A local prosecutor charged a boat captain and two other employees Friday over 17 deaths in July 2018 when a tourist boat sank on a Missouri lake during a severe thunderstorm, reviving the threat of long prison sentences seven months after federal charges against them were dismissed.
The total of 63 felony charges were filed in Stone County against the captain, the general manager and the manager on duty the day of the accident for the Ride the Ducks attraction on Table Rock Lake near the tourist mecca of Branson, in southwestern Missouri.
Captain Kenneth Scott McKee, of Verona, general manager Curtis Lanham, of Galena, and manager on duty Charles Baltzell, of Kirbyville, were charged after a federal judge dismissed earlier charges filed by federal prosecutors, concluding they did not have jurisdiction.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said the new charges were filed to hold people allegedly responsible for the deaths accountable. Schmitt, whose office will assist with the prosecution, and County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Selby announced the charges.
“We look forward to making our case in court,” Schmitt said in a statement. “The victims deserve justice.”
McKee, 54, faces 29 charges, including 17 charges of first-degree involuntary manslaughter. The 12 additional charges allege that he endangered child passengers on the boat, five of whom died.
The child-endangerment charges filed over deaths are the most serious, punishable by between 10 years and 30 years in prison. The endangerment charges involving children who survived the accident carry a sentence of up to seven years.
An affidavit from a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant accuses McKee of failing to exercise his duties as a licensed captain by taking his amphibious vehicle onto the lake during a thunderstorm.
“We are reviewing the charges, expect not guilty pleas will be entered and will continue vigorously represent Mr. McKee,” J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller, who represent the captain, said in a statement.
Baltzell, 79, and Lanham, 39, face 17 charges each of first-degree involuntary manslaughter. They are accused of failing to communicate weather conditions and to cease operations during a severe thunderstorm warning.
Attorneys for Baltzell and Lanham did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
Each manslaughter charge alleges that the men “recklessly caused” the death of a passenger. Missouri law calls for a prison sentence of between three years and 10 years for a conviction on that charge.
Thirty-one people were aboard when the duck boat entered the lake. A storm came up suddenly and the waves swamped the boat before it could make it back to shore.
Fourteen people survived. The dead included nine members of one family from Indianapolis. Other victims were from Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas.
Rides on the lake in modified former World War II vehicle once were a popular draw in the Branson area. Ripley Entertainment, which owned the former World War II vehicle, settled 31 lawsuits related to the sinking.
Video and audio from the boat, recovered by divers, showed that the lake was calm when the boat entered the water. But the weather suddenly turned violent. Within minutes, the boat sank.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Green said in his affidavit that McKee failed to exercise his duties and responsibilities by going onto the lake with the boat, Stretch Boat 7, with a severe thunderstorm warning in effect.
“He did not follow policy or training guidelines in that he failed to have passengers don personal floatation devices as Stretch Duck 7 took on water,” Green said.
The wind speed at the time of the accident was more than 70 mph (113 kph), just short of hurricane force, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly exceeding 60 mph (97 kph).
A U.S. Coast Guard certificate of inspection for the boat issued in February 2017 stated that it “shall not be operated waterborne” when winds exceed 35 mph (56 kph) and/or wave heights exceed 2 feet (0.6 meters).
Green’s affidavit said Baltzell’s failure to communicate with the duck boats about the weather and Lanham’s failure to cease their operation “had a contributing factor in the incident and subsequent fatalities.”