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Missouri Judge Tosses Charges Connected To Duck Boat Ride That Killed 17, AG Immediately Refiles

Branson, MO – Just days after a judge dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against three men in connection with the deaths of 17 people who were killed when a duck boat sank during a 2018 storm, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt refiled charges against all three men.

Seventeen people – ages one to 70 – lost their lives when the duck boat capsized and sank in the turbulent waters of Table Rock Lake on July 19, 2018, CNN reported at the time.

Of the 14 survivors, seven were hospitalized for various injuries, according to FOX News.

Prosecutors subsequently filed first-degree involuntary manslaughter charges against the boat’s captain, 54-year-old Kenneth Scott McKee, 39-year-old Ride the Ducks in Branson General Manager Curtis Lanham, and 79-year-old Ride the Ducks in Branson Operations Supervisor and Manager Charles Baltzell, the Associated Press reported.

Stone County Judge Alan Blankenship dismissed those charges on April 5, claiming prosecutors did not present evidence indicating the three men were aware of the severity of the impending storm.

Schmitt’s office refiled the charges against all three men just two days later, according to the Associated Press.

They each face 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

McKee has also been charged with 12 counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

Schmitt spoke about his decision to refile charges in a statement released on April 13.

“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,” he wrote.

Attorneys representing Lanham, McKee, and Baltzell said their clients had no intention of placing anyone in danger that day, the Associated Press reported.

They further argued their clients were unaware the storm was expected to be so severe, the Associated Press reported.

Prosecutors have alleged McKee ignored warnings about the storm, and that Baltzell and Lanham failed to stop operations after authorities issued a severe thunderstorm warning.

Baltzell’s attorney, Justin Johnson, told KCUR he was disappointed to learn Schmitt will be taking another crack at his client.

“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,” Johnson said. “It’s a waste of time, it needlessly prolongs pain for all involved and Mr. Baltzell has not committed any crime.”

Lanham’s attorney, Tom Bath said Schmitt has “no new evidence” and that he simply refiled “precisely the same charges that the court has already thoroughly evaluated,” KCUR reported.

“The State clearly hopes to get a different outcome before a different judge,” Bath added. “We do not see a reason to expect a different outcome.”

The thunderstorm warning was issued approximately 40 minutes before the duck boat sank, but a severe thunderstorm watch had been in effect for over seven hours, the Tampa Bay Times previously reported.

Winds topped 63 miles per hour at the Branson Airport, and were even more severe over the lake’s open water, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Linderberg told FOX News.

“When we issue a warning, it means take action,” meteorologist Kelsey Angle told WTOP.

An off-duty Stone County sheriff’s deputy was working security for nearby for the popular Branson Belle showboat, which offers tours across the lake, when a violent storm hit, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The deputy and other Branson Belle employees and passengers jumped into action, rescuing as many people as possible during an effort the sheriff described as “outstanding,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The crew’s rescue mission was already underway when police were first notified about the sinking “Ride the Ducks” boat at approximately 7 p.m., Sheriff Rader said.

A passenger aboard the Branson Belle captured video footage of two of the Ride the Ducks boats as they desperately bucked waves during their attempt to return to shore, KY3 reported.

One of the duck boats was able to make it to safety, but the second boat soon fell behind and the lake water eventually began pouring into the windows, the video showed.

The duck boat, which had the ability to travel both in water and on land, ultimately capsized and sank in 40 feet of water, WTOP reported.

When it reached the lakebed, the boat rolled on its wheels to a depth of approximately 80 feet, Sheriff Rader said.

Kourtney Parker, a passenger on the other duck boat that was able to reach the shore, captured harrowing footage of the violent storm as she watched the doomed boat through her window.

“[We] got about halfway across the lake, and then, bam, everything all happened so fast,” Parker told CNN. “We were literally under water a couple times.”

“We got toward the lake ramp, but our propeller quit working. So, we had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a backup bus, which set us back and that (other) boat, because we were in front of them, and they had to wait for us,” she explained.

When her boat reached shore, Parker scrambled out onto the ramp and searched the water for the second duck boat.

“I turned around and watched the other boat nose-dive, and my heart dropped,” she told CNN.

Suzanne Smagala, spokesperson for Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said in 2018 statement that the fatal incident was the only accident in the history of the business – a period that spanned over four decades, WTOP reported.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride The Ducks Branson. This incident has deeply affected all of us. Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking,” a statement on the company’s website read shortly after the incident. “We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved.”

“The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority. Ride the Ducks will be closed for business while we support the investigation, and to allow time to grieve for the families and the community,” the statement continued. “Thank you for your support, and we ask that your thoughts and prayers be with the families during this time.”

The duck boats have not returned to the lake since the tragedy, the Associated Press reported.

University of Georgia professor and past president of the American Meteorological Society Marshall Shepherd disputed the narrative that the relentless storm emerged “out of nowhere,” as some witnesses had described, according to a Forbes editorial.

“This is not 1901. We have satellites, advanced radars, good weather models, all short-term weather information showed that storms approaching well before the boat was on the water,” Marshall noted. “In fact, Doppler radar was tracking these storms as they approached Branson…It is pretty clear that strong storms were approaching the area.”

Written by
Holly Matkin

Holly is a former probation and parole officer who is married to a sheriff’s deputy. She is a regular contributor to Signature Montana magazine, and has written feature articles for Distinctly Montana magazine.

View all articles
Written by Holly Matkin

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