Heather Hourigan Special Report, ABC17 News, Columbia, MO
The Des Moines Register’s Editorial: Feds need to review the Ellingson drowning
Law officers in the United States make about 12 million arrests per year. The public
reasonably expects suspects will make it through the process alive. Brandon Ellingson
of Clive did not. The young man drowned while in the custody of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
A trooper suspected the Iowan was intoxicated while he was operating a boat at Lake of
the Ozarks, a popular Midwest vacation destination. The trooper handcuffed Ellingson’s
wrists behind his back and then pulled a life jacket over his head. The trooper was
transporting him on a police boat to administer a sobriety test elsewhere when Ellingson
fell overboard. When his body was recovered the next day, there was no life jacket.
Since a handcuffed man cannot put on or take off a life jacket, it is clear the trooper
did not properly secure one on Ellingson. The Iowan also had been left sitting on an
elevated boat chair with no way to brace himself as the boat crossed the lake.
The arresting officer blamed inadequate training for his handling of the Ellingson arrest.
But a Missouri Highway Patrol supervisor, Sgt. Randy Henry, told a Missouri Legislature
hearing Tuesday: “It is obvious that the training that occurred before May 31, 2014 was
deficient. That is not an excuse for poor judgment.”
Compounding the tragedy is the fact that no one has been held responsible. A six-member
coroner’s jury took less than 8 minutes to determine that the death was an accident.
Though a special prosecutor acknowledged the jury had not heard from several witnesses,
she quickly decided that no criminal charges would be filed against the officer.
Are Ellingson’s parents supposed to accept this? Should their only recourse be to hire
a lawyer to file a wrongful death lawsuit? Are people supposed to simply forget about
the death of this Iowan?
No, no and no.
When the actions of law officers result in the death of an innocent-until-proven-guilty
suspect, there should be an objective, thorough review. The process for determining
wrongdoing feels stacked in the favor of law officers.
So people look to the U.S. Department of Justice. The agency conducted an investigation
into the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot by an officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Now Ellingson’s parents want the federal department to objectively look into their
son’s death, and they contacted Sen. Chuck Grassley to get his help in making this
happen. Last week, Grassley said he would provide information about the case to U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder.
Iowa’s senior senator should do more than that. He should repeatedly and loudly demand
a federal investigation into this case. He is one of the most well-known senators in
the country and is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has made
a name for himself as a government watchdog. A young Iowan dying while in the state
of Missouri’s custody deserves at least as much attention as what the military is
paying for toilet seats.
Federal investigators are the last hope for providing an unbiased investigation into
what happened at Lake of the Ozarks. If Grassley doesn’t pressure them to do it, who will?