Inside Schlitterbahn Indictment: Company Officials Ignored Multitude Of Warning Signs
A grand jury indictment stemming from the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab at the Schlitterbahn park alleges designers and park officials ignored minimum industry safety standards in their race to build the world's tallest water slide.
The 47-page indictment says that Schlitterbahn’s private construction company was co-owned by a high school dropout, Jeffrey Wayne Henry, with no technical or engineering credentials. And it says the slide’s lead designer, John Timothy Schooley, had no engineering credentials relevant to amusement ride design or safety.
Tyler Austin Miles, the amusement park’s former director of operations, was indicted for involuntary manslaughter. The Wyandotte County grand jury contends he ignored repeated warnings that the slide was unsafe and then, after Caleb Schwab’s death, misled investigators when he told them he was unaware of injury reports.
In fact, the indictment says, numerous people were injured by airborne rafts or other aspects of the water slide’s flawed design. Among those allegedly injured:
- A 14-year-old whose raft entered the runout pool after it decelerated too rapidly, throwing her head forward and then slamming it backward against the head rest. She suffered head and neck injuries and sustained a concussion. She has suffered from chronic neck pain, migraines and memory loss since then.
- Brittany Hawkins, a former lifeguard at the park, who was thrown sideways in her seat after her hook-and-loop restraint, similar to Velco, came undone. As the raft went over the crest of the ride’s second hill, it went airborne and her face came within inches of the hoops and netting above the ride path. When it landed, it slammed down. That caused her head to crash into her head rest. The raft then collided with the concrete wall at the end of the runout pool. She sustained injuries to her neck, back and head, and later went to the emergency room for back injuries, including several slipped discs.
- A 15-year-old whose head was slammed sideways against her head rest after the ride started suddenly, causing her to temporarily go blind. After cresting the second hill, her raft landed roughly, slamming her head a second time against the head rest. She later began vomiting and was diagnosed with a concussion.
- Ryan Shapiro, whose neck was injured after his raft lifted off the slide, became airborne and then slammed down.
- Samantha Soper, whose head was whipped from side to side during her ride, leaving her with severe neck pain.
- Natasha Radcliff, whose head was slammed against the head rest after her raft went airborne. She sustained severe head and neck pain.
- Norris “JJ” Groves, whose face and forehead collided with an overhead hoop and netting after his raft went airborne. The collision caused his right eye to swell shut for the rest of the day.
- Richard Palmer, whose hook-and-loop restraint came undone and who held on to the sides of the raft and dug in his feet and toes into the raft’s corners to avoid being ejected. The second and third toes on his right foot were broken. While he and his family members were at the base of the ride seeking medical assistance, a man introduced himself to them as its designer and builder and boasted that he and his friend had designed and built it together. The Palmers said the man seemed unconcerned about his medical condition.
- A 17-year-old who sustained a gash across her right eyebrow when the force of the ride slammed her head into her knees. Seven stitches were needed to close the gash.
- A 15-year-old whose foot got stuck between the upper and lower inflatable portions of the base of the raft. The nail of his right big toe tore off.
- Don Slaughter, who developed head pain after his raft went airborne and caused his head to jerk from side to side. The raft later collided with the concrete wall at the end of the runout pool. After seeking medical assistance, he was diagnosed with three herniated disks.
According to the indictment, Miles avoided or delayed repairs that would have taken the water slide out of commission during its four-month active season. It says he disregarded its deteriorating brake system even after it failed 10 days before Schwab was decapitated.
“Tears and punctures on the rafts were patched (typically by using duct tape), but the hook-and-loop seat restraints were allowed to erode so severely that the restraints commonly tore loose during rides,” the indictment alleges.
Besides numerous oral reports, the indictment states, 21 written staff reports were submitted to Miles saying the brake system was in the process of failure and needed maintenance.
“Miles possessed authority to close Verruckt for this repair, but ordinary staff did not,” according to the indictment. “Miles chose to continue operating Verruckt unceasingly. No repairs were made and the brake was allowed to fail.”
After Caleb Schwab died, a Kansas City police detective interviewed Miles and asked him whether he’d been aware of any complaints about the ride. “I have not, sir,” the indictment alleges he replied.
In fact, Miles had withheld “thousands of written ‘ops daily reports’ containing incriminating information against Miles and others,” the indictment states.
One of the lifeguards at the park, whom the indictment says Miles coerced into writing a coached statement, came forward a few weeks later and revealed Miles’ attempt to cover up one of the incidents, according to the indictment.
“Investigators eventually discovered that Miles had withheld this evidence,” the indictment states, referring to the ops daily reports, “which had resulted in the investigation being delayed by nearly six months.” When questioned about it, Miles said he was following company policy.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.