STONE COUNTY, Mo. — Three employees at Ride the Ducks Branson are facing criminal charges almost three years to the date of the fatal boat sinking on Table Rock Lake.
The Stone County prosecutor and Missouri attorney general announced the charges Friday morning against Kenneth Scott McKee, Charles Baltzell and Curtis Lanham. In all, 63 charges were filed. The probable cause statement says the employees were negligent in allowing the boat to go out on the lake during a severe thunderstorm warning.
The incident left 17 people dead, including five children.
The National Weather Service issued the warning at 6:32 p.m. on July 19, 2018. McKee, who was the boat captain, took the vessel out on the water just before 7 p.m. with 31 people on board. Within 15 minutes, the duck boat sank.
The court documents state McKee drove the boat into the wind in an effort to get back to the ramp, but it started taking on water and sank in about 50 feet of water in the middle of stormy weather.
“He did not follow policy or training guidelines in that he failed to have passengers don personal floatation devices as Stretch Duck 7 took on water,” the probable cause statement says.
McKee was charged with 17 counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, five counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child as a Class A felony and seven separate counts of first-degree endangering the welfare as a Class D felony.
“We are reviewing the charges, expect not guilty pleas will be entered and will continue vigorously represent Mr. McKee,” J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller, who represent the captain, said in a statement.
Baltzell was the operations supervisor for Ride the Ducks and was the acting manager on duty that night. The court records indicate he was responsible for monitoring weather conditions and communicating with duck boat operators about potential issues.
“Mr. Baltzell failed in these duties on the date of the incident, which had a contributing factor in the incident and subsequent fatalities,” the probable cause statement says.
Baltzell was charged with 17 counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter.
Ride the Ducks Branson General Manager Curtis Lanham also is facing charges. Prosecutors said he was responsible for the overall day-to-day management of the business, including setting policies, procedures and overseeing training.
“Mr. Lanham failed to cease operation of the Ride the Ducks as severe weather approached, which included lightning, heavy rain and high winds. These actions had a contributing factor in the incident and subsequent fatalities,” the court records state.
The charges from local prosecutors Friday come after charges filed by federal prosecutors were dismissed last year.
Back in December 2020, a federal judge dismissed neglect and misconduct charges against the three employees, upholding a previous ruling that the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction because Table Rock Lake isn’t considered a navigable waterway.
In April 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board released the findings of its investigation into the tragedy. The NTSB recommended removing canopies and side curtains.
The boat’s owner, Ripley Entertainment, has settled 31 lawsuits filed by survivors or relatives of those who died.
Victims included nine members of one family from Indianapolis. Other victims were from Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.