A Missouri Highway Patrol boat camera recorded Trooper Anthony Piercy (left) with an unidentified trooper after Brandon Ellingson drowned May 31. Missouri Highway Patrol
A Missouri Highway Patrol boat camera recorded Trooper Anthony Piercy (left) with an unidentified trooper after Brandon Ellingson drowned May 31. Missouri Highway Patrol

Government & Politics

Records show Missouri trooper’s lack of training before lake drowning

By LAURA BAUER

The Kansas City Star

October 25, 2014 05:34 PM

Before he ever boarded a patrol boat, Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Anthony Piercy was known around the Lake of the Ozarks for nailing drunken drivers on the road.

Locals say he would park outside bars and wait for customers to leave. Then he’d follow, watching for a traffic violation. Before long in Morgan and Moniteau counties, he’d earned a reputation as “the DWI guy.”

After the 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol, Piercy volunteered to work the lake during peak boating season. Earlier this year, before starting his second summer on the water, he reportedly told others that supervisors had challenged him to be the first trooper to reach 20/20/20: 20 drug arrests in a year, along with 20 citations for driving while intoxicated and 20 for boating while intoxicated.

But the patrol never trained the 18-year veteran highway trooper to operate a Donzi powerboat, and work the water, the way it trained him to patrol the state’s roadways. Less than a week after Memorial Day, a young man from Iowa was dead and Piercy’s actions and judgments on the water were under scrutiny.

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The Star has battled for months to get Piercy’s complete training records and had to ask more than once for documentation of his field training. The newspaper recently obtained documents that show how little the patrol prepared Piercy before he began patrolling the lake by himself. Ultimately, after a handcuffed Brandon Ellingson drowned in his custody on May 31, Piercy himself admitted he hadn’t received enough training.

“From the time that young man got on the boat that day, it was a death march,” said one officer formerly with the Missouri Water Patrol who didn’t want his name published for fear of retribution. “His fate was sealed.”

The Star has previously reported that road troopers after the merger received four weeks of marine operations school — not the four to five months that Water Patrol veterans said recruits received in the years before the merger.

Piercy’s training records, obtained through a Sunshine Law request, provide the first details about two other key areas: swimming and field training.

Piercy took a swimming test that required him to swim for 12 minutes. There was no minimum standard and no pass/fail. In the past, veterans say, the Water Patrol required extensive swimming, culminating in a test that included at least 15 minutes of treading water, a timed test in clothes and a drill that called for them to dive and retrieve a weighted object.

And he was cleared for “solo boat time” in June 2013 after two days of field training, in which those new to water patrol learn alongside seasoned marine operations officers.

“That’s totally insane,” said retired Maj. Jody Hughes, who spent 30 years in the former Missouri Water Patrol. “You’re not going to learn how to drive a boat, learn your area and the equipment or anything. I don’t know if anybody could do it in two days — that’s so impractical, it’s unrealistic.”

Before the merger, Water Patrol recruits were required to receive at least two months of field training.

A patrol spokesman confirmed Friday that records provided to The Star showed just two days of field training. But on Saturday, the patrol sent an email saying Piercy also was involved in a “modified training phase” during the summer of 2013. In that, the patrol said, Piercy spent additional shifts over three months with experienced marine operations officers.

Timothy Van Ronzelen, a lawyer who represented Piercy at a coroner’s inquest where jurors ruled that Ellingson’s death was an accident, said he couldn’t comment on issues of training. He said requests to talk with Piercy would have to go through the patrol.

A patrol spokesman said Piercy would not be able to comment because of “probable civil litigation.”

Training has been a key issue in hearings before a special Missouri House committee analyzing the merger.

“I think there are elements of the old Water Patrol we would like to see infused in the current water patrol,” said Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican and chairwoman of the committee.

She didn’t say Piercy’s name and didn’t mention Ellingson. Legislators have said the hearings are to analyze and fix the system, not to investigate Ellingson’s death or explore what went wrong.

Larry Moreau was among those who testified at the committee’s second hearing on Oct. 14. He and his wife, Paulette, along with their son, saw Ellingson in the water as his life jacket floated away.

The Moreaus have said Piercy initially didn’t do enough to save Ellingson. And they are among more than 100,000 people who have signed a petition calling for federal authorities to investigate Ellingson’s death and the patrol’s probe.

“My main objective was to ask you to look at this very serious,” Larry Moreau said to the lawmakers. “When you see what happens from lack of training, it affects you. It really does. When your 14-year-old son sees it, it’s scary.”

Training questions

Shortly after the merger, one road trooper went through an extensive field training program — up to eight weeks — to be a full-time marine operations officer.

That trooper completed a training workbook and checklist that was developed specifically for cross-training officers. The goal, water patrol veterans say, was to make sure troopers could apply what they’d learned in the classroom.

That trooper was effectively trained and performed well on the water, Highway Patrol Sgt. Randy Henry, a Water Patrol veteran, told lawmakers earlier this month.

But Piercy and other highway troopers who signed up for part-time duty on the Lake of the Ozarks weren’t subjected to that checklist. They didn’t have to complete two months of field training.

“There was no predetermined amount of time that the officers had to have before operating a patrol boat,” Lt. Keverne McCollum wrote in an email response to a Sunshine Law request. “Each officer was assessed on their ability and readiness.”

Before supervisors cleared Piercy to patrol the Lake of the Ozarks in early June 2013, he took two quizzes. One covered boating laws; the other focused on geography. Among the geography quiz’s five questions: “The mouth of the Gravois Arm is at ___ mile mark of the Osage Arm?”

Lt. Darewin Clardy directed two sergeants — Henry and Chris Daniels — to create and give the quizzes as a way to make sure road troopers were ready to patrol the lake by themselves.

“The test is in lieu of a ‘checklist’ like we did for merging officers,” Clardy wrote in an email to sergeants in his troop on April 9, 2013.

In another email, Clardy told sergeants that before troopers were assigned to solo shifts on the water, Henry or Daniels should send him an internal office communication stating that the officers “have demonstrated a reasonable level of competence in Donzi navigation on the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks.”

Clardy said he wanted the officers to be capable of navigating on the lake, knowledgeable of the laws and able to perform boat stops.

Two months later, on June 2, 2013, documents from the patrol show Henry emailed Capt. Greg Kindle, who oversees the troop covering the Lake of the Ozarks, saying Piercy had completed the quizzes and was capable of operating a boat. But, Henry cautioned in the email, Piercy shouldn’t patrol alone at night until he’d had more time with experienced officers.

Piercy had completed his field training by then, according to patrol documents provided to The Star several weeks after they were requested, and only after the newspaper’s legal counsel had sent the Highway Patrol a demand letter.

Two months of work schedules show the trooper had two days, in early to mid-May, that were marked WP. That means Piercy’s duties those two days were water patrol.

Capt. Tim Hull said in an email Saturday that Piercy’s experience on the water went beyond what the schedules show. He said he had been in contact with Kindle, who indicated that Piercy had worked shifts alongside other troopers after he was certified for solo water patrol in the summer of 2013.

“Trooper Piercy worked a total of 19 shifts conducting marine operations activities in the modified training phase from May 17, 2013, through Aug. 30, 2013,” the email from Hull read. “Six shifts riding with a full-time Marine Operations Trooper and 13 shifts, shadowing time, on the water working in close proximity to another full-time Marine Operations Trooper.”

The patrol provided no documentation.

Piercy’s minimal amount of training, especially when it comes to swimming and applying skills in the field, is unacceptable, said one retired Water Patrol veteran who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from the patrol.

“I think they’re putting citizens at risk because they’re not taking this training seriously,” he said.

Bill Cox, a retired Water Patrol captain who worked in the Kansas City area, said patrolling on lakes and rivers presents different obstacles than on the road. The more time troopers spend in a boat, the more comfortable they become.

“On the water, without having training — especially field training — how an officer responds to things, it’s foreign to them,” Cox said. “It makes you cringe when you hear this is all the training they give these guys before they go on the water.”

Five-day suspension

Henry, who has declined to comment to The Star, testified at both committee hearings. At the second one, when he appeared in plainclothes, not his patrol uniform, he answered more questions on training and made a statement to legislators.

“While it is obvious the training that occurred before May 31, 2014, was deficient,” Henry said, “that should not be an excuse for poor judgment and reckless, negligent operation.”

But Kindle, Piercy’s commander, didn’t see any negligence or lapses in judgment.

Hours after the drowning — while Ellingson’s body still lay at the bottom of the lake — Kindle spoke with a dispatcher in a conversation that was recorded.

“I mean, he done everything right,” Kindle said of Piercy. “It’s not like he did anything wrong.”

The Star sought to speak with Kindle, but the Highway Patrol said he would have to decline comment because of the likelihood of a civil lawsuit.

Patrol officials also have said they cannot comment on what, if any, discipline has been handed down to Piercy. Multiple sources, though, have told The Star that Piercy received a five-day suspension.

“It was a slap on the wrist,” said a former Water Patrol officer who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “It was nothing.”

While talking to the dispatcher, Kindle acknowledged that Piercy put a life vest on the college student after the man was handcuffed. The trooper didn’t use a Type I flotation device that experienced water patrol officers are trained to use on a cuffed person.

“We don’t need to put this in the message or anything,” Kindle said, referring to an email the dispatcher was working on. “It was just one of those good ones that wraps around you like a ski vest. It was a full life jacket. But Tony didn’t have his arms running through it. ...”

Kindle told the dispatcher that those who needed to know about the life vest already knew.

“You know, at face value, I think Tony thought he was putting a better life jacket on him than just those ol’ Mae West ones, you know, that just goes around your neck and floats on your chest,” Kindle said.

“Mm-hmm,” said the dispatcher.

“But in reality, that’s not quite as good if you don’t get your arms tucked through,” Kindle said. “... But anyway, it is what it is.”

At one point, Kindle told her that Piercy was “pretty shook up. ... I think it’s bothering him. He had a hold of him in the water — he just didn’t bring him back up.”

The captain said Ellingson’s father, Craig Ellingson, was “seven kinds of pissed off” that his son’s body wouldn’t be recovered that night. Divers planned to go back in the water the next morning. Kindle said the young man’s body was lying on the bottom of the lake “very peacefully.”

He told the dispatcher he didn’t want any of his divers to get hurt that night.

“I wanted to tell him, ‘He’s not going to be any more dead in the morning than he is right now,’” Kindle said.

The dispatcher laughed.

“But I didn’t tell him,” Kindle said.

“He probably wouldn’t have appreciated that very much,” the dispatcher said.

“Nah, he’s pissed off,” Kindle said. “But I mean, I don’t blame him.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

Case background

Brandon Ellingson, 20, of Clive, Iowa, took a group of high school friends to his family’s lake house in mid-Missouri the last weekend of May.

On May 31, Ellingson was pulled over by a Missouri Highway Patrol boat after leaving a lakeside bar. Trooper Anthony Piercy — a veteran road officer who was beginning his second summer helping patrol the Lake of the Ozarks — arrested the Arizona State University student on suspicion of boating while intoxicated.

As Piercy took Ellingson to a zone office for a breath test, Ellingson fell into the water and the life vest that Piercy had put on him came off. Though Piercy eventually jumped in the water to save Ellingson, he couldn’t.

Records obtained by The Star showed that in the moments before Ellingson went into the water, Piercy was traveling between 39.1 and 43.7 mph. During the ride, his boat had gone as fast as 46 mph.

Commanders with the patrol have not addressed Piercy’s speed that day. Water patrol experts, however, say that’s extremely fast on rough waters on a Saturday in the beginning of the lake’s summer season.

The patrol also hasn’t publicly said much about Piercy’s putting a Type III life vest, with armholes, on a handcuffed Ellingson. Troopers are taught to use a Type I flotation device that can be secured on a cuffed person; a Type III cannot.

Laura Bauer, lbauer@kcstar.com