“I'm kind of glad. I didn't want to go through another trial, because it would have been a hung jury. It would have been a hung jury, even though we had more evidence than is necessary to convict him,” Ellingson told the Lake Sun in an interview after the plea hearing.
More than three years after the tragic death of his son, the father was asked how he has gotten through the days since.
“I go to church a lot,” Craig Ellingson told a supporter just before criminal court proceedings got underway. “I read scripture.”
Wearing one of son Brandon’s black athletic t-shirts, the Iowa man watched as the Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper admitted to partial responsibility in the handcuffed drowning of his 20-year-old son in the Lake of the Ozarks on May 31, 2014.
Originally charged in December 2015 with the Class C felony of first degree involuntary manslaughter, Anthony C. Piercy, 45, of Versailles pled guilty to the lesser crime of negligent operation of a vessel, a Class B misdemeanor, on Tuesday afternoon in Morgan County Circuit Court. A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 8, 2017.
Specifically, Piercy admitted guilt to the criminal negligence of operating a vessel as to cause physical injury to another person. The Class B misdemeanor carries no maximum sentence, but a mandatory probation period of two years and possible six months in detention and/or $500 fine.
The prosecution could ask for Piercy to forfeit his Peace Officer Standard Training (POST) certification for life, barring him from returning to any law enforcement role as part of the plea deal.
Special Prosecutor William Camm Seay of Salem assigned to the case in March 2016, replacing Amanda Grellner who was originally appointed special prosecutor for the Morgan County Coroner’s inquest which did not bring criminal charges, said his work was not done.
Piercy’s attorney, Shane Lee Farrow of Jefferson City and an assistant defense attorney, left the courthouse without commenting to the media gathered. Piercy was not visibly seen exiting the detention center.
“There’s still punishment to mete out for Anthony Piercy, and he’s deserving of punishment,” Seay said after the hearing which lasted* approximately a half hour. “There’s always a risk.”
Ellingson was far more blunt in his assessment of the plea bargain, which could be withdrawn based on sentencing assessment recommendations of prison time. If Piercy withdraws from the deal, the case would proceed to trial.
That’s a risk neither Seay nor the Ellingsons wanted to take given recent verdicts and investigations involving law enforcement officers and agencies at both the states and federal levels.
“I’m kind of glad. I didn’t want to go through another trial, because it would have been a hung jury. It would have been a hung jury, even though we had more evidence than is necessary to convict him,” Ellingson told the Lake Sun in an interview after the plea hearing. “The only reason we took this is because we knew we weren’t going to get a fair shake here based on the coroner’s inquest we had down here three years ago.”
Seay told reporters that he conducted an extensive investigation into the background of the case as well as the Morgan County community, hiring private investigators to poll the pulse of the potential jury pool. Seay subpoenaed 42 witnesses for the trial which had been scheduled for mid-July.
“I have concerns, just as Craig, a great fear of a mistrial, and even just picking a jury,” Seay said. “In order to have law enforcement I know and trust do undercover work for me, they are unpaid and so their names will not be disclosed. I thought it was imperative to do a complete investigation of the community. I’ve done incredible background work on this case. And I happen to be damn good at what I do.”
Piercy, a former member of the Morgan County R-II School Board who resigned after being arrested in 2015, is currently on unpaid administrative leave from the MSHP. Judge Martin Prokes, assigned to the case in 2016 after Circuit Judge Stan Moore recused himself, ordered a sentencing assessment report to be completed within 60 days for review.
Both Ellingson parents as well as one of Brandon’s grandparents are expected to speak during the hearing and Piercy will also have the right to speak. Prokes has limited the family’s testimony to the emotional, physical and financial toll the death of their son and grandson has had on them.
“We were pleased that he pleaded guilty to what we know he’s been been guilty of the whole time, but he did drag our family through this for the last three years until we ultimately pressured him to plead guilty through all our depositions,” Ellingson said. “It’s taken a lot of stress on our family, and me personally, I’ve been down to every deposition. What he pleaded to — he knows what he did, he’s guilty. We hired a boating expert to debunk all their investigation people because they had nobody on their investigation that had any Water Patrol experience.”
Asked why he believed that was the case, “because they wanted to sweep it under the rug, muddy the waters up,” he said.
The Clive, Iowa father pointed toward contradictory evidence and testimony by Piercy uncovered during the coroner’s inquest regarding the nature of the incident and failure to properly place the life-jacket while transporting Brandon on suspicion of boating while intoxicated on the Gravois Arm.
“When you stick a pole out to a guy who is handcuffed from behind and tell him to grab it twice, that’s pretty evil. And the girls on the party barge would testify to that and they did in their depositions. Those are things you hear and you just shake your head,” Ellingson said. “He didn’t know how to operate his own fanny pack. He didn’t know how to put a life jacket on; didn’t know the life-jacket he put on Brandon had a strap that went through the crotch. If he’d done that, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Ellingson said he had recently attended a five-year high school reunion for Brandon at the request of his buddies to honor the young man’s life. Even Piercy testified his son was cooperative during the arrest, he said.
“But he killed a kid, a great kid. He was my son. I just really feel sorry he’s not going to be able to experience the things he would’ve experienced,” Ellingson said, briefly pausing to regain composure in his voice. “He’s just destroyed our family, basically. He was a great kid. First team all state in football, a 4.0 student, and most of all he was very humble and friendly — just nice to everybody and didn’t have a mean bone in his whole body.”
On May 31, 2014, at approximately 5:23 p.m., Brandon Ellingson and several friends from Iowa were pulled over by Piercy as they were leaving Coconuts Bar & Grill in Gravois Mills in Craig’s boat. Piercy pulled the vessel over regarding an expired registration tag and a report of littering. Brandon, who was studying business administration at Arizona State University with plans to join his father’s business upon graduation, was in town for summer vacation as the family had done for years.
Piercy, the lone officer on the patrol vessel, quickly established probable cause to place Ellingson under arrest in MSHP custody on suspicion of boating while intoxicated and began transporting Brandon to a stationary office near the H. Toads complex, a couple miles away from the arrest location for a breathalyzer test.
Toxicology reports show Ellingson had a blood alcohol content of 0.268 at the time of his death, though the autopsy was conducted some 16 hours after his body had been submerged underwater. The report also showed traces of cocaine in his system.
“We never denied the fact he was intoxicated, he was under the influence of alcohol, and the coroner would testify that cocaine was discovered in his system,” Seay said.
The longtime road deputy, who had recently been assigned to the Water Patrol Division, improperly placed a Type-III life-jacket on Ellingson after handcuffing his arms behind his back. Patrol had recommended using Type I or II life-jackets.
Traveling up to speeds of 43.7 miles per hour, Ellingson was ejected after striking a wake, at which time Piercy slowed the vessel and attempted to grab him using his hands and then a pole. When Ellingson’s life-jacket slipped off, Piercy jumped in and attempted to rescue him, grabbing him at one point but being unable to hold on to Brandon before he sank and Piercy returned to the surface, exhausted from the struggle.
Brandon’s body was located the next day in approximately 80 feet of water near the 3.5-mile marker near Mill Creek. In an audio and video recording with a supervisor taken on another MSHP vessel approximately an hour after the incident, Piercy was apparently concerned with how he handled the incident. Piercy said the video camera was recording, but had no SD card and therefore was not saving any data. He would later give different versions of when he realized the issue.
“Well I’m sorry I probably did a bunch of things wrong there,” Piercy said at one point. “I guess keep me posted on if I’m going to be employed or what’s going on.”
The plea deal and punishment of Piercy hinges on whether or not prison time is recommended in the sentencing assessment. An agreed-to caveat in the plea bargain means Piercy can withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial if more than probation is recommended.
“The thing is in the end he’s going to be judged by God and not by Judge Prokes, so that’s the key,” Ellingson concluded. “Whatever happens here, happens, but that’s what’s going to happen in the end.”
“I don’t think the general public knew my investigation, my requests, were not limited to Anthony Piercy,” Seay concluded in his interview, though he refused to comment any further.
Editorial Director Joyce L. Miller contributed prior reporting.