‘Several’ people with Ripley Entertainment may be targets in duck boat criminal probe

‘Ride The Ducks’ boats struck by huge waves on Table Rock Lake

Eyewitness video shows Ride the Ducks boats being struck by huge waves on July 19 on Table Rock Lake. Onlookers can be heard saying 'it's going under.'
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Eyewitness video shows Ride the Ducks boats being struck by huge waves on July 19 on Table Rock Lake. Onlookers can be heard saying 'it's going under.'

A federal prosecutor said in a court filing that “several” employees, agents or officers of Ripley Entertainment are targets and/or subjects of a criminal investigation in the July 19 duck boat disaster on Table Rock Lake that killed 17 people.

A Jan. 18 filing by assistant U.S. attorney Casey Clark in a civil lawsuit tied to the duck boat incident said the investigation of Ripley Entertainment, the duck boat operator in Branson, and other individuals remains ongoing, even after a captain of the sunken boat was brought up on criminal charges late last year.

Kenneth Scott McKee, who captained Stretch Boat 7 as it was battered and sunk by fierce winds and driving rain, was indicted by a federal grand jury in November, accused of negligence in operating a boat in unsafe conditions. McKee has pleaded not guilty.

It was the worst disaster involving a duck boat, the World War II-era vessels that have been reconfigured for sightseeing tours on both land and water, since the 1999 sinking of a duck boat in Arkansas. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended several safety improvements after the Arkansas catastrophe but few, if any, have been implemented.

In the Table Rock Lake case, a captain of another boat on the water that evening was previously identified as a target of the criminal investigation, but has not been charged.

The Justice Department defines a target of an investigation as a person for whom there is “substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime.” A subject of an investigation is less severe, defined as a person “whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.”

Clark did not respond to a question asking for clarification on how many individuals may be targets of the government’s investigation, and a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney for the western district of Missouri was unavailable for comment because of the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government.

Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, said the company had no indication of how many targets prosecutors were examining.

Clark filed his statement in support of a motion by the U.S. attorney’s office asking to intervene in a court case where Ripley Entertainment is asking a judge to rule that an obscure 19th century federal law applies to the Table Rock Lake incident. That law limits the damages that a shipowner has to pay to the value of the sunken vessel itself. Ripley Entertainment has said that the destroyed Stretch Boat 7 has no value.

Federal prosecutors brought the criminal charge against McKee on the assumption that Table Rock Lake is a “navigable waterway,” legalese for a body of water that supports commercial activity.

Ripley Entertainment has also argued that Table Rock Lake is a navigable waterway, a prerequisite for claiming that the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act applies to civil lawsuits brought against the company.

Numerous plaintiffs suing Ripley Entertainment have argued that Table Rock Lake is meant for recreational activity, which would suggest it’s not a navigable waterway. They point to a court case in the 1980s that made the same determination. If the judge finds the plaintiff’s argument persuasive, then the Limitation of Liability Act would not apply.

Ripley Entertainment has sought to mediate claims by survivors and families of those who died on July 19.

“At this point, we have reached a court approved settlement with the family of two of the victims and are actively pursuing mediated resolutions with all others who were affected by the accident,” Smagala-Potts said in a statement.

Ripley Entertainment has settled with family members of William and Janice Bright, a couple from Higginsville, Mo.

Last Friday was the deadline for claims by people who say they were harmed by the duck boat sinking. The court received a total of 28 claims.

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Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.