BRANSON – The Missouri Attorney General and the Stone County, Missouri Attorney General on Friday announced criminal charges against three employees at a Branson company whose duck capsized in a storm in 2018 on Table Rock Lake, killing 17 people, including two Arkansane.
The charges stem from the decision by Ride the Ducks employees to have a tourist boat with 31 people on board to navigate the waters of Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri just before a storm hit the region and sunk the boat.
The accused are Kenneth Scott McKee, 54, captain of the boat; Curtis P. Lanham, 38, general manager of Ride the Ducks in Branson; and Charles V. Baltzell, 79, operations supervisor who was acting as the duty manager that night.
Each faces 17 counts of first degree manslaughter, a felony. In addition, McKee faces 12 counts of first degree endangerment of a child’s well-being, also felonies. There were 12 children under 17 on the duck when it sank, and five of the 17 victims who died were children.
An Arkansas father and son – Steve Smith, 53, and Lance Smith, 15 from Osceola – were among those who died. Steve Smith’s daughter Loren, then 14, was among the 14 survivors.
The charges, filed in Stone County Circuit Court, were announced in a press release from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who provided no further comment.
A probable cause statement accused McKee of failing in his role as a boat captain when he caught the duck out on the lake as a storm approached and by not having passengers wear flotation devices.
However, a National Transportation Safety Board report examining the tragedy said life jackets may increase the risk to passengers if there is an awning, like the Table Rock Lake duck, as it can trap passengers against it. when it sinks.
The document also accuses Lanham and Baltzell of failing to communicate the danger of the oncoming storm and of disrupting the tour.
A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, owner of Operation Ride the Ducks in Branson, immediately responded to the announcement of the charges.
“We continue to cooperate with all investigations into the sudden and severe storm known as derecho that hit Table Rock Lake in July 2018 resulting in a tragic accident,” Suzanne Smagala-Potts said in an email from Kansas City Star. “We have and will continue to provide support to our current and former employees as this process progresses. “
Lawyers for Baltzell, Lanham and McKee have said their clients will plead innocent.
“Although this is a tragedy, we do not believe that any of the accused has committed any criminal behavior and intend to take the matter to state and federal courts,” he said. said Tom Bath, who represents Lanham.
The deaths sparked a torrent of lawsuits against Ride the Ducks and Ripley Entertainment. They agreed on confidential terms.
Schmitt and Stone County District Attorney Matt Selby filed a lawsuit just days before the three-year statute of limitations on criminal charges expired. Friday’s felony filing marks the second time the three have faced criminal charges.
A federal grand jury indictment filed in 2019 alleging misconduct, neglect and lack of attention to duty was dismissed in December. A federal judge in Springfield has ruled that federal prosecutors do not have jurisdiction over the case due to the characteristics of Table Rock Lake, but admitted that state prosecutors can file a case if they so choose.
The Table Rock Lake disaster gained national attention, because of the tragic nature of the incident – of the 17 dead, nine were family members – and because earlier warnings about safety concerns raised by a government agency likely could have saved lives had they been taken care of by the US Coast Guard or Congress.
Tia Coleman of Indianapolis survived the duck sinking and was part of the family that lost nine people in the tragedy, including her husband and three children.
In a statement provided by her lawyers, she said her “prayers were answered” after the charges were laid.
“I so hope that we are getting closer to an important step towards justice for all who perished, and to prevent what happened to them from happening again,” Coleman said in a statement.
The fatal boat ride was originally scheduled to start ashore, which was its usual course, but before the first passengers boarded Stretch Duck 7, an individual got into the back of the boat at 6:28 pm and told the The crew to drive the water part of the tour first, said the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB in its final report said Ripley Entertainment was leaving the decision-making power to the duck captains, even though managers had better access to tools that would monitor weather conditions.
The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning indicated that winds above 60 mph were possible. In fact, the winds on the lake reached 73 mph with waves exceeding 3 feet.
When the boat began its turn on the water at 6:55 p.m., the lake appeared calm.
McKee’s only source of weather information once he got the boat out on the water was his ability to look around and see what was going on, according to the NTSB report.
In his interview with the Missouri Highway Patrol, McKee said that while the boat was on tour, he could see dark clouds “quite a distance” in the distance.
A passenger, whose name was redacted from the transcript of the highway patrol interview, said there were large clouds visible 5 minutes before the boat was on the water, which was disturbing.
“[A]And the captain, who usually spoke and stuff, he was, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s nothing to worry about; it’s just, it’s just the clouds. We’ll just be a little wet and everything, “said the passenger.” But we weren’t really worried about the humidity and stuff. We were worried about our safety. “
Just after 7 p.m., the winds intensified and white hats were visible on the water, according to an initial report released by the NTSB.
“All of a sudden there was – you could just see the water erupting,” McKee said, according to the transcript, adding later that he had never seen the lake get so choppy so quickly.
Less than a minute later, the captain of the Ride the Ducks boat commented on the storm, according to the NTSB report, without further explanation.
“I was a little worried, and everyone was,” said the unnamed passenger. “A child was screaming, ‘I don’t want to be in the Titanic.'”
After struggling helplessly in the choppy water, the boat began to sink at 7:09 p.m.
Although NTSB investigators never interviewed McKee, the agency concluded that he was aware of the duck’s operating instructions and likely would not have started the tour if the lake had not been calm when ‘he entered the water.
“Although he was aware of the oncoming weather conditions that he observed on weather radar before leaving the duck dock, he was unaware of the intensity of the storm,” said the NTSB report.
The report also states that as the wind picked up over the lake, McKee jumped the usual lap path on the water and headed straight for the exit ramp. Returning to the entrance ramp would have put the boat in danger of waves on the lake, according to the report.
“Therefore, the NTSB concludes that the captain’s decision to proceed to the off-ramp in inclement weather was appropriate,” the NTSB said.
A federal grand jury indictment against McKee was entered in November 2018. Among the violations he was charged with included incorrect assessment of weather conditions before taking the boat out on the water; operate the boat in conditions that contravene the Coast Guard Inspection Certificate; do not tell passengers to use flotation devices; do not accelerate towards the nearest shore as severe weather approaches; and not having raised the side curtains of the boat when her bilge alarm went off while she was taking on the water.
In June 2019, a federal grand jury indicted Lanham and Baltzell and added additional charges against McKee. Prosecutors said the three were more interested in profit than passenger safety.
The indictment was dismissed in December when a federal judge ruled that Table Rock Lake was not navigable, meaning that it did not support commercial activity. The distinction was important. Under U.S. admiralty law, criminal charges like those filed against the three men only apply in federal court if the waterway on which the crime is alleged to have taken place is deemed to be navigable.
Missouri state attorneys, however, are not bound by this distinction.
Tour boats, which operated on Table Rock and Taneycomo lakes, have not operated in Branson since the tragedy.
In January, a new company, Branson Duck Tours LLC, announced it would be restarting duck tours with ships it said would be safer.
Information for this article was provided by Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.