I love to see a reporter take dead aim on a subject and keep hammering at it until whatever mystery surrounds it has been laid bare.
That’s exactly what The Star’s Laura Bauer is doing on the case of Brandon Ellingson, the 20-year-old Iowa man who needlessly and shockingly drowned at the Lake of the Ozarks this spring while in the custody of a Missouri High Patrolman on watercraft duty.
Last Sunday, Bauer produced a 2,900-word expose on the case, essentially showing that, after taking Ellingson into custody for boating while intoxicated, Officer Anthony Piercy put the wrong type of life vest on Ellingson and put it on in such a way that, minutes later, when Ellingson was in the water, the life vest popped off his shoulders and he drowned in 70-feet of water.
That story was horrifying, saddening and maddening. It clearly showed that Piercy’s carelessness and failure to follow standard procedures led directly to the death of Ellingson, a bright-eyed, handsome young man who right now should be at Arizona State University working on his junior-year courses.
Bauer described last week how the Highway Patrol had stonewalled her, dragging its feet on her requests for official records and imposing a gag order on everyone involved.
Obviously, the Highway Patrol does not know better than to mess with Bauer, a fearless reporter who has done many groundbreaking stories in her 10 years at the paper.
Last week, after the first story was published, Bauer broke through the brick wall the patrol erected and was able to get some of the official records. She parlayed the new material into a 3,100-word story that led today’s paper.
Today’s story made me even madder than Part I partly because this time she also got an interview with Ellingson’s father, Craig Ellingson. I pointed out in a post last Sunday that, while that story was outstanding overall, it suffered from the absence of the voices of Ellingson’s parents. It deprived the readers of direct testimony about the agony that Ellingson’s closest relatives — the people who loved him most dearly — are enduring.
But Bauer made amends this week. Here’s what she wrote, in part, about Craig Ellingson.
“The last image Craig Ellingson has of his son is a photograph taken by a friend during his arrest on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. It shows him sitting in the back of Piercy’s patrol boat, his hands in his lap. Within minutes, Ellingson’s only son lay lifeless, his hands cuffed behind him, on the lake bed under 69 feet of water.
” ‘That picture haunts me,’ the father told The Star late last week. ‘(Piercy) was supposed to be taking care of my pride and joy. That’s what we pay him for, to serve and protect. And he didn’t do the basics. He wasn’t trained. He wasn’t properly trained at all.’ ”
“My pride and joy.” Of course. We understand.
And, yes, Mr. Ellingson’s son made a big mistake — probably got drunk with his buddies at a lake-side bar and then got behind the wheel of the boat. But the last thing he deserved was to end up dead after Piercy handcuffed him, put an improper life vest on him improperly and then speed off at a speed that the Ellingsons’ attorney alleges was 40 miles per hour, in heavy wake.
The Highway Patrol’s contention — at least before it invoked a gag order — was that at some point Ellingson stood up, moved toward the side of the boat and either fell or jumped into the water.
To that, Craig Ellingson said: “I know my son wouldn’t jump. He was going to Europe, never been in trouble. He was on an academic scholarship to ASU. He had everything to live for.”
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Brandon Ellingson was bounced out of the boat because Piercy was going too fast in very choppy water. If you’ve ever been on the Lake of the Ozarks, you know that it can be very, very dangerous when the wind and waves are up. Many years ago, I foolishly ventured out into the main channel on a windy day in a 14-foot fishing boat with a 5.5 horsepower motor. It was a teeth-jarring, white-knuckled return to the marina.
Part II of Bauer’s report also focuses on the lack of waterways training that many land-based troopers got after the state Water Patrol merged into the Highway Patrol in 2011.
Piercy works part time on the water and part time on the roads.
It’s clear in retrospect that — regardless of how much money that merger is saving — it was a big mistake.
What is the cost of a young man’s life?
Piercy’s lack of experience and training on the water, combined with his carelessness, have forever cost Brandon Ellingson’s parents, relatives and friends the pleasure of his company and the joy of watching him advance in age and knowledge.
As Craig Ellison said, referring to that day and those terrible circumstances, “Brandon didn’t have a chance.”