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Schlitterbahn corporation, ex-manager indicted in Verruckt water slide death

A grand jury in Wyandotte County on Friday returned an indictment against Schlitterbahn, charging the company and a former operations director with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated battery and reckless endangerment of a child in the 2016 death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on the Verruckt water slide.

A 47-page indictment portrays Schlitterbahn and its two top executives as brazenly pursuing the construction of the world's tallest water slide in a quest to impress producers of a cable television show.

In rushing the slide to completion, the indictment said company leaders:

  • Did not follow amusement park industry safety standards.

  • Lacked their own expertise in designing a thrill ride.

  • Ignored warnings and whistleblowers about the safety of Verruckt.

  • Failed to maintain the slide once it was built.

  • And later covered up evidence of riders suffering injuries before Caleb was killed.

The indictment, brought by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, said Schlitterbahn knew the ride was dangerous.

"This child's death and the rapidly growing list of injuries were foreseeable and expected outcomes," the indictment said. "Verruckt's designers and operators knew that Verruckt posed a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death or severe bodily harm."

Schwab died on Aug. 7, 2016, when while going down Verruckt his raft went airborne and he was decapitated by a metal hoop that supported a netting system atop the ride. He had been seated in the front. Two women riding with Schwab suffered serious injuries.

Caleb was the son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab.

The company manager indicted Friday was Tyler Austin Miles, the local director of operations for Schlitterbahn Vacation Village in Kansas City, Kan. He surrendered to authorities Friday morning and was later released on bond.

While Miles, 29, is the only individual defendant named in the indictment, the actions of several corporate leaders, particularly co-owner Jeff Henry and Verruckt designer John Schooley are described throughout the document.

Winter Prosapio, a Schlitterbahn spokeswoman, said Schlitterbahn took safety seriously.

"Our staff, since we opened Schlitterbahn Kansas City, has 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," she said in an email statement. "Our team has been conscientious and committed to providing visitors to the water park a safe and enjoyable experience. We are shocked by any allegations of impropriety or negligence on the part of anyone associated with Verruckt."

Friday's indictment suggests otherwise.

"Verruckt suffered from a long list of dangerous design flaws; however, the most obvious and potentially lethal flaw was that Verruckt's design guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants," the indictment said. "Henry, Schooley, and Miles all knew about this problem before the ride opened to the public."

The involuntary manslaughter charge filed Friday against Miles and the company is a felony count, which carry a sentence of 31 months to 136 months in prison and up to $300,000 in fines.

The allegations against Schlitterbahn

Schlitterbahn is a 40-year-old private family company that owns and operates five water parks, four of them in Texas.

It opened its location in Kansas City, Kan., in 2005 with extravagant promises of cabins, tree houses and hotel rooms to surround a sprawling water park. Over the years, the location has been smaller than originally planned. Verruckt figured to jump start the KCK location.

The indictment draws from internal Schlitterbahn emails, blueprints, videos, interviews and eyewitness statements to paint a picture of a company that sidestepped consideration of Verruckt's safety so it could quickly build a thrill ride to gain publicity for its KCK park.

It described the origins of Verruckt as a "spur-of-the-moment" idea to get attention from the Travel Channel's Xtreme Waterparks series, mirroring findings in an earlier Star investigation of Verruckt.

The slide, 17-stories high, carried three riders on a raft on a thin film of water down an initial plunge before riders went up a second hump.

Instead of vetting Verruckt, an experimental ride, through rigid dynamic and structural engineering, Friday's indictment said that Henry and Schooley both lacked technical expertise to design a properly functioning water slide.

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The indictment said investigators found no records that any dynamic engineering calculations had ever been performed on Verruckt. Henry and Schooley, it's alleged, skipped fundamental design steps and relied "almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods."

Schooley admitted as much, according to the indictment.

"If we actually knew how to do this, and it could be done that easily, it wouldn't be that spectacular," the indictment quotes Schooley as saying.

The indictment also cites passages from internal emails written by Henry.

"Time is of the essence. No time to die," Henry wrote in a Dec. 14, 2012, email to Schooley. "I have to micro manage this. NOW. This is a designed product for TV, absolutely cannot be anything else. Speed is 100% required. A floor a day. Tough schedule."

As Henry sought to build Verruckt quickly, those involved in its design and construction began voicing concerns, according to the indictment.

One example is a steel detailer who wrote in an email to Verruckt's project manager that he was concerned that a tower platform had been shipped too early and that "there are still so many unknowns" and that his "requests fell on deaf ears."

Verruckt was originally scheduled to open in 2013, but a year later went through a redesign because testing showed that several rafts were going airborne.

The indictment said that when Henry was asked why he and Schooley didn't have the science down on Verruckt, he allegedly replied, "I'm not quite sure yet. Many things, I think. There's a whole bunch of factors that creeped in on this one that we just didn't know about. Obviously things do fall faster than Newton said."

The indictment said that just before Verruckt's opening in 2014, a contracting company run by Henry hired an outside engineering firm to perform accelerometer testing of the rafts as they traveled down the slide. The tests indicated, according to the indictment, that rafts carrying 400 to 550 pounds were likely to go airborne on the second hump.

The indictment said Henry and Schooley either ignored the reports or didn't understand what they allegedly revealed.

Both men also disregarded a consultant's advice that riders be at least 16 years old. The indictment alleged that Henry and Schooley contemplated an age limit of 14, but decided the day before the slide's grand opening to do away with age restrictions altogether, using stickers to cover age restriction language on signs posted at the attraction.

Experts consulted by the Kansas Attorney General's investigators said that Verruckt ignored several industry standards, including the use of hook-and-loop straps to restrain passengers and placing an "obviously defective and ultimately lethal" netting and metal brace system atop of the slide.

The wisdom of the metal bars placed just a few feet above where riders would reach speeds of 70 milers per hour was questioned by those involved in Verruckt's construction, according to the indictment.

"The presence of the overhead netting and support hoops speaks volumes about the designers' extreme disregard for human life," the indictment says.

After the slide opened, a consultant on the project warned Henry that Verruckt was unfinished and unsafe, but the slide remained open anyway.

The allegations against Miles

Verruckt injured several riders before it killed Caleb Schwab, according to the indictment, which documents 11 incidents in which riders were injured before the slide's last fateful ride in 2016.

Incident reports went to Miles, who became the operations manager for Schlitterbahn in Kansas City after working his way up from a picnic-table constructor and lifeguard.

The indictment accuses Miles of destroying or altering witness statements and incident reports of injuries. He is also accused of avoiding and delaying repairs to Verruckt, even though he had the authority to close Verruckt for safety-related repairs.

Miles entered a not guilty plea on Friday in Wyandotte County District Court.

He was accompanied by his lawyers, Tom Bath and Tricia Bath.

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."

Miles' trial is scheduled for Sept. 10.

Miles, who grew up in Tonganoxie and graduated from Kansas State University in 2016, worked at Schlitterbahn until September and 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 a great opportunity; we were sorry to see him go and wished him well. We stand by him and are shocked by these allegations."

Miles' attorneys in a motion to reduce his $50,000 bond said that Miles was on site the day of Caleb's death and cooperated with investigators.

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.

The "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."

The indictment accuses Miles of withholding reports from investigators that contain incriminating information about Miles and others.

When confronted about this, Miles allegedly told investigators he was following company policy.

According to the indictment, a 17-year-old lifeguard approached a Kansas City, Kan., police detective on Sept. 1, 2016, claiming he had been coerced into writing a coached statement about a rider's injury.

A week later, a Kansas City attorney representing Schlitterbahn paid a visit to the whistleblower's house, according to the indictment.

The attorney, Derek MacKay, asked to speak to the lifeguard and receive a copy of a report he had made to the police, but lifeguard's mother refused, according to the indictment. MacKay later told the lifeguard's mother he spoke to a police detective who said he wanted the attorney to have the report. According to the indictment the detective denied telling the mother that.

"I have reviewed the indictment and, like Schlitterbahn, I plan to contest the allegations because they're simply not true," MacKay told The Star.

Schlitterbahn denied withholding evidence.

Prosapio said in a statement: "Since the date of the incident we have worked closely with law enforcement; at no time have we withheld evidence; at no time have we altered evidence. The indictment uses quoted statements from a reality TV show that was scripted for dramatic effect that in no way reflects the design and construction of the ride."

The investigation

Following Caleb's death, The Star contacted others who had been on Verruckt and 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 Caleb'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 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.”

Verruckt, which has been decommissioned, remained standing during the investigation due to a court order. The slide towers over western KCK, a visual reminder of Caleb's death.

Caleb's family last year reached a settlement with several parties involved in the construction of Verruckt for nearly $20 million.

Caleb's father, Scott Schwab, was not available for comment on Friday.

Caleb's death revealed that Kansas had lax safety and inspection protocols for amusement park rides. The Kansas Legislature in 2017 passed stricter safety inspection regulations on water slides.

Blaine LeCesne, a professor with the Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law who teaches civil procedure and criminal law, said criminal cases such as Schlitterbahn can be difficult to prosecute due to the high standard of evidence required to show company officials knew that someone might die.

He said prosecutors would have to "show that the person had such a high level of awareness of such a possibility of grave harm that they proceed in face of that potential danger of others."

Schlitterbahn said the company plans to defend itself.

"We have faith in the justice system and are confident that when we finally have an opportunity to defend ourselves, it will be clear that this was an accident," Prosapio said. "We stand by our team and will fight these charges."

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