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Missouri attorney general refiles criminal charges in Branson duck boat tragedy that killed 17

Duck boats sit idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks days after the accident in July 2018 in Branson, Mo.
Charlie Riedel

Just days after a judge dismissed similar charges, Eric Schmitt is pursuing a criminal case against three men involved in the fatal sinking of a Ride the Ducks boat on Table Rock Lake in 2018.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has refiled criminal charges against three men involved in the 2018 sinking of a tour boat on Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri that killed 17 people.

Just days after a Stone County judge decided that the local prosecutor did not have enough evidence to sustain a criminal case against the three men, Schmitt brought 63 counts against them, including involuntary manslaughter.

Those charged were Kenneth McKee, the captain of the duck boat, which sank with 31 people aboard after a severe storm battered it; and two employees of tour boat operator Ride the Ducks, Curtis Lanham and Charles Baltzell.

The criminal complaint accuses the three men of neglecting passenger safety when they decided to bring the duck boat — a World War II-era vessel that travels by land and water and had been repurposed for sightseeing tours — out on to Table Rock Lake as the storm approached.

The tragedy attracted national attention and highlighted the failure of the U.S. Coast Guard or Congress to adopt recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Administration (NTSB) to make duck boats safer after a duck boat sank in Arkansas in 1999.

Schmitt is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blunt.

“As I’ve said previously, my Office is committed to fighting for justice on behalf of the 17 people that were tragically killed in 2018 — that’s why we re-filed the charges in this case,” Schmitt said in a statement.

Attorneys for the defendants expressed disappointment in Schmitt’s decision.

“We’re very disappointed in the attorney general’s decision to file the same charges against Mr. Baltzell that has already been weighed by the court and found to be without merit,” said Justin Johnston, an attorney who represents Baltzell. “It’s a waste of time, it needlessly prolongs pain for all involved and Mr. Baltzell has not committed any crime.”

Attorney Tom Bath, who represents Lanham, said that criminal charges against his client and the other two men were dismissedafter a two-day preliminary hearing in December. At a preliminary hearing, prosecutors present evidence and defendants can challenge it, leaving a judge to decide if there’s enough probable cause for a criminal case to move forward.

Last week, Stone County Circuit Judge Alan Blankenship decided the Stone County prosecutor and Schmitt had not met that burden.

“Without any new evidence, the State has refiled precisely the same charges that the court has already thoroughly evaluated,” Bath said in a statement. “The State clearly hopes to get a different outcome before a different judge. We do not see a reason to expect a different outcome.”

Stone County prosecutor Matt Selby was not immediately available for comment . It's not known if he had requested that Schmitt’s office file the new charges. The attorney general typically does not get involved in criminal cases unless a local prosecutor requests the office’s help or the local prosecutor has a conflict of interest.

“To be clear, Stone County has not refiled these charges,” said attorney J.R. Hobbs, who represents McKee. “We’re disappointed the Missouri AG’s office has refiled these same charges after an extensive preliminary hearing, arguments, briefing and a decision to dismiss by an experienced trial judge.”

In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted the same three men on charges of criminal misconduct and negligence. The indictment portrayed them as carelessly disregarding an oncoming storm and trying to squeeze in another tour on Table Rock Lake.

Defense attorneys argued, and an investigation by the NTSB showed, that the lake was calm when the water tour began. But a rare storm called a derecho descended upon the lake with winds that whipped up large waves. The duck boat proved no match and sank in front of the Showboat Branson Belle.

The federal charges were tossed when a federal judge ruled that the Justice Department did not have jurisdiction over the case due to the nature of Table Rock Lake.

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