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Highway Patrol Sergeant Alleges Cover-Up In Ellingson Drowning

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Sergeant Randy Henry

Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Randy Henry stands with his wife outside the Patrol headquarters, after a public hearing on Friday, Aug. 21.

“We killed Brandon Ellingson.”

Retired Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Randy Henry uses those specific words when he talks about the handcuffed drowning of a 20-year-old that gained national attention, put the Patrol in the hot seat, and ultimately took Henry down a road he never expected. He is considered by many to be a whistleblower, having shed light on instances during the Ellingson investigation where he says the Patrol withheld evidence, pressured him to lie, and tried to save its own skin at the expense of the Ellingson family.

Henry has distanced himself from the Patrol. His retirement is effective Dec. 1, and it comes in the wake of a misconduct complaint filed against him. He announced his retirement three days before a disciplinary hearing that would have addressed the complaint; that complaint was withdrawn before his retirement announcement.

He says it’s difficult to talk to some of his former, fellow patrolmen now. His willingness to speak about what he had seen—instances for which he has documented evidence—has put him at odds with the organization and, he says, with those who wish to stay in its good graces.

But Henry still says, “We killed Brandon Ellingson.”

In that tragic death, he considers himself to be complicit. He did sign off on Trooper Anthony Piercy’s readiness to be on the water. “To say that I didn’t is pretty hypocritical,” he said.

Piercy arrested Ellingson for Boating While Intoxicated on Saturday, May 31, 2013, incorrectly placed a life jacket on him, and drove him at a high rate of speed across a choppy Lake, until Ellingson fell out when the boat hit a large wake.

When Piercy—a road trooper with a reputation for aggressively pursuing DWI arrests—joined water operations, he did so under the Patrol’s supplemental trooper program, wherein road troopers were brought onto the water during busy times. That program has since been eliminated.

The date for the 2013 Lake Race was approaching at Lake of the Ozarks, and Henry says Piercy was part of a group that was swept quickly through the training process in order to increase trooper presence on the water.

Lieutenant Darewin Clardy wrote in an email to marine operation supervisors:

“I realize at varying points, these marine trained officers will be capable of solo boat time. Prior to turning them loose solo, let’s have either Randy [Henry] or Chris [Daniels] send me an IOC simply stating they have demonstrated a reasonable level of competence in Donzi navigation on the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks. Quite frankly, this limited group of officers gives me no concern on judgement, interaction, enforcement, etc, but navigational where-with-all on a lake like that is something we need to have some oversight of.”

Later in the email, Clardy instructed, “If they are solo, we would still want kind of ‘shadow coverage’ from a full time officer on the lake at the same time for a little while. Obviously things like rough water and heavier crowds are something we want to be careful with for awhile.”

Henry says he protested the hurried process and nearly got in trouble for insubordination. “I knew something was gonna happen,” he told LakeExpo.com. Ultimately, he did write his approval letter for Piercy. But, he says he did so with ambiguous wording, fearing that some day that letter might be used against him.

A BWI Arrest

An ambitious trooper, Henry says Piercy told him that on the morning of Ellingson’s drowning, he had been informed he was being promoted to corporal. That promotion never occurred.

According to Henry, a week before Ellingson drowned, Piercy arrested a boater for BWI. Henry says Piercy placed the wrong type of life jacket—a Type III, the same kind he would use on Ellingson a week later—on the suspect. But in this case, he fastened the life jacket before handcuffing the suspect. Henry points out a Type III life jacket is only acceptable for arrests when a Type I is not available.

The encounter was recorded on the patrol boat’s camera—the same camera that reportedly did not record the Ellingson arrest, because both SD cards had been removed—but Henry says the video was never considered by the Patrol to be relevant in any investigation, so it was routinely deleted from the organization’s server a few months later. However, Henry says Piercy’s supervisor, Jason Worthley, told him about it. Worthley has since resigned from the Patrol.

During transit, Henry recalled, the suspect was leaning against the seat next to Piercy and hit his head on the boat computer when the vessel struck a wake.

A week later, Ellingson would go overboard. The video of the arrest a week prior was never used for context during the investigation or subsequent Morgan County Coroner's Inquest.

Insufficient Training?

Piercy would later claim that he had been inadequately trained for water operations, saying that was the reason he had put the wrong life jacket on Ellingson, incorrectly. At the Coroner’s Inquest into the Ellingson drowning held on Sept. 4, 2014, he said he had not been taught how to correctly arrest an individual on the water, during his basic boating and marine operations trainings.

But Henry says he is positive Piercy had been instructed on proper procedure during multiple BWI arrests. Piercy confirmed at the Coroner’s Inquest that he had attended two separate BWI checkpoint operations during the summer of 2013.

Henry and Piercy agree that Trooper Robert Plumley helped train Piercy at one of those BWI checkpoints. At those operations, the procedures for making a BWI arrest are read clearly to the troopers involved, Henry says. Among those procedures is the specification that a Type I personal flotation device (PFD) is to be used. Type I PFDs can be placed securely on a person that has already been handcuffed, while Type III PFDs can not. Henry pointed out that Plumley is a “by the book” officer, and so was confident that in observing the arrests made and overseen by Plumley during those checkpoints, Piercy would have been instructed in the proper way to make a BWI arrest.

Piercy told the Coroner’s Jury that he had actually made a BWI arrest under the supervision of Plumley during that checkpoint.

The following exchange also occurred at the Coroner’s Inquest:

Question: Is that [Type III jacket] the life jacket you were trained to use when you arrested someone?

Piercy: It’s one of the vests on our boat. I had seen a couple arrests, but I’ve seen — I guess you could say other officers — there’s really no training on use this one or use that one. It was just one of the vests on the boat.

Question: Well, let me ask you this, when you went to basic boating school, did you receive any training that, hey, do use this vest or don’t use this type of vest when you’re apprehending someone or when you arrest someone?

Piercy: No. We weren’t told yes or no on that particular vest.

Question: Okay. Were you told a particular vest that you had to use in basic boating school?

Piercy: We went over policy, that a Level I or II vest.

Question: And it said what about that?

Piercy: That — that you should use that type of vest.

Henry’s Interview

Piercy called Henry after the Ellingson drowning. During that conversation, Henry says he immediately told Piercy to get a lawyer, but the trooper wanted to talk. Piercy recounted what had happened that day, and Henry expressed several concerns to Piercy about the way the arrest and transport had been conducted.

The next week, Henry asked Corporal Eric Stacks, with the Division of Drug and Crime Control, whether he wanted a report from Henry. Stacks said no, Henry recalls. He asked again several days later, and received the same answer.That, combined with Piercy changing his story about the attempted rescue of Ellingson, convinced Henry, “The fix was in,” as he puts it. 

Ultimately, Henry did give a recorded interview about his discussion with Piercy. He, Sergeant Chris Harris, and Stacks sat down and discussed the exchange. The recording was abruptly cut off once Henry began questioning Piercy’s judgment and asking whether he had used the highest degree of care. Henry says after the recording was stopped, Stacks was furious.

Ultimately, the Ellingson family sued the Patrol, and Henry gave a deposition in which he talked about what he had seen.

“At first it was extremely difficult,” he said. But once he learned of the family’s anguish, Henry said he found the truth was liberating.

Investigating Itself

“I recommended that they call the Coast Guard in… Why are we investigating ourselves?” Henry said, recalling his reaction to the placement of Stacks as the lead investigator.

“They’d be more than happy to come down and do this,” he said.

He recalled Clardy’s response: “I was told by Clardy that, ‘We don’t do that.’”

Stacks had no experience investigating boating-related incidents, according to Henry. Stacks is still with the Highway Patrol, but is no longer with the DDCC.

Coroner’s Inquest

Ellingson’s body was recovered from 80 feet of water on June 1. Morgan County Coroner MB Jones drew blood at the scene, according to a lead report filed by Corporal David Echternacht. Echternacht wrote in the report that he took the vial, packaged it, prepared the supporting paperwork, and gave it to Trooper Richardson. It was to be tested at the Patrol’s lab. Henry says he saw that blood test result: .243 blood-alcohol content, with no evidence of cocaine. However, that lab report was not provided in a request of full case documents made by LakeExpo.com. It was also not provided to the Ellingson family’s attorney Matt Boles, Henry says.

“You’re telling me there’s not a cover-up?” he asked rhetorically.

The blood drawn from Ellingson’s body during the autopsy on June 2 was sent to St. Louis University’s facility. Lab results there show the BAC was .268, with traces of cocaine present.

The lab results from the first test were never provided at the Coroner’s Inquest. The SLU results were used.

Henry saw this withholding of evidence as part of the Patrol’s attempt to discredit Ellingson — an aim he felt was deeply misguided. He also expressed dismay over his exclusion from the Coroner's Inquest.

“You would think that I would be testifying at the Inquest,” he said. “I’m the one who signed off on Piercy, I’m responsible for his training.” 

“Tony Piercy was up there lying,” Henry mused, “and nobody cared, because it was, ‘Protect Tony Piercy.’”

The coroner’s jury determined the death was accidental, and the prosecutor opted not to file charges in connection with the drowning.

Toe The Line

The Patrol came under scrutiny in the fall of 2014, precipitated by Ellingson’s drowning. Many protested that the lack of good training had led to the tragedy. Some pointed to the 2011 merger of the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol, saying that had diluted the training process. Since last year, the Highway Patrol has eliminated its supplementary trooper program and has added an annual swim test for all Marine Operations Officers.

On the day of the first legislative hearing, Oct. 1, 2014, Henry was instructed by the Patrol to report at 8 a.m. to central headquarters. He found himself in a room with high-ranking Patrol members, who he says were being instructed by the Patrol’s general counsel, Tracy McGinnis, to testify that the Patrol’s training was “adequate and sufficient.”

Henry, with the Ellingson incident and his prior approval of Piercy’s training in mind, told McGinnis he would not do that, since he did not believe the training was sufficient.

“Mr. Henry, when you’re on state time, you will do what you’re told,” he says he was instructed.

A war of the wills ensued, in which Henry even offered to change from his uniform to street apparel to avoid representing the Patrol in an official capacity. Ultimately, he says, the leadership capitulated, and Lieutenant Colonel Sandy Karsten told him he should answer whatever he truly thinks.

Henry believes the drowning was an accident, and he acknowledges his responsibility: he signed off on the trooper who was responsible for Ellingson at the time of his death. But he faults the Patrol for remaining tight-lipped about the facts, and for withholding information in an attempt to shape the outcome.

“If the Ellingson investigation would have been handled as if it were one of our kids that drowned… being transparent with the family… none of this would have [come] to this point.”

He continued, “If it was my kid who was thrown in the water, I’d want to know what happened. That’s my only reason for doing this.”

Henry recalls working security at a University of Missouri football game. As troopers and others thanked him for doing the right thing, he says he leaned over to one trooper and mused, “You know, it’s a shame, and something’s wrong with the system if I have to be thanked for telling the truth… Ain’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

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