Handcuffed man drowns while in trooper's custody

Handcuffed man drowns while in trooper's custody

Credit: Register file photo

Handcuffed man drowns while in trooper's custody

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by Regina Zilbermints, Des Moines Register/USA TODAY

WHAS11.com

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 11:24 AM

(USA TODAY) -- Time after time after time, Brandon Ellingson tried to kick his way to the surface of a popular Missouri lake, a witness told The Des Moines Register.

And time after time, the 20-year-old from Clive, Iowa, whose hands were handcuffed behind his back, struggled to keep his head above water, said Jim Bascue, an owner of a water taxi service at the Lake of the Ozarks.

"At first I didn't know what (the Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper) was doing," Bascue said. The boat "slowed down pretty quick. I saw somebody in a life jacket to the side. The boat was turning to get into position to help. I didn't have clue what was going on.

"I got closer and realized (the trooper) was trying to help the guy, get him out of the water. I saw the life jacket and person separate in the water."

Bascue said he threw a life ring to Ellingson, but Ellingson couldn't reach it. Each time Ellingson disappeared underwater, he seemed to sink a little deeper, Bascue said.

The trooper, who was operating the boat from which Ellingson jumped or fell, jumped into the water to try and rescue Ellingson, Bascue said. The trooper, however, lost his grip on the man and then couldn't find him again, Bascue said.

"I got the life ring, and my main concern then was the officer. He was totally exhausted by this point."

Around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Ellingson, who had been arrested on suspicion of boating while intoxicated, disappeared under the water in the Lake of the Ozarks for the last time. The body of the popular West Des Moines Valley High School graduate and football standout was recovered at about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, 80 feet below the surface in the spot where he went under.

Now, questions are swirling about how someone could drown while in the custody of a law enforcement officer. And more specifically, how someone could drown who was supposed to be wearing a life vest that Missouri State Highway Patrol policies require to be placed on anyone arrested on a body of water.

"That's a big part of our investigation," Missouri State Patrol Sgt. Paul Reinsch said. "To determine how it came off after it was placed on him."

Bascue, the boater who saw the trooper try to rescue Ellingson, said he saw Ellingson with the life vest, and then the vest separated from Ellingson and floated away.

Officials in Missouri have released only basic information about the incident. An internal investigation is ongoing, and a final, more complete report could be issued by the end of the week, they said.

The trooper who was transporting Ellingson has been placed on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure, Reinsch said. According to a report, the driver of the boat was Anthony C. Piercy.

Officials said that Ellingson had been taken into custody on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. He had not been given an official Breathalyzer test.

After he was arrested, Ellingson was handcuffed, a life vest was placed on him, and he was seated in a patrol boat that had one officer in it, Reinsch said.

At some point Ellingson stood up, then went overboard. The report said Ellingson either jumped or fell into the water.

Bascue, who owns Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charters, came around a bend in the lake while captaining a Bar Hop Cruise just after Ellingson fell or jumped into the water.

Bascue said he tried to position his boat and help but was unsuccessful.

"The guy slipped out of (the trooper's) hands. There was not a chance of trying to get him then," Bascue said. "It was very quick. The whole thing lasted three or four minutes. It seemed like it happened fast."

Patrol boats are not equipped with seat belts.

That, combined with the fact that most boats only carry one officer who is tasked both with driving the vessel and keeping an eye on the prisoner, creates a unique challenge for troopers on the water, Reinsch said.

"It's a difficult situation," he said. "You can't lock the doors, can't place them in a seat belt. It's very difficult to even stand on a boat when it's moving."

As Missouri officials investigated the death, those who knew Ellingson in Iowa recalled a popular, athletic and friendly young man.

"He had a big personality. He always had a smile on his face and could light up a room," said Gary Swenson, Valley's head football coach. "I would say the number of people who would have called him a friend would be far beyond the scope of most people. He was outgoing but a very easy person to talk to."

Ellingson was on the honor roll at Valley, played hockey and was a three-year starter on the varsity football team, including on the school's 2011 state championship winning squad.

"He was outstanding," Swenson said. "As a senior, he was one of many good players on the team. But Brandon was definitely a leader, both in how he played and how he conducted himself."

On Monday, Ellingson's Facebook and Twitter feeds were clogged with friends, both from Valley and Arizona State University, where he attended business school, posting memories and photos.

Sunday night, about 50 people gathered at Lutheran Church of Hope, where many of his friends attended, to talk and share stories.

"You know what, he was perfect. He was handsome, he was very, very smart," his grandmother, Gloria Ellingson, said. "He could joke with you. He could be on any level. There wasn't anybody like him."

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