Bascue said it quickly caught his attention.
"We left around 5 p.m. to head back to Camden on the Lake. While approaching the 4 mile marker on the Gravois Arm, I saw a water patrol boat stopping just ahead of us in the middle of the channel and turning around," Bascue said. "At first I wasn’t sure what was going on then I noticed a person wearing a life jacket in the water. The officer was trying to help. As I approached I tried to position my boat where I could assist, and block traffic and the wakes from passing boats. While I was positioning my boat, I saw the life jacket had come off the young man. I threw out our life ring and throw rope but there was no attempt to reach it."
The life ring and throw rope landed somewhere between 4 to 6 feet away from the victim as he struggled in the water.
Bascue said he saw him go under a couple of times. The passengers on his boat were yelling at Ellingson, telling him to grab on. At that point, Bascue said he didn't know if the young man was handcuffed or not.
In the meantime, Bascue said the officer attempted to reach Ellingson with a pole. When his attempts failed and Ellingson went back under, the officer jumped into the water. The officer managed to pull Ellingson up but in the struggle, the officer couldn't hold on to get them both to safety.
By that point, Bascue said the officer was showing signs of exhaustion. He was able to grab on to the side of Bascue's boat. With the officer hanging on, Bascue pulled closer to the officer's Donzi. A passenger on Bascue's boat jumped onto the Highway Patrol boat to hold on to the charter boat while Bascue got on the Donzi to help the officer get back on board.
"The officer did everything he could to save the young man including putting his own life in danger by jumping into the water, but he just not able to hold on to him. I just don't know what else the officer could have done," Bascue said. "From the time I saw the Water Patrol boat stopping until it was all over, only a couple of minutes had passed. Things like this happen very quickly."
Few details about the drowning and the events leading up to Ellingson going overboard are available at this time according to Missouri Highway Patrol Spokesperson Sgt. Paul Reinsch.
Reinsch confirmed Ellingson was stopped for a boating violation that resulted in his arrest on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. The officer, Anthony Piercy, 42, had handcuffed and put a lifejacket on Ellingson before seating him in the boat.
Ellingson had not been given an official breathalyzer. Those are done once the arresting officer and the subject are on land.
According to Reinsch, at one point prior to Ellingson going overboard, he stood up on the boat. Piercy told him to sit back down. Ellingson then walked to the back of the boat and went overboard. The incident occurred approximately 5:23 p.m. on Saturday.
"A life vest was put on the subject. At some point when he entered the water, it did come off," Reinsch said.
What type of lifejacket had been put on Ellingson and how it came off has not been released. Reinsch said that sort of information would be in the official report that could be released later this week.
Reinsch told the Lake Sun that Ellingson was wearing what the Highway Patrol considers a level three vest type of life vest with three snaps on the front. If it was fastened correctly and how it came off in the water is still under investigation.
Piercy was the only officer on the boat. He has been with the Missouri Highway Patrol for 18 years and was trained to work on the water in March 2013. Piercy normally works on the road but was placed on the water this particular weekend since the water division expected large crowds. He has been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Reisnch said that is standard procedure in any situation where there is a death.
Joyce L. Miller and Spree Hilliard contributed to the report.