2 more duck boat workers indicted in sinking that killed 17
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal grand jury has indicted two more employees of a company that owns a duck boat that sank on a Missouri lake last summer, killing 17 people.
Curtis Lanham, the general manager at Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles Baltzell, the operations supervisor, were charged with misconduct and neglect in a 47-count indictment that was unsealed and made public Thursday following their initial court appearances, the U.S. attorney's office said.
The boat's captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, of Verona, was indicted previously on charges alleging that he failed to properly assess the weather and failed to tell passengers to don flotation devices as conditions worsened. The amphibious vehicle the 51-year-old was piloting sank July 19, 2018, at Table Rock Lake near Branson after it entered the lake despite severe weather warnings. Riders from Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and Arkansas were killed; 14 people survived the sinking.
According to the indictment, Baltzell, 76, of Kirbyville, got onto the duck boat before it departed and directed McKee to conduct the water portion of the excursion before the land tour because of the approaching storm. At no point after that did Baltzell or Lanham communicate with McKee about the growing intensity of the storm, including that wind gusts of 70 mph were predicted, the indictment said. Rules barred the boat from operating on the water when winds exceeded 35 mph.
Baltzell, who was responsible for dispatching to the boat while tours were underway, wasn't even on the same floor as the weather radar viewing screens are located because he was conducting closing duties, the indictment said. At one point Baltzell communicated with Lanham, who was himself on a tour, about the fact that McKee's Stretch Duck 7 tour was conducting the water portion of the tour first. Lanham, 36, of Galena, replied, "Good it's dark right now," the indictment said.
Lanham also is accused in the indictment of failing to establish training and policies for monitoring for severe weather and allowed others responsible for monitoring weather to be distracted by other duties. The indictment said Lanham helped create "a work atmosphere on Stretch Duck 7 and other duck boats where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety."
Phone and email messages seeking comment from attorneys for Lanham and Baltzell were not immediately returned.
Ripley Entertainment spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said the Orlando, Florida-based company is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's office and other agencies investigating the incident. The company suspended operation of the boats after the sinking and opened a replacement entertainment attraction this year.
"We are committed to doing everything we can to help and support the community of Branson and those impacted by this accident," Smagala-Potts said in a statement. "While the United States Attorney has decided to bring criminal charges as a result of the accident, all persons charged are entitled to a strong presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We have and will continue to offer support for all of our employees as this process moves forward."
Smagala-Potts said Ripley continues to work with the surviving victims and relatives of those killed "and have reached settlement agreements with many individuals and families, and we continue to work with others."
Salter reported from St. Louis.