Ex-Schlitterbahn executive charged with manslaughter in 2016 death on water slide

Verruckt water slide timeline of events

Here's a look back at Verrückt and the series of events following 10-year-old Caleb Schwab's death on the water slide in 2016 at Schlitterbahn in Kansas City, Kan.
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Here's a look back at Verrückt and the series of events following 10-year-old Caleb Schwab's death on the water slide in 2016 at Schlitterbahn in Kansas City, Kan.

A former Schlitterbahn executive has been arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2016 death of Caleb Schwab on the Verruckt water slide.

Tyler Austin Miles, 29, who now lives in Tennessee, was operations director for Schlitterbahn at the time of the incident. He turned himself in to the Wyandotte County Jail Friday morning.

He was released later Friday afternoon after appearing in court and posting a $50,000 bond.

Besides the manslaughter count, Miles was also charged with 12 counts of aggravated battery, five counts of aggravated endangerment of a child and two counts of interfering with law enforcement.

Later Friday the Schlitterbahn corporation was indicted on many of the same charges.

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They are the first criminal charges to be filed in connection with the death of 10-year-old Caleb on what had been billed as the world's largest water slide.

The Star first reported on Sunday that a grand jury had been convened to explore whether criminal charges were warranted. Involuntary manslaughter in Kansas is a felony, defined as the reckless killing of a human being.

Miles appeared for a hearing in Wyandotte County District Court on Friday afternoon. He entered the courtroom in handcuffs, led by a sheriff's deputy. He was there with his attorneys, Tom Bath and Tricia Bath.

His attorneys entered a not guilty plea and have asked that his $50,000 bond be reduced to $15,000, saying that Miles was not a flight risk or a danger to public safety. Wyandotte County Judge Robert Burns denied that request.

A trial has been scheduled for Sept. 10.

Tricia Bath said during Friday's hearing that Miles started at Schlitterbahn as a lifeguard and worked his way up to operations director.

She said Schwab's death was a "horrible tragedy."

Tom Bath told The Star after the hearing that Miles intends for the jury to hear the whole story.

"It was a tragedy," Bath said. "But that does not make it a crime."

The Kansas Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment.

Schlitterbahn issued a statement after Miles was charged.

"We are deeply disappointed to learn that any individual is being personally charged for the terrible accident on Verruckt," Winter Prosapio, a spokeswoman for Schlitterbahn, based in New Braunfels, Texas, wrote in an email to The Star. "Our review of the facts and circumstances of the accident has never shown any evidence of criminal conduct on the part of anyone. The safety of our guests and employees has been at the forefront of our culture throughout our 40 years of operations. Our families enjoy our water parks and its rides and attractions. We have set the highest bar for safety in our industry. "

Prosapio added that the company was "shocked by any allegations of impropriety or negligence on the part of anyone associated with Verruckt" and that the company stood by Miles, who no longer works for the company.

Public records show that Miles lived in Kansas City, Kan., until recently and appears to have moved to Tennessee.

"Throughout his employment with us, our operations director, Tyler, demonstrated the highest dedication to safety, from the training of our lifeguards and ride operators, to ensuring all rides have operated in accordance with our strict protocols," Prosapio said. "He was conscientious and committed to providing visitors to the water park a safe and enjoyable experience. Tyler left us in September to accept great opportunity; we were sorry to see him go and wished him well. We stand by him and are shocked by these allegations."

The Schwabs, through an attorney, were not immediately available for comment.

Caleb Schwab

Caleb, the son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, died on the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2016, when he and two women took a ride on the towering water slide.

The Schwabs went to Schlitterbahn Vacation Village near The Legends in western Kansas City, Kan., on a day when the water park was admitting elected officials and their families for free.

Caleb took the front position on the raft, with the two women seated behind him.

The three would take a ride that thousands had taken before them without serious consequence.

A bond motion filed by Miles' attorneys said that Miles was at the water park the day Schwab died and that even his wife had planned to take a ride down Verruckt 30 minutes after the incident.

The motion says that Miles cooperated with law enforcement the day of the Caleb's death and in the days and weeks that followed.

Miles gave recorded statements to the Kansas Attorney General's Office, which took over the investigation, according to the bond motion. At the time, Miles was represented by an attorney who was also representing other Schlitterbahn employees who were witnesses to Caleb's death.

During the early fall of 2017, assistant Kansas Attorney General Adam Zentner told Miles' attorney that he was a target of the investigation "based on the believe [sic] that he was 'in charge' of the park," the bond motion said.

"[T]he evidence supporting the State's claim that the injuries are the result of conduct or knowledge rising to the level of criminal conduct is weak," said Miles' bond motion. "The State chose to present its evidence to a grand jury, rather than charging the case and proceeding to a preliminary hearing. By use of this tactic, the State freed their evidence from any challenge by defense counsel and, of course, prevented the defense from presenting evidence of their own."

Miles grew up in Tonganoxie and his parents still live there, according to court records. He attended Kansas State University.

A Kansas State University spokeswoman confirmed that a Tyler Austin Miles attended the university and graduated in December 2016 with a degree in business administration.

"What the State knows but likely did not tell the grand jury is that Tyler started his career at the park shoveling dirt during the construction phase," the bond motion reads. "He went from that to building picnic tables then to lifeguarding and, eventually, with no special training, to 'Director of Operations.' He witnessed testing but played no role in the design of the slide."

KCK's Schlitterbahn, the first of the company's water parks outside of Texas, opened in 2005 to mixed reviews.

The 17-story Verruckt had been the subject of worldwide hype ahead of its opening in 2014. Verruckt carried passengers on a raft that cruised atop a thin film of water. Riders plunged down a 168-foot steep descent, rose up an elongated hump and then came to rest in a pool of water.

Helping build the Verruckt hype were videos from the testing phase, depicting rafts careening out of the top of the chute.

Caleb died of what police termed a “fatal neck injury.” An autopsy revealed that Caleb was decapitated when the raft went airborne and struck a metal pole that supported a netting system installed to keep riders from flying off the slide.

Schlitterbahn closed the park for two days after the accident. Though the company decommissioned Verruckt, the ride remained standing due to a court order preventing its destruction as law enforcement continued to investigate.

Caleb, one of Scott and Michele Schwab's four sons, was a young baseball enthusiast. At his funeral, Scott Schwab recalled when Caleb, 5 years old at the time, comforted him after a job loss.

“Our goal is to get to a place where we think of Caleb and feel joy and not sorrow,” Scott Schwab said then. “We have lost our joy, but we will get it back.”

For the year and a half that followed Caleb's death, Schlitterbahn and authorities investigating the incident have remained tight-lipped about the incident and the probe.

A Star investigation determined that the design of the slide had serious flaws, that Schlitterbahn and others involved in designing the ride encountered few, if any, questions from local or state government officials about the safety of the ride and that Kansas lacked regulations on water slides that would evaluate whether an attraction like Verruckt put the public’s safety at risk.

The Star contacted amusement and water park experts who questioned the physics and mechanics of Verruckt. They scrutinized the wisdom of designing a ride that mimicked a roller coaster but, unlike a roller coaster, didn’t ensure that the raft was attached to the ride itself. The netting system, propped up by metal poles that encircled the chute, was also a dangerous flaw in Verruckt’s design, those experts said.

Others who had been on Verruckt reported instances in which their raft had gone airborne. Riders also said that Velcro-like harnesses to keep passengers in the raft did not function properly.

One of those riders was Erin Oberhauser of Omaha. She said Friday that she was not surprised by the charges.

Her family was at the park about two weeks before Caleb's death and her husband, Paul, rode Verruckt. His shoulder strap came loose at the bottom of the first hill.

“We told a couple of the kids working there, but they didn’t seem too concerned about it,” said Oberhauser. “I thought it was just a common occurrence and maybe inertia kept them in.”

Two hours after her husband’s experience, the family saw another rider have a similar thing happen. That rider yelled, “My belt came undone.”

Oberhauser later posted about the experience on Facebook, tagged Schlitterbahn and included the hashtag Verrückt. She didn’t hear anything from the park.

After Schwab’s death, and the Oberhausers shared their story, Paul was interviewed by police.

The death hit the family hard, and Erin Oberhauser said she has thought of the Schwab family often.

“I thought it was mismanaged,” Erin Oberhauser said of the ride that August day in 2016. “That they didn’t have a proper amount of weight in the raft. You have kids working at a water park. They don’t understand. I don’t think they understand how dangerous it can be.”

She said Friday’s charges left her with mixed emotions.

“My thought is, Were they just doing their job? Were they poorly trained?” Oberhauser said. “Are they just a kid and we’re ruining another life? But I’m sure there are a lot more facts that I’m not aware of.”

Past riders say management knew of problems with the ride.

Three weeks before Caleb’s death, Jon Powell remembers getting a call from his daughter. She, her husband and their 8-year-old daughter had just gotten off Verruckt and their raft had gone airborne.

Management met the family at the bottom of the ride and continued to ask if they were OK. The family wasn’t injured. After Caleb's death, Powell's daughter did speak with police about their experience.

“I’m kind of shocked,” Powell of Hutchinson, Kan., said of the new charges. “But they knew there was a problem and it wasn’t handled properly. It’s unfortunate for everyone but I’m glad the thing is closed and maybe this will lead to some sort of closure for the family.”

The two women who rode with Caleb — Hannah Barnes and Matraca Baetz — suffered serious injuries and settled claims against Schlitterbahn for undisclosed terms.

The Schwabs also settled with Schlitterbahn, an affiliated general contractor called Henry & Sons Construction, the raft manufacturer Zebec USA and a consultant named John Hunsucker for a combined $19.7 million.

In response to Caleb's death and the realization that few regulations governed amusement park safety, the Kansas Legislature took up a bill that would require more oversight of water parks and tougher penalties for safety violations.

New provisions — daily inspections and daily fines for each day a violation exists — were meant to replace lax oversight that existed at the time Caleb died. Scott Schwab, often a critic of burdensome regulation, supported the measure along with his House colleagues.

Gov. Sam Brownback signed the measure into law in April 2017, but it faced delays in implementation as concerns surfaced about whether carnival and amusement park operators were ready to handle the law’s new requirements.

Meanwhile, Schlitterbahn reopened the KCK location for the 2017 season, although it held back on advertising in the Kansas City area and continued to wait for permission to tear Verruckt down.

According to its website, the park is scheduled to open for the season May 25.