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Branson duck boat operators face court on charges from 2018 tragedy that killed 17

·6 min read
Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com

The three men facing criminal charges in the sinking of a duck boat during a 2018 storm in Branson — which left 17 people dead, including five children — appeared in Stone County court Wednesday morning.

Kenneth Scott McKee, 54, the captain of the boat; Curtis P. Lanham, 39, the general manager at Ride the Ducks in Branson; and Charles V. Baltzell, 79, the operations supervisor who was acting as a manager on duty that night, had a preliminary hearing in their case.

The men each face 17 counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, which is a felony. The criminal charges were announced in July by the Missouri Attorney General and the Stone County prosecuting attorney.

On July 19, 2018, the Ride the Ducks employees sent out a sightseeing vessel with 31 people on board at Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri just ahead of a powerful storm that pummeled the region and the boat soon after.

McKee, who was steering the boat when it sank, additionally faces 12 counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child, also felonies. Twelve children under the age of 17 were on the duck boat when it capsized.

The Table Rock Lake disaster immediately drew national attention, both because of the mass casualties and because earlier warnings of safety concerns raised by a government agency likely could have saved lives had they been heeded by the U.S. Coast Guard or Congress.

Duck boat captain, managers charged in 2018 sinking that killed 17 near Branson

The charges

McKee is accused of failing in his role as boat captain by taking the duck boat on the lake as a storm approached and by not having passengers wear flotation devices, according to a probable cause statement. A National Transportation Safety Board report on the tragedy said, however, that life jackets can increase the risk to passengers because it can trap passengers against the boat’s canopy as it sinks.

On Tuesday, McKee filed a motion to dismiss his charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

The document also accuses Lanham and Baltzell of not communicating the danger of the oncoming storm and halting the tour.

McKee, Lanham and Baltzell each pleaded not guilty in September.

“Although this was a tragedy, we do not believe that any of those charged committed any criminal conduct and intend to fight the matter in both state and federal court,” Tom Bath, who represents Lanham, said at the time.

The three men are facing state felony charges, which marks the second time criminal charges have been levied against them.

A federal grand jury indictment against McKee was handed down in November 2018. The accusations against him included: not properly assessing incoming weather before taking the boat out on water; operating the boat in conditions that violated the Coast Guard’s certificate of inspection; not telling passengers to use flotation devices; not speeding up to head to the nearest shore as severe weather approached; and failing to raise the side curtains of the boat when its bilge alarm sounded as it took on water.

In June 2019, a federal grand jury indicted Lanham and Baltzell and added additional charges against McKee. Prosecutors claimed the three were more interested in profit than passenger safety.

But the indictment was dismissed in December 2020 when a federal judge in Springfield ruled that federal prosecutors did not have jurisdiction over the case because of the characteristics of Table Rock Lake, but conceded that state prosecutors could bring a case if they so decided.

The deaths also prompted a torrent of lawsuits against Ride the Ducks and Ripley Entertainment, a Canadian company which bought the Ride the Ducks enterprise in Branson in late 2017. They settled on confidential terms.

The sinking

The fatal boat tour on Table Rock Lake was initially set to begin on land, which was its usual course. Tickets for the tour said it would start at 6:30 p.m.

Before the first passengers boarded Stretch Duck 7, an individual stepped onto the back of the boat at 6:28 p.m. and told the crew to conduct the water portion of the tour first, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The NTSB in its final report said Ripley Entertainment left decision-making authority to the captains of the duck boats, even though managers had better access to tools that would monitor the weather conditions.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph — near hurricane force — with waves topping three feet.

McKee’s only source of weather information once he took the boat on the water was his ability to look around and see what was going on, the NTSB report said.

When the boat started its water tour at 6:55 p.m., the lake appeared calm. But around the same time, emergency crews in Taney County, which is immediately east of Stone County, began responding to calls about toppled trees and downed power lines caused by the storm.

In his interview with the Missouri Highway Patrol, McKee said as the boat was on its tour, he could see some dark clouds “quite a ways” off in the distance.

Just after 7 p.m., winds increased and whitecaps were visible on the water, according to an initial report released by the NTSB.

“All of a sudden there was — you could just see the water just erupt,” McKee said, according to the transcript.

He later added that he had never seen the lake get so rough so quickly.

“And I was a little worried, and everyone was,” said one passenger, whose name was redacted from the Highway Patrol transcript of the interview. “One kid was screaming, ‘I don’t want to be in the Titanic.’”

NTSB investigators previously concluded that McKee was aware of the duck boat’s operating instructions and probably would not have started the tour if the lake hadn’t been calm when he entered the water.

“Despite being aware of the oncoming weather that he had observed on weather radar before leaving the duck dock, he was not aware of the storm’s intensity,” the NTSB report said.

The report also said as the wind strengthened on the lake, McKee skipped the usual path of the water tour and headed straight for the exit ramp. Going back to the entry ramp would have put the boat at risk of waves on the lake, the report said.

“Therefore, the NTSB concludes that the captain’s decision to head toward the exit ramp when encountering the severe weather was appropriate,” the NTSB said.

After struggling helplessly in the churning water, the boat started to sink at 7:09 p.m. Stretch Duck No. 7 ended up on the bottom of the lake in Stone County, just over the Taney County line.

The victims

Among the victims were a retired pastor, a couple from Higginsville, a couple from St. Louis, an Illinois woman who was taking her granddaughter on a special trip to Branson, a father and son from Arkansas and nine members of the Coleman family, who made annual summer trips together.

Seven other passengers were injured, including a 13-year-old boy and his aunt who were relatives of the nine family members who died.

The tour boats, which ran on Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo, have not been operating in Branson since the tragedy. A new duck boat company that initially planned to open in summer 2021 recently delayed their opening until March 2022, The Springfield News-Leader reported.

In January, a new company, Branson Duck Tours LLC, announced that it would start the duck boat tours once again with vessels it said would be safer.

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