Anthony Piercy was terminated by MSHP Superintendent Col. Sandra Karsten on December 15, 2017 after Piercy's lengthy legal battle over criminal accusations related to the death of Brandon Ellingson were concluded with a misdemeanor plea and a suspended execution of sentence with two years supervised probation.
A former state trooper from Morgan County is alleging wrongful termination and is seeking back pay from an unpaid leave in a lawsuit filed recently against the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Anthony Piercy was terminated by MSHP Superintendent Col. Sandra Karsten on December 15, 2017 after Piercy’s lengthy legal battle over criminal accusations related to the death of Brandon Ellingson were concluded with a misdemeanor plea and a suspended execution of sentence with two years supervised probation.
Charged on December 18, 2015 with involuntary manslaughter for the handcuffed drowning death of the college student on Lake of the Ozarks on May 31, 2014, Piercy was placed on unpaid administrative leave, but then pled down to misdemeanor negligent operation of a vessel on June 27, 2017.
Following the plea, the MSHP Professional Standards Division (PSD) reviewed available documentation from two internal reviews and the criminal proceedings. According to Piercy’s lawsuit petition filed in Cole County Circuit Court, the PSD concluded on December 11, 2017, that Piercy’s conduct constituted a violation of General Orders but unanimously recommended Piercy be reinstated to active duty and transferred from his current troop assignment.
Karsten issued her own findings on December 15, 2017, however, and terminated Piercy’s employment with the MSHP.
In Count I, the lawsuit alleges that Karsten’s final decision to terminate Piercy was unlawful because it exceeded the superintendent’s statutory authority under RSMo Section 43.150.1. The petition claims that the MSHP superintendent has no power to assess a discipline greater than the discipline recommended by the review board, with a non-probationary officer only able to be terminated if a majority of the Review Board recommends termination.
Under Count II, the lawsuit argues that Karsten’s decision, being contrary to the unanimous recommendation of the review board and to historical precedent of MSHP superintendents, was “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, and constitutes an abuse of discretion”. Historically, superintendents have only terminated troopers if the review board recommended such an action, according to the petition.
An earlier MSHP Crash Review Board had also reviewed the case in 2014 and recommended a disciplined of 40 hours without pay. The lawsuit argues that once an appropriate discipline has been determined, a second, harsher discipline cannot be assessed without new facts or evidence.
The lawsuit claims that Karsten relied too much on testimony against from Piercy’s commanding officer, who apparently stated something to the effect that Piercy could not serve as a road officer anywhere in the state. The petition points out that that same commanding officer had put Piercy on road duty for 19 months while aware of all the facts and circumstances surrounding the events of May 31, 2014. During this time, the petition claims Piercy served with distinction.
The lawsuit alleges that Karsten relied too much on Piercy’s criminal conviction as well, stating that there are currently troopers in good standing who have been convicted of, or pled guilty to, misdemeanor crimes.
Under Count III, the lawsuit claims Karsten’s decision was “unconstitutional, unlawful, in excess of her statutory authority” for the reasons stated in Counts I and II, and was “not supported by competent and substantial evidence upon the record.”
Piercy’s suit is also seeking judicial review over the withholding of his pay and benefits from between the felony charge and the decision to terminate — a span of approximately two years when Piercy was on administrative leave without pay.
On September 19, 2017, just as Piercy entered a formal guilty plea for the misdemeanor, his counsel demanded Piercy be reinstated with the MSHP and receive pay and employment benefits, but Karsten refused, the petition states.
After going through the disciplinary process with the PSD and Karsten subsequently terminating Piercy, Karsten denied Piercy back pay and benefits. The petition argues that the decision not to return Piercy to paid status at the time of the misdemeanor plea was invalid because the MSHP has “historically and by practice always placed members who were charged with a misdemeanor on paid status.”
Ellingson was arrested on the Gravois Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. Piercy handcuffed the 20-year-old and placed a buckled Type III vest-style lifejacket over Ellingson without putting his arms through the armholes. While under transport to land, Ellingson came out of the patrol vessel. The lifejacket slipped off Ellingson. Piercy tried to pull him back to the boat with a pole, then jumped in after him. Piercy grabbed Ellingson, but was unable to deploy his own inflatable waist lifejacket and struggled to stay afloat. Ellingson slipped from Piercy’s grasp. Piercy was unable to get grab Ellingson again, and Ellingson drowned.
Although Piercy pled guilty to misdemeanor negligent operation of a vessel, there has been no uncontested determination issued on how Ellingson came out of the boat in the first place.
A coroner’s inquest in Morgan County in 2014 resulted in a recommendation of no criminal charges which the special prosecutor at the time concurred with. A new special prosecutor was appointed, however, and William Seay filed the involuntary manslaughter charge in Morgan County Circuit Count in December 2015. The felony charge apparently sparked a new look at potential disciplinary action against Piercy within the Patrol.
In November 2016, the State of Missouri reached a $9 million settlement in civil lawsuit filed by Brandon Ellingson’s family. According to a press release from the family, they used the funds to establish a memorial at Valley Stadium and supported a scholarship at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa where Brandon went to high school to make certain that he will never be forgotten.