COLUMBIA, Mo. - It's been more than three years since 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson died while in handcuffs in the custody of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The Iowa man was detained by Missouri’s water patrol division on suspicion of boating while intoxicated and later went overboard and drowned.
It was meant to be a cost saving measure when Gov. Jay Nixon signed the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol merger back in 2010. But what was supposed to save the state around $3 million dollars a year, instead cost taxpayers more than $900,000 annually, according to a 2011 audit.
Some believe the merger also created a dangerous and now deadly gap in training and experience.
Rep. Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton, said, "The fallout we saw after the merger was that the seasoned Water Patrol officers were either being reassigned to non-water positions or had retired out of the Water Patrol."
In 2014, Rep. Rocky Butler, R Lake Ozark, said "I think that (Water Patrol personnel) were lacking in training and therefore the public safety was at risk during that time." That was a risk that became a reality in Ellingson's drowning death. He died while in Highway Patrol custody on the Lake of the Ozarks.
The arresting trooper, Anthony Piercy, spent the next three years fighting charges of involuntary manslaughter. This year, Piercy pleaded guilty to a reduced, misdemeanor charge of negligence.
In a sentencing assessment obtained by ABC 17 news, Ellingson’s father, Craig, said, “Piercy's actions were negligent, and his knowledge of boating procedures was lacking,"
Piercy's own wife, Laura, is also quoted in the report saying, “I wish the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol had never merged...I wish that day had never happened."
Rep. Franklin headed the review committee of the 2011 merger after Ellingson's death. She says the hearings with state troopers did not instill her with much confidence and “there was not an appreciation for the training that is necessary to operate law enforcement on the water."
Franklin filed a bill last year to reverse the highway/water merger, but shortly after that bill was introduced the state agency announced it would increase the number of experienced staff and adjust several other policies. That announcement got Franklin’s attention and she said, "They grew to understand what the concerns were and worked to resolved those for us."
ABC 17 news requested an interview with the MSHP for this story and got no response. We also submitted open records requests about updated patrol training and curriculum. Although the response is in compliance with the Missouri Sunshine Law, it offered no information helpful to this story.
Piercy is expected to be sentenced in Morgan County Tuesday afternoon at 1.