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Co-owner of former Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kansas, pleads guilty to drug charge

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Jeff Henry, who helped design the Verruckt water slide that killed a 10-year-old boy in 2016, pleaded guilty to an unrelated drug charge in Johnson County.

Jeff Henry, 66, was in Merriam, Kansas, in 2018 for a hearing on the Schlitterbahn criminal case when police found him in a hotel room that had illegal drugs in it.

Jeff Henry, a co-owner of the Schlitterbahn water park enterprise in 2016 when its main attraction in Kansas City caused the death of a young boy, has pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge in Johnson County.

Henry, 66, entered a guilty plea on Dec. 16 to possessing methamphetamine with the intent to distribute it. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss three other charges he faced, including possessing drug paraphernalia, illegal possession of a prescription drug and hiring someone for sex.

The charges stemmed from a 2018 incident in which Merriam, Kansas, police were called to a hotel in response to a disturbance. Police arrived to find Henry and others in a hotel room acting suspiciously. According to police records, they recovered methamphetamine, syringes, a pipe and Xanex, a prescription sedative. A woman who was in the hotel room later told police she was sent there to have sex with Henry by a man who frequently prostituted her.

“He’s taken responsibility for what he did and we’re moving forward to sentencing,” said Carl Cornwell, Henry’s attorney.

Sentencing is scheduled for March 4. Henry could face prison time for the charge, but Cornwell said he will ask the judge to consider probation.

The 2018 incident occurred while Henry faced charges, including second-degree murder, in Wyandotte County for the death of a 10-year-old boy on a Schlitterbahn water slide called Verruckt in Kansas City, Kansas.

Henry and others designed Verruckt, named after the German word for “crazy.” It was the world’s tallest slide. Verruckt took passengers seated on a raft down a 17-story descent before climbing a 50-foot ascent and finally coming to rest on a pool of water.

Verruckt was heavily promoted – particularly for the risky and thrilling aspects of the attraction – when it opened in 2014 and was a means of attracting renewed interest in the Kansas City, Kansas, water park. The water park near The Legends in western Kansas City, Kansas, was Schlitterbahn’s first development outside of Texas.

Caleb Schwab died on Aug. 7, 2016, when his raft on Verruckt went airborne on the slide’s ascent, causing him to come into contact with a metal pole that supported a net installed to keep passengers from flying off the slide.

Caleb Schwab was the son of Scott Schwab, currently the Kansas Secretary of State and at the time a Kansas House representative from Olathe. Schlitterbahn offered free admission to elected officials and their families on the day Caleb Schwab died on Verruckt.

Experts criticized the design of the slide and the presence of the overhead poles for the risk it posed to passengers. Kansas had no laws at the time to inspect or regulate the safety of amusement park rides. Since Caleb Schwab’s death, Kansas has adopted a permitting system for amusement park rides.

Affiliates of Schlitterbahn paid nearly $20 million to the Schwab family in 2017 to resolve potential lawsuits, according to a story in the Kansas City Star.

In 2018, a Wyandotte County grand jury convened by the Kansas Attorney General brought criminal charges against Henry and others involved in the design and construction of Verruckt. The indictment accused Henry and others of disregarding passenger safety and constructing Verruckt hastily in their pursuit to have the slide featured on a cable network television show.

The charges were later dismissed when a Wyandotte County judge concluded that the Kansas Attorney General relied on improper evidence to influence the grand jury.

Verruckt has since been torn down and Schlitterbahn closed its Kansas City location. It sold the land for its Kansas City park, as well as others it owned in Texas. Schlitterbahn, now owned by Cedar Fair Entertainment, now operates only two parks in Texas. Company officials said Tuesday Henry has no involvement in the enterprise.

"Mr. Henry is not affiliated with the two Schlitterbahn parks in Texas, which were acquired by Cedar Fair Entertainment in 2019," spokesman Aaron Martinez said in an email.

It was while Henry was in Kansas City for a hearing in the Schlitterbahn case that Merriam police found drugs and an alleged sex worker in his hotel room.

Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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