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Judge Throws Out Criminal Charges In Duck Boat Disaster That Took 17 Lives

Tia Coleman
Darron Cummings/AP
Tia Coleman is comforted by a guest during a funeral for her husband, Glenn Coleman, and her children, Reece Coleman, Evan Coleman and Arya Coleman, Friday, July 27, 2018, in Indianapolis. Nine members of the Coleman family were killed in a duck boat accident at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo.

Unless the government chooses to appeal, the dismissal brings to an end the federal criminal case against three employees of Ripley Entertainment.

A federal judge has dismissed criminal charges against three men indicted in the 2018 sinking of a duck boat in Branson, Missouri, that killed 17 people.

The move was expected after a magistrate judge in September recommended that the charges be thrown out.

The federal charges were based on admiralty jurisdiction, but U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush found that Table Rock Lake, the site of the disaster, is not a navigable waterway under admiralty law.

In a brief one-page order Thursday, U.S. District Judge Douglass Harpool said he was adopting Rush’s report and recommendations after conducting an independent review of the court record.

Unless the government chooses to appeal, the dismissal brings to an end the federal criminal cases against the three men.

Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas City, which prosecuted the case, declined to comment.

Two of the men, Curtis Lanham, the general manager of the boat’s operator, Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles Baltzell, the manager on duty that day, had been charged in a 47-count indictment with a variety of criminal neglect and misconduct counts.

An earlier indictment charged the boat’s captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, with failing to properly assess incoming weather before launching the boat and not telling passengers to use flotation devices as weather conditions worsened.

The tourist boat shoved off into Table Rock Lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. It capsized and sank during an ensuing storm. A crew member and 16 passengers, including nine members of a single Indianapolis family, died. Fourteen people survived.

McKee’s attorneys, J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn Keller, said that while what happened at the lake was a tragedy, they were pleased that both judges saw fit to throw the case out.

Justin Johnston, who represented Baltzell, said his client was also “pleased and relieved at the decision.”

“Obviously, our view is that Magistrate Rush got it right in the first instance and Judge Harpool clearly agreed,” Johnston said. “We think he was correct, so at this point we’ll wait and see what the government elects to do going forward.”

Tom Bath, who represented Lanham, said the incident was “a tragedy – those people lost their lives – but we believe this was due to a freak storm and had nothing to do with Curtis or any of the other employees.”

In April, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed Ride the Ducks Branson for failing to monitor and respond to the changing weather. It also criticized the U.S. Coast Guard, which it said failed to enact NTSB recommendations on duck boat safety dating to a 1999 incident that could have prevented the Branson disaster.

The families of the victims and as survivors of the disaster reached confidential settlements with the owner of the duck boat, Ripley Entertainment, after they filed civil lawsuits against the company accusing it of negligence.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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