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Missouri Charges Three Men With Involuntary Manslaughter In Branson Duck Boat Disaster

Well-wishers gathered to pray outside Ride the Ducks, an amphibious tour operator involved in a 2019 boating accident on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.
via KCUR
Well-wishers gathered to pray outside Ride the Ducks, an amphibious tour operator involved in a 2019 boating accident on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.

Three employees of the company that operated a duck boat that sank in Branson, Missouri, killing 17 people, were charged Friday with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child.

The charges come nearly three years to the day after the disaster on July 19, 2018, which occurred just 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area.

A crew member and 16 passengers, including nine members of a single Indianapolis family, died. Five children were among the dead.

Named in a criminal complaint filed by Stone County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Selby were Scott McKee, the captain of the boat, who faces 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 12 counts of endangering the welfare of a child; Charles Baltzell, operations supervisor for the duck boat company, who faces 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter; and Curtis Lanham, general manager of the company, who faces 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Last year, a federal judge dismissed federal criminal charges against the same three men after a magistrate judge recommended that the charges be thrown out. The federal charges were based on admiralty jurisdiction, but the magistrate, David P. Rush, determined that Table Rock Lake is not a navigable waterway under admiralty law.

In April 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the duck boat operator, 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 connected to a 1999 incident that could have prevented the Branson disaster.

J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn Keller, McKee’s attorneys, said their client would enter not guilty pleas to the charges. McKee is scheduled to make his initial court appearance on Sept. 9.

Attorneys for the other two men could not immediately be reached.

The tourist boat took on water during a severe thunderstorm and sank in about 50 feet of water. A statement of probable cause accompanying the criminal complaint alleges McKee failed to properly exercise his responsibilities as captain by pushing off into the lake after the National Weather Service had issued its warning. It also says he failed to follow policy by not having passengers wear personal flotation devices as the boat took on water.

The probable cause statement says Baltzell failed to properly monitor the weather and communicate weather conditions to the boat. And it says Lanham failed to call off the duck boat ride as severe weather approached.

The criminal charges were filed just three days before Missouri's statute of limitations was scheduled to run out.

The families of the victims and 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.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.