Trooper Who Blew the Whistle in Ozarks Drowning Case Demoted, Transferred

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Courtesy Brody Baumann - BRANDON ELLINGSON (LEFT, WITH FRIEND BRODY BAUMANN) AT THE LAKE OF THE OZARKS IN 2012, TWO YEARS BEFORE HIS TRAGIC DROWNING DEATH.
  • Brandon Ellingson (left, with friend Brody Baumann) at the Lake of the Ozarks in 2012, two years before his tragic drowning death.
  • Courtesy Brody Baumann

The Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant who spoke out in the case of an Arizona State student who drowned in May 2014 while handcuffed and in his department's custody at the Lake of the Ozarks has been demoted and transferred. Sergeant Randy Henry is a veteran of the department with more than 29 years of experience, says his attorney, Chet Pleban, and no history of serious infractions. But on June 10, just one week after being deposed in a civil case filed by the dead man's family against the highway patrol, Henry was informed that he was being demoted to corporal.

Henry was also told he'd be transferred to the Truman Lake area -- an hour-and-a-half drive from his family's home.

"He has a son in high school where he's living now," Pleban says. "I suspect this is an effort to force him to retire as opposed to moving his family."

But Henry isn't giving up.

"He's going to continue to fight it," Pleban vows.

See also: Drowning of Handcuffed Man Still Baffles Family, Friends and Witnesses

The decision to demote Henry is the latest twist in the high-profile drowning death of Brandon Ellingson, a 20-year-old Arizona State student from Iowa. Ellingson was boating with friends near his family's vacation home in the Lake of the Ozarks in May 2014 when a Missouri Highway Patrol officer, Anthony Piercy, pulled over their boat. After Ellingson failed a sobriety test, Piercy handcuffed him, telling the others in the boat that he'd be taking Ellingson to a patrol station for a citation.

It was the last time Ellingson's friends saw him alive. A witness would later report seeing Piercy's boat speed past his own watercraft at more than 30 mph -- and then, later, seeing Ellingson bobbing in the water, with Piercy allegedly making no effort to fish him out.

The case was the subject of an RFT cover story in February.

Sergeant Henry, who was Piercy's supervisor, would testify to what Piercy had told him in the immediate aftermath of the incident, a story that Piercy later changed. Among other things, Henry would tell investigators that Piercy had confessed to going much faster than he later admitted to them -- and using the wrong type of life vest on the handcuffed man. Henry also told investigators he was "befuddled" by Piercy's ignorance over proper use of flotation devices.

Henry would later post a message on the "Justice for Brandon Ellingson" Facebook page, writing,

My main focus is, and has been from day one, to let this young man rest in peace, to clear his name, and to let the Ellingson family know exactly what happened before, during, and after that horrendous day. There are people in my inner circle who have the same feelings that we all have, and who I believe will step up when it's time to.

Did those actions anger Henry's superiors? Lt. Paul Reinsch, a spokesman for the Missouri Highway Patrol, did not respond to a message seeking comment yesterday.

Pleban notes that the department first ordered Henry to undergo a mental health evaluation -- and gave no reason for the order.

"When Compass Health Wellness found no cause for concern and more specifically that Sgt. Henry did not meet the criteria for any diagnosis, he was directed to respond to Compass Health Wellness again with the same response: no issues or problems," Pleban wrote in a letter to Henry's supervisor, Colonel Ronald K. Replogle. "It is not lost on me or Sgt. Henry that his mental fitness was challenged after he engaged in protected whistleblower activity."

Ultimately, Compass warned the Highway Patrol that it would be unethical to subject Henry to a third evaluation, Pleban says.

"This was solely an effort to discredit him," he says.

(Unusually, Pleban notes, the department didn't even bother to take away Henry's service revolver before the evaluation: "That suggests to me they were not acting in good faith.")

Soon after that, Henry was served with a complaint notification, alleging he'd disseminated confidential information, and subjected to a Professional Standards investigation. On June 10, he was advised that the investigation had resulted in his demotion and transfer.

Because Henry signed a document of confidentiality, Pleban says he cannot discuss the specifics of the investigation -- only that it's related to the Ellingson case. "Given their behavior to date, I suspect they'll hang him by his thumbnails if he says anything," Pleban says.

Henry will appeal the discipline, Pleban says.

And what about Anthony Piercy, the trooper who took Ellingson into custody and later admitted to using the wrong lifejacket on the handcuffed man? Pleban notes that the Highway Patrol doesn't seem that concerned with him.

"He has not been transferred," Pleban says. "He is still working out of the same troop and same zone as prior to [Ellingson's death]."

See also: Drowning of Handcuffed Man Still Baffles Family, Friends and Witnesses

We welcome tips and feedback. Contact the writer via email at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com.

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