Crime

‘Dollars ahead of safety’: Two more supervisors indicted in Branson duck boat tragedy

Two more employees of the company that operated a duck boat that sank at Table Rock Lake last summer, killing 17 people in Branson, Missouri, have been indicted by a federal grand jury.

Curtis P. Lanham, 36, of Galena, the general manager at Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles V. Baltzell, 76, of Kirbyville, the operations supervisor who was acting as a manager on duty, were charged in a 47-count superseding indictment made public Thursday.

The boat’s captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, of Verona, was also hit with additional charges. McKee, who piloted the Stretch Duck 7 boat on July 19, 2018, for Ride the Ducks, has been accused of a litany of violations of federal law overseeing boat captains.

The boat owned by Ripley Entertainment entered the lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area, which warned of winds in excess of 60 mph. The boat was overwhelmed in a storm and sank.

Of the 17 dead, nine were from one Indianapolis family. The other victims included couples from Higginsville, Missouri, and St. Louis; an Illinois woman who was taking her granddaughter on a trip to Branson; and a father and son from Arkansas.

The newly unsealed indictment, returned by a grand jury in Springfield, alleged Lanham created a work atmosphere on the duck boats “where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety.”

He allegedly “connived with other persons to create a confusing work atmosphere” on the boats when it came to the monitoring of, and the response to, severe weather, federal prosecutors said.

Five days before the disaster, the company had begun operating the 6:30 p.m. duck boat tours for the “purpose of increasing business revenue,” according to the indictment. It was that tour, taken by 29 passengers, that ended in a national tragedy.

As the general manager, Lanham allowed McKee to put the boat in the water when there was lightning and severe weather approaching, according to the indictment. He also allegedly neglected to require that Stretch Duck 7 be operated in compliance with the provisions of the Coast Guard certificate of inspection, prosecutors said.

Employed as a duck boat captain for 18 years, McKee was indicted in October on accusations he did not properly assess incoming weather before taking the boat out on water and did not tell passengers to use flotation devices, among other allegations. He also allegedly failed to increase speed and head to the nearest shore as the storm approached.

Prosecutors said Baltzell, the operations supervisors, failed to monitor radio communications from employees and did not communicate to McKee the nature of the severe weather.

On the day of the sinking, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the region at 11:24 a.m., which was expected to last through 9 p.m. There was potential for wind gusts of up to 75 mph.

But at no point between the boat’s departure and its sinking did Baltzell or Lanham communicate with McKee about the severe thunderstorms that were approaching, according to the indictment.

The three, accused of misconduct and negligence that day, were also charged with 13 misdemeanor counts — one for each of the 13 passengers who survived. Of the passengers, seven were injured, including a 13-year-old boy and his aunt who were relatives of the nine family members who died.

While Ripley had access to a weather monitoring subscription, duck boat captains were not required to monitor the weather before taking a boat on a tour, according to the 27-page indictment. The company had not established a written policy for what to do during adverse weather, federal prosecutors claimed.

The company maintained an operations manual with safety guidelines for severe weather. The manual recommended establishing local procedures for staff to monitor the weather. But, prosecutors say, the company did not do that at Table Rock Lake.

In a statement, Tia Coleman, whose husband and their three children were killed in the sinking, called the latest indictments “another major step in the fight for justice for my family and the other victims of a tragedy that easily could have been avoided if human lives were valued more than corporate profits.”

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, whose law firm represents Coleman and other plaintiffs in civil litigation against the company, said the indictments ”lay out, in great detail, the utterly reckless conduct of Ripley’s and its most senior, on-site employees.”

Mongeluzzi called for duck boats to be banned. While operations ceased in Branson following the sinking, the boats continue to be used in other locations.

“They are still unsafe and they are still putting people at risk everyday,” Mongeluzzi said.

Ripley Entertainment, an Orlando, Florida, corporation, has repeatedly said it cannot comment on the ongoing investigation and that it is fully cooperating with authorities. It purchased Ride the Ducks Branson from Herschend Family Entertainment in December 2017.

Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley, said the company continues to offer support to their employees as the process moves forward. While the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Missouri brought criminal charges, “all persons charged are entitled to a strong presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said in a statement.

The company has also taken steps to provide support for the community, she said, and worked to reach settlements with the victims.

Lanham and Baltzell, who have made their initial court appearances, could not be reached by The Star for comment.

McKee has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

‘We’ve lost lives over this’

Before 6 p.m. the day of the sinking, Lanham saw a storm north of Table Rock Lake on a radar display, court records show.

He used his hands to assess the distance and timing of the storm and directed Baltzell to monitor the radar while Lanham assisted with a 6 p.m. duck boat tour, according to the indictment.

Before 6:30 p.m., Baltzell viewed the radar associated with a weather monitoring service and observed lightning strikes near Springfield, according to prosecutors.

The boat tour was initially set to begin on land, as usual. But Baltzell directed McKee, who had also observed the nearing lightning and rain, to conduct the water portion first because of the incoming storm, prosecutors alleged.

McKee would tell those on board they had attempted to beat the storm, according to federal authorities.

The company’s weather monitoring system sent an email to weather@bransonducks.com about 6:32 p.m., the same time the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Taney, Stone and Barry counties.

On the way to the lake, McKee told the passengers they were going to get some rain, court records show. He conducted a safety briefing, telling those on board that the emergency exits were the side windows.

But McKee also told the passengers they did not need life jackets during the water portion of the tour, saying he would tell them if they did, according to the indictment.

About 6:55 p.m., the boat entered the waters of Table Rock Lake. That’s when the captain noticed the dark clouds in the distance, prosecutors said.

McKee shortened the route and lowered the curtains of the vessel to cover the side windows, according to the indictment.

The storm arrived at the company’s facility at 7 p.m. Baltzell was not monitoring the weather then, prosecutors alleged, and was instead occupied with his “close-out duties.”

The weather monitoring service sent another email to warn of the severe thunderstorm.

On the boat, at 7:07 p.m., a bilge alarm went off a second time, again notifying the captain that water was in that area of the vessel. A wind gust of 73 mph was detected from a nearby boat.

From 7:05 to 7:08 p.m., prosecutors alleged, McKee did not communicate with the passengers. He never ordered passengers to abandon ship, contradicting provisions of an operations manual in effect at the time, according to the indictment.

The duck boat sank a minute later, about 7:09 p.m.

A Florida marine safety expert said the charges weren’t surprising.

“It was a lack of situational awareness,” said Jim Allen, who served 30 years in the Coast Guard and has spent more than two decades as a safety consultant. “They should have had training — you don’t go out if this, you don’t go out if that. But instead, they put dollars ahead of safety.”

That, he said, is what really what causes most of these type of tragedies.

Baltzell and Lanham were “the overall supervisors” and the captain could have said no to taking out the vessel. But too often captains under pressure think they could lose their jobs if they resist, Allen said.

“We’ve lost lives over this. It’s terrible. They were just taking too much for granted — ‘oh, this will be fine, they’re only a little ways off shore and all that,’” Allen said. “But some of these thunderstorms, they’ll come through and all of a sudden you’ve got winds 40 to 50 miles per hour. And you could sink even 20 feet off shore.”

Andrew R. Duffy, a partner at the law firm representing family members of those killed, said they would continue to support calls for Congress to make duck boats safer or ban them outright.

“Duck-boat owners, managers and captains must realize that if they continue to operate their death traps,” said another partner in the law firm, Jeffrey P. Goodman, “they will face well-deserved prison time.”

Star reporter Laura Bauer contributed to this report.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
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