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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Drowning of Handcuffed Suspect Still Baffles Family, Friends and Witnesses

Posted By on Wed, Feb 25, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Page 2 of 5

Craig Ellingson with a young Brandon. - COURTESY OF CRAIG ELLINGSON
  • Courtesy of Craig Ellingson
  • Craig Ellingson with a young Brandon.

Brandon Ellingson grew up spending his summers at the Lake of the Ozarks. His parents, Craig and Sherry, bought a place near the lake's twelve-mile marker in 2002, and they regularly ferried Brandon and his younger sister, Jennifer, from their home in Iowa to their vacation property in mid-Missouri. On May 29 of last year, Brandon made that same journey with a group of seven childhood buddies.

They were to spend the weekend reliving the good old days, and up until Brandon's run-in with trooper Anthony Piercy, the trip had gone as planned. Brandon, who was about to enter his junior year at Arizona State University, was the same Brandon his friends had come to know and love — the straight-A student, the buff athlete, the one who made everyone feel as though they belonged.

On Saturday the friends took the Ellingson family boat, a 28-foot Sea Ray playfully named Sotally Tober, to a restaurant and bar on the lake called Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar & Grill. There the young men spent the sunny afternoon downing beers and buffalo wings and playing sand volleyball.

Around 5 p.m. the boys pushed away from Coconuts' dock on their way back to the Ellingsons' vacation home. Brandon "seemed fine," his friend Baumann remembers. "He told us, 'Clean up and sit down, and then we can take off.' Just normal Brandon." But before the boys had gotten out of the no-wake zone, officer Piercy pulled them over after allegedly witnessing a Bud Light can fall from the boat.

The Ellingsons' boat would be the third watercraft Piercy pulled over that afternoon in front of the popular Coconuts — much to the vexation of the restaurant's owner who had earlier called the highway patrol to complain of an officer "sitting there all day" and "harassing" people.

Once onboard the Ellingson boat, Piercy assured the boys that he just wanted to make sure everything was in order. A few minutes later, he brought Brandon onto his vessel and pushed about ten feet away to conduct a field sobriety test. Although the boys couldn't hear the words exchanged, they imagined their friend would fall into the stutter he'd had since childhood, which got especially pronounced when he was scared or excited.

One of the boys in the group, Myles Goertz, had a "know your rights" card in his pocket and tried to toss it to Brandon in the trooper's boat.

"That's when Piercy got pissed," Baumann says.

That's also when he got in a hurry, Piercy later told one of his superiors, Sergeant Randy Henry. Piercy handcuffed Brandon and wedged him into the wrong type of life jacket, even though the boat was also equipped with flotation devices for shackled suspects. He told the boys that he was going to take him to the patrol station across the lake for ticketing. Nick Buchanan, a childhood friend of Brandon's, estimates that the arrest lasted about five minutes. "He told us to meet him there, pay the fine and we could take him home," he says.

As he took off, Brandon turned back to his friends. He winked. "It was reassuring at the moment," Buchanan says. "It made us feel like everything was going to be OK."

But when two hours passed and Brandon's friends still hadn't heard from him, they began to worry. Back at the Ellingson family vacation home, the boys started calling around to local jails.

"They were like, 'We don't have a Brandon Ellingson booked,'" Buchanan remembers.

Then came the disturbing talk about a drowning that Baumann and Brandon's other friend, Louis Gutierrez, heard about at the marina where they'd gone to look for him. The friends were distraught when at 8:41 p.m. a state trooper arrived at the Ellingson house with different news. He pulled Brandon's cousin, Blake, into his car and said that "Brandon had gotten belligerent and he'd have to spend the night in jail," Buchanan remembers. "It was strange because Brandon wasn't that type of guy, but we were just so relieved that he was safe."

The relief didn't last long. Shortly before 10 p.m., Craig Ellingson, at home in Iowa, got a call from highway patrol. They told him that the boat capsized and Brandon drowned. Craig immediately called his son's friends. "Guys, what is going on? Where is Brandon?" he asked. "They're saying he drowned."

"We told him, 'No, Craig, that's not what happened. We're going to get him in the morning. We have the money to bail him out,'" Buchanan remembers.

A half hour later — at 10:28 p.m. — Buchanan's phone rang. "Is this Nick Buchanan?" The caller identified himself as some officer from somewhere. Buchanan forgot it all after the caller's next words. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your buddy fell off the boat today and he drowned."

"I didn't say anything. Just hung up on him," Buchanan says. His face fell into his hands. The guys upstairs came rushing down, thinking what they were hearing was laughter, that Brandon had been found. But when they saw Buchanan's heaving shoulders, they knew.

After finally learning the truth about Brandon — some five hours after his drowning — the friends packed up their belongings and headed back to Iowa that night. Buchanan remembers looking in the rear-view mirror at the faces of his friends, shocked and silent.

Just two days earlier they'd traveled those same highways en route to the lake. Then, the ride was filled with laughter and music. Brandon loved a song called "Jubel" by the French house musician Klingande, and he played it on repeat, trying to convince his friends to love it, too.

The song has few lyrics. It's mostly a refrain of two words: "Save me."

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