Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry makes first appearance in Wyandotte County court
Jeff Henry, the embattled co-owner of Schlitterbahn who is facing second-degree murder charges in Wyandotte County, entered a not guilty plea in his first public appearance in Kansas since the 2016 death of a young boy on a water slide he helped design.
The 62-year-old Schlitterbahn executive wore a dark suit and was joined by his children as he appeared before Wyandotte County Judge Robert Burns on Thursday.
He barely spoke during the hearing, only answering "Yes sir, I am," when asked by Burns whether he was aware of the charges against him.
Henry faces second-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated child endangerment, all felony charges included in an indictment that was unsealed last week.
Henry helped design a 17-story water slide that an indictment alleges was built quickly and without adhering to industry safety standards, and that Henry and others ignored warnings about potential safety problems. Caleb Schwab was killed riding the slide in 2016.
"Jeff Henry, in his words, told me that there isn't a day where he doesn't think of Caleb Schwab," said Ron Barroso, a Corpus Christi, Texas, lawyer representing Henry.
Henry is described in the grand jury indictment both as a "visionary and designer" of the 17-story Verruckt water slide, as well as a high school dropout who lacked the technical or engineering credentials to design a slide of its type.
Henry is portrayed in the indictment as rushing Verruckt's development to meet the deadline for a cable television feature on the attraction, ignoring safety standards and warnings from others about problems with the slide's design along the way.
Henry's lawyers and the Schlitterbahn company, which he owns with his siblings Gary Henry and Jana Faber, deny the accusations.
Henry was peppered with questions by reporters as he left the courthouse but he declined to discuss the case.
Adam Zentner, an assistant Kansas Attorney General leading the case against Henry, asked Burns to require Henry to wear a Global Positioning System bracelet to monitor his movements. Zentner said Henry was a flight risk because he has access to a private plane and and friends and contacts in Brazil.
Burns asked Zentner how electronic monitoring would keep Henry from boarding a plane to Brazil.
"At least we would know where he is," Zentner said.
Barroso said his client could have left prior to the indictment but had instead offered to surrender to authorities.
"I don't think these are the actions of someone trying to flee the jurisdiction of this court," Barroso said.
Burns denied the request for electronic monitoring.
"The court is not persuaded that this is necessary or reasonable in this case," Burns said.
Burns did grant a request by the Kansas Attorney General's Office that Henry surrender his passport, which Henry's attorneys did not oppose.
Burns also set the case for trial on Sept. 10, brushing off a request by Zentner to hold the trial in late June or early July. That's the same date that Tyler Miles, a former director of operations at Schlitterbahn in Kansas City, Kan., is scheduled to go to trial.
Miles is accused of involuntary manslaughter. He also faces charges of interfering with law enforcement in relation to claims that he withheld or altered evidence. He has pleaded not guilty and denies to allegations.
Attorneys for Miles are already arguing to have the Sept. 10 trial date pushed back.
Tom Bath and Tricia Bath, lawyers for Miles, said in an April 5 court filing that the Kansas Attorney General's Office "will not produce grand jury transcripts, including instructions provided to the grand jury."
Grand juries, which are rarely used in Kansas courts, meet in secret and only hear evidence and from witnesses brought by prosecutors.
The filing said that "extensive litigation" will be required to obtain and then review transcripts of grand jury proceedings to see if the jury was "fairly conducted."
"The law requires that the indictment be based on 'legal evidence' not evidence that is based on suspicion or conjecture," the filing for Miles reads. "Even without the benefit of reviewing the discovery, it is clear the Indictment was not based on 'legal evidence,' but instead predicated on conjecture, speculation and material omissions."
Defense attorneys have had success attacking the propriety of grand juries in Wyandotte County before. The Kansas Supreme Court in 2014 tossed out a criminal indictment against a Kansas City, Kan., attorney accused of looting the Board of Public Utilities. The court ruled that a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent had tainted the grand jury proceedings with references to the defendant having knowledge of an unsolved murder from decades ago.
Zentner after the hearing said he would file a response to the motion.
Carl Cornwell, a lawyer representing Henry, said he would also attempt to get the grand jury records.
"We have a right to see if they've done the appropriate procedures in the grand jury," Cornwell said after Henry's hearing. "I think we're going to get them."
Barroso, Henry's Texas lawyer, spoke at length following Thursday's hearing. He pushed back on the claims in the indictment, which suggest that Henry and others lacked credentials to build a slide of Verruckt's type and that he blew off concerns about its safety.
The 17-story slide, which opened in 2014, was hyped as the world's tallest water slide and became an international attraction for Schlitterbahn's water park in Kansas, the first that the company built outside of Texas.
Caleb Schwab died on the slide on Aug. 7, 2016 when his raft went airborne and he struck a metal brace that supported a net meant to keep riders from flying off. The two other women who rode with Schwab that day suffered serious injuries.
The indictment said that other riders had suffered injuries on Verruckt prior to Schwab's death, and that the ride had not been properly maintained.
"These allegations I read in the indictment are ludicrous," Barroso said.
Barroso said the timeline of Verruckt was not accelerated, but rather pushed back to account for safety.
"That ride at one point was torn down and rebuilt to make it safer," he said.
Barroso referenced health issues that Henry has, including kidney problems and requiring a colostomy bag, which are typically needed for those suffering from lower bowel problems.
Facing the same charges as Henry is his business partner and Verruckt lead designer, John Schooley. Schooley, who turns 73 on Saturday, remained in custody in Dallas on Thursday where he was arrested upon returning to the United States on a flight from China this week.
Schooley awaits extradition to Kansas where he will also face a first appearance, expected next week.