Two more employees of a Branson tour boat operation were indicted by a federal grand jury relating to incidents that led to a duck boat sinking in July 2018 and killing 17 people on board.
In addition, more charges have been filed against the duck boat captain who had already been indicted.
Two more employees of Ripley Entertainment, Inc. – the company that operated duck boat rides in Branson – along with the captain of the duck boat that sank at Table Rock Lake last summer, resulting in the deaths of 17 people, have been indicted by a federal grand jury.
Curtis P. Lanham, 36, of Galena, and Charles V. Baltzell, 76, of Kirbyville, were charged in a 47-count superseding indictment returned under seal by a federal grand jury in Springfield on Thursday, June 13. The superseding indictment, which was unsealed and made public today following the initial court appearances of Lanham and Baltzell, contains the original charges against Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, of Verona. It replaces the federal indictment returned on Nov. 8, 2018, and includes additional charges and defendants.
Ripley Entertainment, an Orlando, Florida, corporation, owned, operated, and conducted business as “Ride the Ducks Branson” from Dec. 1, 2017, to July 20, 2018. The company managed and operated “duck boat” tours in Taney and Stone counties, and was the owner and operator of the duck boat Stretch Duck 7.
McKee was employed by Ripley as the captain of Stretch Duck 7. He had been employed as a duck boat captain for approximately 18 years.
Lanham was employed by Ripley as the general manager at Ride the Ducks Branson. Lanham was responsible for the overall day-to-day management of the operations and duck boats, including Stretch Duck 7. Lanham’s duties also included setting policies and procedures for the operations and overseeing the training of employees. As general manager, Lanham held managerial authority over the entire staff of Ride the Ducks Branson. In July 2018, Lanham reported directly to Ripley’s president.
Baltzell was employed by Ripley as the operations supervisor at Ride the Ducks Branson and was acting as a manager on duty. Baltzell was responsible for ensuring the duck boat tours ran in sequence and acted as a dispatcher through the use of radio and other communications methods while the duck boat tours were ongoing. Baltzell’s duties also included monitoring the weather and communicating with ongoing duck boat tours regarding the weather.
A detailed account of the fatal events that occurred on July 19, 2018, is contained in the indictment.
The superseding indictment contains the original charges against McKee of misconduct and negligence by a vessel captain, resulting in the death of another person. Baltzell is added to each of those felony counts – one count for each of the 17 passengers (including one crew member) who died when Stretch Duck 7 sank – as an aider and abettor of misconduct and neglect by a vessel captain.
Lanham is charged with 17 felony counts of misconduct and neglect by an executive officer of the corporate charterer/owner – one count for each of the 17 passengers (including one crew member) who died when Stretch Duck 7 sank. (The indictment includes an alternative theory of liability in relation to Lanham’s status, which alleges that he aided and abetted McKee’s misconduct, negligence, and inattention to duty.)
McKee, Baltzell, and Lanham also are charged in 13 misdemeanor counts – one count for each of the 13 passengers who survived the sinking of Stretch Duck 7 – with operating a vessel in a grossly negligent manner that wantonly and recklessly disregarded and endangered the life, limb, and property of persons on board Stretch Duck 7; or with aiding and abetting the operation of a vessel in such a grossly negligent manner.
In an email, Ripley Entertainment Public Relations Manager Suzanne Smagala-Potts issued the following statement regarding the charges.
“We continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other agencies as they investigate the facts surrounding the unprecedented storm and resulting accident on Table Rock Lake that occurred last July.
We are committed to doing everything we can to help and support the community of Branson and those impacted by this accident. 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.
From the day of the accident, we have worked with our partners in the community to help the victims and all those affected by the tragedy. While we know lives lost cannot be replaced, we have worked with the victims and their families and have reached settlement agreements with many individuals and families, and we continue to work with others.”
Charges Against McKee
The federal indictment alleges that McKee committed a number of acts of misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties while piloting Stretch Duck 7 both before and during severe weather conditions.
McKee allegedly failed to properly assess incoming weather prior to entering the vessel on the water. At the time McKee drove the vessel into the water, according to the indictment, there was lightning in the area and severe weather approaching. The indictment also alleges that McKee failed to properly assess the nature of the severe weather while the vessel was on the water.
McKee allegedly operated Stretch Duck 7 in violation of the conditions and limitations specified in the vessels’ certificate of inspection. When severe weather (including increased wind speed) arrived at the vessel’s location, the indictment says, McKee failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices. He allegedly also failed to immediately increase speed and head to the nearest shore. He allegedly caused or allowed the vessel’s plastic side curtains to be lowered, which created a barrier over the vessel’s emergency exits in the event of a need to abandon ship. At no point prior to the sinking of Stretch Duck 7, says the indictment, did McKee prepare to, or order the passengers to, abandon ship.
The first time the vessel’s bilge alarm sounded, the indictment says, McKee failed to raise the side curtains, failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices, and failed to prepare to abandon ship. McKee also attempted to make two calls to the Ride the Ducks Branson facility using the onboard radio, but received no response.
The second time the vessel’s bilge alarm sounded, the indictment says, McKee again failed to raise the side curtains, failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices, and failed to prepare to abandon ship. McKee allegedly failed to prepare to abandon ship when there was an unacceptable loss of freeboard on the vessel as well. (Freeboard refers to the distance from the waterline to the upper deck level; a loss of freeboard is when waves are overtopping the freeboard, thus causing the ship to fill with water.)
Charges Against Baltzell
According to the indictment, Baltzell directed and allowed McKee to operate Stretch Duck 7 in violation of the conditions and limitations specified in the vessel’s Coast Guard-issued certificate of inspection, and failed to adequately supervise the operation of the tour of Stretch Duck 7 on July 19, 2018.
Baltzell allegedly failed to properly monitor and assess incoming weather prior to McKee entering the vessel on the water. Baltzell allegedly directed McKee to enter the vessel on the water when there was severe weather and lightning in the area. Baltzell allegedly failed to communicate to McKee the nature of the severe weather prior to its arrival and when severe weather arrived at the location of Stretch Duck 7 while the vessel was on the water. Baltzell allegedly failed to monitor radio communications from employees when severe weather arrived at the location of Stretch Duck 7 while the vessel was on the water.
The indictment alleges that these acts of misconduct, negligence, and inattention to duty by McKee and Baltzell separately and collectively caused the lives of 17 persons on board Stretch Duck 7 to be lost.
Charges Against Lanham
According to the indictment, while actually charged with the control and management of the operation, equipment, and navigation of Stretch Duck 7, and while acting as an executive officer of Ripley Entertainment, Lanham knowingly and willfully caused and allowed McKee, Baltzell, and others to engage in neglect, misconduct, and violation of law.
Lanham allegedly neglected to establish training requirements related to the monitoring of weather in the Branson area, including adequate training on the use and capabilities of a weather monitoring service utilized by Ride the Ducks Branson. Lanham allegedly neglected to establish and enforce policies and procedures related to the monitoring of weather – including when severe weather existed – in association with the management and operation of daily duck boat tours. Lanham allegedly neglected to establish and enforce policies and procedures related to the communication of weather information to duck boat captains and drivers conducting duck boat tours when severe weather existed in or approached the Branson area.
The indictment also alleges that Lanham created a work atmosphere on Stretch Duck 7 and other duck boats where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety.
Lanham allegedly neglected to require adequate staffing of employees while duck boat tours were ongoing. Lanham allegedly negligently allowed, created, and connived with other persons to create a work atmosphere through which those responsible for monitoring the weather during duck boat tours were charged with other tasks that distracted them from monitoring the weather and impeded their ability to monitor radio communications. Lanham allegedly negligently created and connived with other persons to create a confusing work atmosphere on Stretch Duck 7 and other duck boats related to the monitoring of, and the response to, severe weather, through which there existed inappropriate concern for the weather.
The indictment also alleges that Lanham neglected to adequately supervise the management, operation, and conduct of the tour of Stretch Duck 7 on July 19, 2018.
Lanham allegedly neglected to properly assess incoming weather and negligently allowed McKee to enter the vessel on the water when there was lightning and severe weather approaching the area.
Lanham allegedly neglected to properly assess the nature of the severe weather when severe weather arrived at the location of Stretch Duck 7 while the vessel was on the water, and to communicate with McKee regarding the nature of the severe weather prior to its arrival and when severe weather arrived at the location of Stretch Duck 7 while the vessel was on the water.
Lanham allegedly neglected to require that Stretch Duck 7 be operated in compliance with the provisions of the Coast Guard certificate of inspection and negligently allowed McKee to operate, pilot, and navigate Stretch Duck 7 in violation of the conditions and limitations specified in the certificate of inspection, which was a violation of law.
The duck tragedy has led to numerous civil suits, some of which have been settled.
“From the day of the accident, the company has worked with victims and those most impacted to do as much as possible to help them,” stated Smagala-Potts in an email. “We have reached court-approved settlements with several families of the victims and are actively pursuing mediated resolutions with all others who were affected by the accident. Out of respect for the privacy of the families, we are not discussing settlement details.”
The Ride the Ducks business had been closed since the tragedy. The site recently opened as a news business called Top Ops.
“We are committed to the community of Branson, and everyone who was affected by last July’s tragic accident,” Smagala-Potts stated in an email. “The Ride The Ducks building and property are a gateway to the economic engine of the community. To ensure its continued contribution to the community, we opened Branson Top Ops, to serve and encourage tourism, creating and supporting jobs for hardworking people who live and work here.
“Top Ops is donating 10% of all admissions proceeds with a minimum of $100,000 to First Responders, specifically to Local Police, Fire Department, and EMS, who put their lives on the line to make the Branson community a safer place to live, work, and play. In addition, all First Responders and Military will be offered discounted admission at Branson Top Ops.”