On Sunday, The Kansas City Star highlighted another shockingly bad piece of police work, which, like the tragedy in Ferguson, resulted in the death of an unarmed man.
This tragic misstep, which occurred May 31 at the Lake of the Ozarks, took the life of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson, an Iowa resident who was an honors student at Arizona State University.
After a “boating-while-intoxicated” stop, Ellingson somehow ended up in the water — we may never know exactly how — and drowned in 80 feet of water because 43-year-old State Trooper Anthony Piercy not only put the wrong type of life preserver on him but put it on incorrectly.
Reporter Laura Bauer compellingly chronicled the fateful encounter between Piercy and Ellingson, who was with several buddies that day in his father’s boat.
Adding greatly to the compelling nature of Bauer’s story was the inclusion of a photo of Ellingson, which one of his buddies took minutes before he drowned.
In the photo, he is sitting straight up, quietly, looking forward, while Piercy stood several feet away, next to a computer.
Here’s that photo:
Now, here’s the gist of the encounter:
Ellingson and seven high school friends had gone to the lake for the weekend. Saturday, May 31, was their last full day at the lake.
Piercy, who had less than two years’ experience on water patrol, had spent part of the day waylaying boat operators leaving Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar and Grill on the lake’s Gravois Arm.
He had already nailed at least two other boaters before pulling Ellingson and his group over about 5:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, the bar owner had asked Piercy why he was “harassing” his customers, and Piercy said he was responding to complaints.
Ellingson told Piercy he wasn’t 21 and that he had had a couple of drinks. Piercy took the young man onto his patrol boat. After administering a sobriety test, Piercy cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back and, after a few minutes, pulled a Type III, ski-jacket-style life vest over Ellingson’s head. Already buckled, it was slipped over his shoulders, with only his head sticking out.
The vest is not designed to be used that way at all. It is to be put on like a sleeveless jacket, with one’s arms going through the holes on either side, and then being buckled.
A few minutes later, Piercy roared off with Ellingson in tow and leaving a big wake. Bauer didn’t say so specifically, but I have read elsewhere that Ellingson was sitting on a bench in the boat when Piercy took off.
Bauer also didn’t say how far the patrol boat traveled before Ellingson ended up going overboard. However, comparing The Star’s front-page lake map with one I called up on Google Maps, it appears to have been about four miles, maybe a little less.
No witnesses apparently saw Ellingson go overboard, but some did arrive in time to see Trooper Piercy jump into the water — apparently after Ellingson had been in the water several minutes — and try unsuccessfully to save him.
The most maddening aspect of this case — even more maddening than the Ferguson, MO, case in which unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed by a young police officer — is that the Highway Patrol has invoked a gag order.
The Highway Patrol initially said that Ellingson stood, stepped to the right side of the boat and fell or jumped overboard. The patrol first told reporters that Ellingson was seated to the left of the trooper and moved toward the right side of the boat. Later, the patrol changed that account and said Ellingson was to the right of Piercy before going overboard.
The witnesses said that when they saw Ellingson in the water, the life vest was near his head and that it floated away before he went under.
The Highway Patrol has refused to release records related to the incident, and Bauer’s attempts to contact Piercy were unsuccessful.
A “coroner’s inquest” is scheduled for Sept. 4. Bauer said that “in a trial-like setting, six jurors will be asked to determine the manner in which Ellingson dies” — that is, if negligence was involved or a crime might have been committed.
First of all, I think the “coroner’s inquest” — whatever form that takes — will be a whitewash. It’s going to be a handful of Ozarkians handing down a judgment after being spoon-fed whatever “facts” the Highway Patrol chooses to divulge.
Second, I wouldn’t trust Piercy’s version as far as I could submerge it, especially since he mangled the life-jacket application and also in light of that photo of Ellingson.
I don’t believe for a second that Ellingson jumped into the water with that boat flying along at maybe 30 miles an hour or so. Sure, he could have been completely blasted and gotten up on his feet and been tossed off the boat as it raced along. But as far as that goes, he shouldn’t even have had the chance to get up: Piercy should have put him on the floor of the boat and he should have had him somewhere where Ellingson was secure and Piercy could see him at all times.
Nope, just like Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Piercy fucked up in a big way, and a promising young man — who should be starting his junior year in college this week — is gone forever. All that’s left is his photo…Take a look at him. And let your heart sink, with mine.