Court rejects former trooper's lawsuit in Ellingson drowning case
JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from a former Missouri State Highway Patrol sergeant who alleged he was discriminated against after speaking out about the drowning of a handcuffed Iowa man.
U.S. District Judge Willie Epps found Wednesday that Randy Henry went too far in talking to reporters, posting information on Facebook and talking to relatives of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson about a "supposed cover-up" of the Arizona State University student's drowning, The Jefferson City News-Tribunereports.
Henry had alleged that he was forced to retire early from the patrol after nearly three decades of service because he was a whistleblower. J.C. Pleban, Henry's attorney, said they would appeal.
Ellingson, who was from suburban Des Moines, tumbled out of a patrol boat in 2014 while former trooper Anthony Piercy was transporting Ellingson for a breath test after his arrest on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. Once in the water, Ellingson slipped out of an improperly secured life vest. Piercy pleaded guilty to misdemeanor negligent operation of a vessel. His law enforcement license was revoked.
In the days after Ellingson's death, Henry told investigators what Piercy had told him in a phone call the night of the drowning. Piercy's account to investigators, however, was different, and so was his testimony during a coroner's inquest. According to the lawsuit, when Henry relayed to investigators what Piercy had told him, Henry was told not to prepare a report.
"Henry believed that the (patrol) intended to cover up the facts and circumstances of the Ellingson drowning to protect itself from civil liability and Piercy from criminal liability," the lawsuit reads. "After the inquest, he began speaking as a private citizen about this matter of public concern."
Henry, who was a veteran Missouri Water Patrol officer when the agency was combined with the Highway Patrol in 2011, eventually testified twice in front of a legislative committee about concerns with the merger. Henry said the merger had resulted in road troopers like Piercy being poorly cross-trained to serve as Water Patrol officers.
Epps found that testimony was protected but faulted him for implying that a special prosecutor assigned to review the drowning case wouldn't implicate the patrol in any wrongdoing because the prosecutor's son had been cleared of wrongdoing in an unrelated case. Epps ruled that Henry's "allegations were largely unsupported by facts."