Criminal charges refiled against Missouri duck boat employees involved in fatal 2018 capsizing

The move came two days after Circuit Court Judge Alan Blankenship dismissed all criminal charges, ruling that the court did not find probable cause the defendants acted “recklessly” or “knowingly” when they took the duck boat out onto Table Rock Lake as high winds approached.

The case was dismissed without prejudice, paving the way for prosecutors to retry the case by refiling first-degree involuntary manslaughter charges against Scott McKee, the boat’s captain; Curtis Lanham, the general manager of Ride the Ducks Branson; and Charles Baltzell, the manager on duty that day.

The judge in his decision expressed “great sadness for this needless loss of life, and the impact on the victims’ family and friends” but said there was insufficient evidence “to support the mens rea or intent required for the charges at issue, as defined by Missouri law.”

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, citing his office’s commitment to “fighting for justice” for the victims, refiled the involuntary manslaughter charges last Thursday.

Attorneys for Lanham and Baltzell said they were disappointed with the prosecutor’s decision, pointing out that the judge had already made his ruling on the merits of the charges. CNN has sought comment from McKee’s lawyer.

The charges stem from the fatal sinking of a duck boat, an amphibious vehicle that travels on land and water, at a lake near Branson, a popular family vacation spot. Of the 31 people on board, 17 died after the boat capsized during a severe thunderstorm and high winds.
McKee, Lanham and Baltzell were initially charged in a 47-count federal indictment. But a federal judge dismissed those charges in December 2020 due to a jurisdiction issue and recommended the case be pursued on the state level.
In July 2021, the three men were charged in a criminal complaint in state court with a total of 63 charges, including 17 counts each of first-degree involuntary manslaughter.

In a probable cause statement, prosecutors accused McKee of wrongdoing in deciding to enter the lake during a severe thunderstorm warning and failing to follow policy by not directing passengers to put on personal flotation devices.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found Ride the Ducks Branson, the tour operator, and its parent company, Ripley Entertainment, were to blame for the incident because managers did not relay a severe weather forecast to the vessel’s captain.

The nearly two-year-long NTSB probe found a “systemic problem with the company as a whole,” an investigator said at a board meeting in 2020. The board decided against specifically naming the captain of the Stretch Duck 7 in its findings of fault.

“You can’t know what you don’t know,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said, noting when the vessel arrived at the shore of Table Rock Lake on July 19, 2018, “it was glassy smooth on that lake.”

NTSB faults duck boat company for 2018 sinking that killed 17 people

At the time, Ripley Entertainment and Ride the Ducks Branson said in a statement the companies “fully cooperated” with the NTSB investigation and remained “dedicated to working with the community of Branson, and continuing our support of all those who were impacted by the accident.” The companies said it would review the report and did not address the specific findings.

Blankenship, citing the investigation, noted in his ruling there was no evidence McKee, Lanham or Baltzell knew of the incoming high winds.

Lanham’s attorneys, Tricia and Tom Bath, in a statement noted that the state had “failed to establish probable cause.”

“Without any new evidence, the State has refiled precisely the same charges that the court has already thoroughly evaluated,” the statement said. “The State clearly hopes to get a different outcome before a different judge. We do not see a reason to expect a different outcome.”

Baltzell’s attorney, Justin Johnston, also noted that a court had weighed the charges and found them to be “without merit.”

“Rehashing the same evidence already considered by the court is a waste of time and needlessly prolongs the pain for all involved,” Johnston said. “Mr. Baltzell has not committed any crime, as the Court has already found, and will once again vigorously defend himself.”

In a joint statement when the charges were dismissed last week, attorneys for the three defendants said they respected the decision and called the sinking “a tragedy for all who were affected.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of attorney Justin Johnston.

CNN’s Eric Levenson contributed to this report.

Quoted from Various Sources

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