I’ve written several posts about the tragic case of Brandon Ellingson, the 20-year-old Iowa man who drowned in the Lake of the Ozarks because of a Missouri Highway Patrol officer’s negligence, and I have believed from the start that no criminal charges will ever be filed in the case.
The Star’s Laura Bauer, who has exposed Water Patrol Officer Anthony Piercy’s lackadaisical effort to save Brandon, had a one-year anniversary story Saturday about Brandon’s death, and it captured the frustration of the Ellingson family.
“There’s no one holding anyone accountable,” Bauer quoted Sherry Ellingson, Brandon’s mother, as saying.
The person who has avoided accountability is Trooper Anthony Piercy, who had arrested Brandon on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. While taking Brandon to a patrol station and operating the boat recklessly, Piercy managed to eject Ellingson, who was in the water anywhere from three to five minutes before drowning with his hands cuffed behind his back.
…What the highway patrol, a country county coroner and two special prosecutors have put the Ellingsons through during the last year can best be summed up in three words: The Ozarks Shuffle.
Conveniently, Piercy’s onboard camera wasn’t working because it didn’t have a microchip. Absent video and close-up witnesses, overwhelming evidence of Piercy’s negligence is in short supply.
The hazy circumstances enabled the Highway Patrol, the county coroner and two special prosecutors to engage in what amounts to a stonewalling conspiracy.
Then, there’s the fact that Piercy, who is in his early 40s, has a relatively high profile in Morgan County, partly because he has been a member of Morgan County R-II district school board since 2012.
I hate to tell the Ellingson family this — although by now they undoubtedly have a pretty good idea — but Piercy will never face felony charges in connection with this sorry episode.
The whitewash has been well underway for a year, and all that remains is for the second special prosecutor (more about that in a minute) to announce that he found no grounds for criminal charges…I don’t know when that’s coming, but I would bet it won’t be for a few more months, to allow the case to recede a bit further into the general public’s memory.
Here are some of the main farcical elements of this debacle so far…
:: On Sept. 8, a little more than three months after the drowning, Morgan County Coroner M.B. Jones conducted “a coroner’s inquest,” presenting evidence to a jury of six Ozarkians.
:: One of the chief witnesses was Highway Patrol Cpl. Eric Stacks, the lead investigator, who knew how fast Piercy had been traveling that afternoon but didn’t tell the jury…The patrol boat’s GPS showed Piercy was traveling between 39 and 44 miles an hour just before Brandon went overboard.
:: After about eight minutes of deliberation, the jury came back with a ruling that Brandon’s death was the result of an accident.
:: Four days later, a special prosecutor, Amanda Grellner, Osage County prosecutor, said she had come to the same conclusion after investigating the case.
:: Last December, Grellner told me in a phone interview that she had reopened her investigation based on new information. She didn’t elaborate but said a witness whom she had interviewed earlier had come forward with “more thorough” information.
:: Nearly three months passed, and then, in March, Grellner said she was stepping aside because of “a conflict that developed recently.” She asked the Circuit Court judge who appointed her to name a new special prosecutor. The judge named William Seay, a former Crawford County prosecutor, to succeed Grellner.
All three of the counties involved — Morgan, Osage and Crawford — are in the Ozarks, with Morgan being southwest of Jefferson City and Osage and Crawford southeast.
Bauer, of The Star, has dutifully reported Grellner’s coming and going and Seay’s appointment as her successor. Something she has not reported, however, is why Grellner recused herself.
On March 26, the Lake News Online, a newspaper in Camdenton, Missouri, reported that Grellner’s conflict of interest revolved around an earlier Highway Patrol investigation of Grellner’s son. The prosecutor’s son was ultimately cleared of whatever he was being investigated for, but the Highway Patrol’s Water Patrol Division apparently objected to Grellner’s involvement in the Piercy case, given the earlier investigation of her son.
That is certainly a valid objection to raise, in my opinion, and I don’t fault Grellner for recusing herself.
Where I find serious fault with Grellner, however, is for not disclosing the investigation of her son before she accepted the special-prosecution assignment.
Shouldn’t common sense have told her to apprise the judge?
Isn’t the “conflict-of-interest” issue drilled into students during law school and at every step of their careers thereafter? It’s as clearcut as a political officeholder prospectively voting on a project in which he or she has a vested interest.
But, then, like I said, it’s the Ozarks. It’s different down there, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that after an outsider lost his life at the hands of an insider, a protective circle quickly formed and law enforcement officials fiddled and diddled for months.
The dance that the insiders have been doing for the last year — and will continue doing until the case dribbles away — is The Ozarks Shuffle. I tell you, somebody ought to put it to music.