Larry Moreau and his family were cruising the Lake of the Ozarks on a sunny Saturday last May when they noticed a Missouri Highway Patrol boat race past them. Moreau, an engineer from nearby Jefferson City, recalls looking down at the speedometer on his boat and seeing that it read 32 mph. The patrol boat, containing a trooper and another man standing next to each other, was traveling much faster than that.
A few moments later the patrol boat came into view again. This time it was stopped in the middle of the lake's main channel. In front of the boat, a few hundred feet away, was something else.
"My wife said, 'There's somebody in the water.' It scared me something fierce, and I came to a complete stop," says Moreau.
A man's head was bobbing up and down in the wake. A few feet away from him floated a life jacket, and though the Moreaus couldn't see the swimmer's arms, he seemed to grab at the flotation device once or twice only to let it go. Moreau witnessed the trooper, now alone onboard the highway-patrol boat, "messing with his controls." Finally, the officer navigated the vessel back toward the man in the water. At one point the officer was close enough to touch the man, but as this happened, Moreau says, the trooper, Anthony Piercy, moved to the opposite side of the boat.
From their vantage point a few hundred feet away, the Moreaus started quizzing each other about what might be happening. It was dangerous to swim in the lake's main channel on such a busy day, but the trooper and the man looked oddly at ease — like friends enjoying an afternoon dip.
"[The trooper] didn't bend over or do anything" to grab the man, Moreau says, nor did the officer seem to panic or send emergency cues. "My son said, 'Dad, is this a training exercise?' My wife was like, 'No way. They wouldn't do that in the middle of the lake.'"
Another 30 seconds passed, and again the waves began carrying the boat away from the man. A party barge full of people soon arrived, and its occupants also took in the scene. The Moreaus, now convinced nothing was wrong, headed back to their marina.
As they pulled into their boat slip a few minutes later, another trooper was frantically jumping onto a patrol boat docked nearby. "Hey, one of your guys lost his passenger out there!" Moreau joked. The officer fired back: "That's not a passenger. That's a suspect, and he's gone."
That's when Moreau and his family realized what they saw. "My God, that person was handcuffed," he recalls saying.
Two hours later, at about 7:30 p.m., the Moreaus were still at the marina when the party barge returned. Its passengers confirmed their fears. The handcuffed man, who the Moreaus would later learn was twenty-year-old Brandon Ellingson, had continued to tread water for three more minutes. Eventually the trooper tried reaching out to Brandon with a pole. When that didn't work, he finally took off his firearm and holster, kicked off his shoes and dove in.
"Then they both went under, and the trooper came up alone," one of the party-barge passengers would later testify to highway-patrol officials. "The last words I heard from the victim were, 'Oh my God.'"
While listening to the passengers recount their story, Moreau noticed two young men in his peripheral vision. They approached and asked what everyone was discussing.
"I guess this kid drowned on a water-patrol boat," Moreau's wife, Paulette, told them. One of the two young men, Brandon's best friend, Brody Baumann, went pale and vomited.
Baumann isn't the only one who has become sick over the handcuffed drowning of Brandon Ellingson. Nine months later his death continues to torment the young man's family, friends and even complete strangers, such as Larry Moreau, all of whom want answers from a highway patrol that they believe has been less than forthcoming about the events of that day.
"The first mistake was killing him," says Brandon's father, Craig Ellingson, when discussing the Missouri Highway Patrol. "The second was trying to cover it up."
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