State and Federal Judges Dismissed Earlier Charges Against Workers
The federal investigation into one of the deadliest tour boat sinkings in our nation’s history, with 17 people drowning almost four years ago, found a “systemic problem” with the company that offered Duck Boat rides.
But instead of pursuing the owners, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is – for the second time – only prosecuting company employees.
Schmitt, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri, refiled criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter against the boat’s captain, the company general manager and the operations supervisor. The captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, 54, also faces 12 counts of endangering the welfare of children.
“My office is committed to fighting for justice on behalf of the 17 people that were tragically killed in 2018 – that’s why we refiled the charges in this case,” Schmitt said.
Earlier this month Alan Blankenship, a Missouri Circuit Court judge, dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against McKee; Curtis P. Lanham, 39, the general manager at Ride the Ducks; and Charles V. Baltzell, 79, the operations supervisor.
In December 2020 a federal judge dismissed neglect and misconduct charges against the three men
Just three days after the Duck Boat sank in Table Lake Rock near Branson, Missouri, DCReport broke the story that the owner had sought waivers from safety rules. Two days later I reported that it was well-known to operators and government officials that Duck Boats are floating and rolling death traps.
The National Transportation Safety Board spent almost two years looking into the sinking. It decided against naming McKee in its findings of fault. One reason: Managers did not relay a severe weather forecast to him. “You can’t know what you don’t know,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
As DCReport wrote in 2018, the Missouri business that modified the duck boat didn’t follow federal vehicle design or manufacturing standards, according to a lawsuit in Washington state.
Karen Koehler, an attorney who represented three families in a 2015 Duck Boat accident in Seattle, called them “Mad Max contraptions – part truck, part boat and welded together by people who were not engineers.” Five people died and 41 were injured.
The “stretch ducks” in Seattle and Branson were designed by Robert McDowell who attended 2½ years of college but had no background, training or certification in mechanics, according to the lawsuit. McDowell owned and ran Ride the Ducks for almost three decades.
The stretch ducks were heavily modified World War II-era amphibious craft, with 15 inches added to fit in more people. Mechanics cut the chassis in half and took the frame from a surplus truck to add the extra 15 inches, according to the lawsuit. More passengers on each ride raises profitability.
McDowell consulted “a transmission person, as well as the maintenance people at the local Penske Truck group and the U-Haul down the street” but no engineers, according to the lawsuit.
On July 19, 2018, 31 people got on a Ride the Ducks tour in Branson as inclement weather approached. Seventeen died as the boat sank in 85 feet of water. The victims ranged in age from 1 to 76, including nine people from the Coleman family in Indiana.
Three days later DCReport detailed how Ride the Ducks International tried to dodge federal safety requirements for the boats.
105 of 106 Unsafe
The company had hired lawyer Jackie Glassman, who at the time of the fatal Seattle crash was chief counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Glassman told federal officials that 105 of the 106 duck boats used across America didn’t meet federal requirements for fire safety. Their hoods and windshields were also deficient.
Ride the Ducks International, a Branson, Mo., company asked the NHTSA to call its safety violations “inconsequential noncompliance” under the federal Vehicle Safety Act. That law is supposed to help prevent fatalities.
In 2017, Ride the Ducks International asked the Trump administration for waivers of federal safety requirements.
Prosecutors have historically tried to scapegoat workers in mass casualty accidents instead of going after the companies at fault.
In Canada, a train engineer and two rail workers were tried and acquitted of charges from their roles in a July 2013 oil train accident that killed 47 people and destroyed much of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. No rail executives, politicians or regulators were charged.
A new company, Branson Duck Tours LLC, plans to bring duck boat rides back to Lake Table Rock this spring. Company officials said they are using a different type of vehicle. They said that it meets federal safety requirements.