A federal judge has dismissed criminal charges against three employees of a tourist boat operator involved in a sinking on a Missouri lake in 2018, killing 17 people.
U.S. District Judge Doug Harpool filed an order Wednesday upholding a recommendation made in September to drop the charges.
Three employees of the duck boat operator were charged with neglect and misconduct after the amphibious vehicle sank during a storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson.
These included Kenneth Scott McKee, of Verona, the captain of the duck boat; Curtis Lanham, of Galena, the general manager of the boat’s operator, Ride the Ducks Branson; and Charles Baltzell, of Kirbyville, the manager on duty that day.
McKee also was charged with failure to properly assess the weather before launching the boat and not telling passengers to use flotation devices.
The boat had entered the lake on July, 19, 2018, despite severe weather warnings. Riders from Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and Arkansas were killed; 14 people survived.
The sunken duck boat Stretch Duck 7 is raised from the bed of Table Rock Lake after the tragedy in 2018 which killed 17 people. Three employees of the boat’s operator – including the captain – have been cleared of criminal charges today by a U.S. District Judge
Kenneth Scott McKee (pictured) was indicted on charges of misconduct and negligence after the July 2018 tragedy in Table Rock Lake. He was today cleared by a U.S. district judge, along with two other workers for the duck boat company
U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush ruled in September that the federal government does not have jurisdiction because Table Rock Lake is not considered a navigable waterway, which means it doesn’t support commerce.
‘While the events of July 19, 2018 remain an unfortunate accident and tragedy we’re pleased that both Judge Harpool and Magistrate Judge Rush have sustained the admiralty dismissal motion,’ McKee’s attorneys, J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn Keller, said in a statement.
Federal prosecutors could appeal the dismissal. Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City, said the office would not comment on the judge’s decision.
Ripley Entertainment, which owned the former World War II vehicle, settled 31 lawsuits related to the sinking.
The boats, once a popular draw in the southwest Missouri tourist town, have not returned to the lake since the sinking.
There were 31 passengers aboard the duck boat when hurricane-strength winds sank the craft, causing one of America’s deadliest tourist tragedies in recent years.
A bystander captured footage showing McKee’s doomed boat being lashed by massive waves for about five minutes before it became entirely submerged
Nine members of the same family, the Colemans, were among 17 people killed when the fierce winds churned up the water in Table Rock Lake, near Branson.
They ranged in age from one-year-old Arya Coleman to the oldest victim Ervin Coleman, 76.
Five of the dead were aged 15 or younger, with the victims coming from Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and Arkansas.
Tia Coleman, one of two survivors in the family along with her nephew, said McKee had told passengers they ‘won’t need’ life jackets.
McKee was indicted in November 2018, with prosecutors accusing him of negligence and misconduct while piloting the vessel Stretch Duck 7.
The captain ‘failed to properly assess incoming weather prior to entering the vessel on the water’ despite lightning in the area, the indictment claimed.
The duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo is raised after it went down on the evening of July 19, 2018
It said he allegedly ‘failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices’ and ‘failed to immediately increase speed and head to the nearest shore’.
McKee, who denied the charges, faced a possible 10-year sentence for each of the 17 counts in the indictment as well as a $250,000 fine.
Last year, charges were unsealed against Curtis Lanham, the general manager of Ride The Ducks Branson, and Charles Baltzell, the operations supervisor.
Lanham was accused in the indictment of failing to establish training and policies for monitoring for severe weather.
The indictment said Lanham helped create ‘a work atmosphere on Stretch Duck 7 and other duck boats where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety.’
Baltzell was accused of failing to properly monitor the weather, not even being on the same floor where radar viewing screens were located.
Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings and said operator Ride The Ducks should have suspended operations in severe weather.
The Coast Guard was also criticized for failing to follow recommendations to improve the safety of duck boats.
Duck boats, with wheels allowing them to drive on city roads but which can also travel on water, are popular with tourists in many US cities.
However, they have been linked to more than 40 deaths since 1999, including separate accidents in Seattle and Philadelphia.
Robert Mongeluzzi, whose firm represents nearly two dozen people who were aboard the Missouri boat, called at the time for duck boats to be scrapped altogether.
‘Duck boats are death traps which, when flooded, become sinking coffins,’ Mongeluzzi said.
‘The Coast Guard and duck boat industry have the blood of these Branson victims on their hands for continuing to ignore the warnings. Hopefully this time, they will listen.’
The victims: Death toll from the Missouri duck boat tragedy included seven members of the same family
Seventeen people were killed on July 19 when a Ride the Ducks duck boat capsized during a severe storm over the Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri.
Among them were a hero grandmother, a ‘community legend’ football coach and a recently baptized 15-year-old boy.
Nine members of one family were also killed, with another two managing to survive the horrific ordeal.
THE COLEMAN FAMILY
Nine of the 11 members of the Coleman family who boarded the boat on were killed, including four children under the age of 10.
Horace ‘Butch’ Coleman, 70, the family patriarch, was remembered on social media as a ‘community legend’, who spent more than 40 years volunteering in his local area.
His wife, Belinda Coleman, 69, and his brother, Irving Raymond Coleman, 76, were also killed, as were Belinda’s cousins, Angela Coleman, 45, and Glenn Coleman, 40.
Angela’s two-year-old son Maxwell died in the tragic accident, as did Glenn’s sons Evan, 7, and Reece, 9, and his one-year-old daughter Arya.
From top left: Butch Coleman, Ray Coleman, Glenn Coleman, Angela Coleman (seen holding Maxwell). From bottom left: Reece Coleman, Belinda Coleman and Evan Coleman
STEVE AND LANCE SMITH
Christian church deacon Steve Smith, 53, and his 15-year-old son Lance also drowned when the boat capsized on Thursday.
Smith’s daughter, Loren, survived, and his wife Pamela was not on the boat.
A family friend wrote on Twitter Pamela had decided to go shopping instead of joining her family on board the doomed boat.
Church deacon Steve Smith (left) and his recently baptized 15-year-old son Lance (pictured in last known photo of him, right) were among those killed. Steve’s daughter Loren was taken to hospital, but survived
Bill Asher (right) and Rose Hamman (left), were also killed. The couple were on their last night of vacation when they boarded the boat
BILL ASHER AND ROSE HAMMAN
Bill Asher, 69, and his girlfriend Rose Hamman, 68, were also identified as among the dead by friends on Facebook on Friday afternoon.
Bill and Rose had been on a week-long holiday in Branson, and had spent their last evening away on the duck boat, friend Mary Ogborn Kientzy said.
Grandmother Leslie Dennison, 64, was on the boat with her 12-year-old granddaughter Alicia.
Her son Todd said on Thursday his daughter, who is recovering in hospital, said she could feel Leslie pushing her up as the boat filled with water.
‘She said her grandmother saved her,’ he told the paper. Leslie is being mourned as a ‘true hero’.
Leslie Dennison (second from left) died saving her 12-year-old granddaughter Alicia. She is being mourned as a hero
ROBERT ‘BOB’ WILLIAMS
Robert ‘Bob’ Williams, 73, was driving the boat when it went down in Table Rock Lake.
Williams worked for Ride the Ducks, the boat tour company which owned the vessel, but had previously worked as a pastor.
Friends and family paid tribute to him on Friday as a God-fearing family man.
Pictured: Robert ‘Bob’ Williams, who was driving the boat when it went down
WILLIAM AND JANICE BRIGHT
William and Janice Bright, aged 65 and 63, had been in Branson celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary on Thursday.
The couple have three daughters and 16 grandchildren – their 17th was on the way.
William and Janice Bright, 65 and 64, were among the 17 people killed in the duck boat tragedy. The couple were on holiday celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary when they lost their lives on Thursday