KANSAS CITY, Missouri — A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper will not face criminal charges for the death of an Iowa man who drowned while in the trooper's custody on the Lake of the Ozarks, a special prosecutor said Monday.
The prosecutor's decision followed last week's conclusion by the jury in a coroner's inquest that the May 31 death of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson was accidental. The finding meant the Morgan County jurors saw no negligence on the part of Trooper Anthony Piercy, who had arrested Ellingson on suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
Ellingson, a college student whose family lives in Clive, Iowa, was handcuffed when he went overboard from the trooper's boat. A life vest he was wearing came off and he drowned.
Special prosecutor Amanda Grellner said she would follow the findings of the inquest, which was not binding on her. Grellner said the evidence did not support a charge of criminal recklessness against Piercy.
Grellner also responded to criticism of the inquest's conclusion by a couple who said they saw Ellingson on the trooper's boat shortly before he drowned. No witnesses have reported seeing the moment at which Ellingson went overboard.
Larry and Paulette Moreau, of Hartsburg, told The Kansas City Star (http://bit.ly/1weaiLF ) they were outraged that the death was ruled accidental. The Moreaus were interviewed by the Highway Patrol but were not asked to testify at the inquest.
Grellner said the Moreaus were not called to testify because, unlike other boaters who witnessed the moments after Ellingson went into the water, they left the scene.
"The people who actually stayed to help the trooper, they were the ones who were called," Grellner said.
Larry Moreau told The Star for a story published Monday he initially tried to "stay neutral" after Piercy returned to work after the drowning.
"But I thought, 'If they come out and try to say this guy was the hero and did everything he could, I'm going to start talking,'" Larry Moreau said.
The Moreaus told the patrol that Piercy's boat sped past them and when it stopped ahead of them, they saw Ellingson in the water, with his head above the surface and his life vest floating away. They said Piercy maneuvered his boat next to Ellingson but showed no urgency in helping him, didn't turn on the boat's red lights and didn't ask for help.
The couple and their son were not aware that Ellingson was handcuffed and left, only to find out later that he had drowned.
Jim Bascue, who saw Ellingson in the water after the Moreaus were gone, testified at the inquest that Piercy did all he could to save the drowning man.
During the inquest, Piercy testified that he first tried the use a pole to hook Ellingson and then jumped into the lake to try and save him. He also testified that he did not have proper training to handle that situation on a lake.
Larry Moreau said that during the 60 to 90 seconds that his family was near the scene, the trooper was close enough to touch Ellingson at least twice and didn't jump in the lake to help keep him afloat. And he did not give them any indication that he needed help, Moreau said.
"We could have saved him. It's disheartening that if this guy didn't know what he was doing, why didn't he ask for help? And even if he thought he did know what he was doing, the life jacket was off the kid."
The life vest Ellingson had on was a Type III with armholes that could not be secured on a handcuffed person. Piercy used it even though life jackets that can be used on handcuffed people were on his boat, The Star has reported.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com
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