A local prosecutor charged a boat captain and two other employees Friday with more than 17 deaths in July 2018, when a tourist boat sank on a Missouri lake during a severe thunderstorm, rekindling the threat of long prison sentences seven months after federal charges against them were dismissed.
The total number of 63 charges of crime was brought in Stone County against the captain, general manager and the duty manager on the day of the accident to 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 duty manager Charles Baltzell of Kirbyville were charged after a federal judge dismissed previous charges filed by federal prosecutors and concluded they had no jurisdiction.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said the new charges were filed to hold people allegedly responsible for the deaths accountable. Schmitt and County Attorney Matt Selby announced the charges.
“We look forward to taking our case to 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 extra charges claim he threatened child passengers on the boat, five of whom died.
Accusations of danger to children filed over death are the most serious and can be punished with between 10 years and 30 years in prison. Accusations of danger to the involvement of children who survived the accident have a sentence of up to seven years.
A statement from a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant accuses McKee of failing to perform his duties as a licensed captain by taking his amphibious vehicle down to the lake during a thunderstorm.
“We are reviewing the charges, expecting no guilty plea and we will continue to represent Mr. McKee strongly, ”said JR Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller, representing the captain, in a statement.
Baltzell, 79, and Lanham, 39, face 17 charges each for first-degree involuntary manslaughter. They are accused of not communicating the weather conditions and stopping the operation during a severe thunderstorm.
Lawyers for Baltzell and Lanham did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Each charge of manslaughter claims the men “ruthlessly caused” the death of a passenger. The Missouri Act requires a prison sentence of between three years and 10 years for a conviction for this charge.
31 people were on board when the duck boat entered the lake. A storm suddenly came up and the waves flooded the boat before it could get back to shore.
Fourteen people survived. The dead included nine members of a family from Indianapolis. Other victims were from Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas.
Riding on the lake in a modified World War II vehicle was once a popular feature 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 the lake was calm as the boat entered the water. But the weather suddenly became violent. Within minutes, the boat sank.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Green said in his affidavit that McKee failed to perform his duties and responsibilities by going out on the lake with the boat, Stretch Boat 7, with a severe thunderstorm in effect.
“He did not follow the guidelines of politics or education, failing to let passengers have personal floats when the Stretch Duck 7 took on water,” Green said.
The wind speed at the time of the accident was more than 70 km / h (113 km / h), just outside hurricane strength, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly over 60 km / h.
A U.S. Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection for the boat, issued in February 2017, said it “must not be operated waterborne” when winds exceed 35 mph (56 km / h) and / or wave heights exceed 2 feet (0.6 meters).
Green’s statement said Baltzell’s lack of communication with the duck boats about the weather and Lanham’s lack of cessation of their operation “had a contributing cause to the incident and subsequent deaths.”
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