Missouri has filed involuntary manslaughter charges against three Ride the Ducks employees in the fatal accident on Table Rock Lake that killed 17 people.

The action announced Friday comes after a federal judge in December dismissed charges of misconduct and neglect against the three because the U.S. government did not have admiralty jurisdiction over the lake where Stretch Duck 7 sank July 19, 2018 – the deadliest duck boat accident ever.

The state alleges that Capt. Kenneth Scott McKee entered the lake during a severe thunderstorm warning and failed to follow policies by not having passengers put on personal flotation devices as the boat took on water. The probable cause statement also alleges general manager Curtis Lanham and operations supervisor Charles Baltzell of Ride the Ducks Branson failed to communicate weather conditions and stop operating as the storm approached.

Each was charged with 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and McKee also was charged with 12 counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

The 33’x8’x5’ Stretch Duck 7, built in 1944 boat and operated by Ripley Entertainment Inc., was carrying 29 passengers and two crewmembers for what was usually a 20-minute ride on the lake near Branson, Mo., when a strong thunderstorm swept through with winds over 70 mph.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last year faulted Ripley for continuing the water part of the tour after the storm warning. The captain did not have any weather-monitoring tools onboard, and “his visual assessment of the lake was limited,” Brian Young, the investigator in charge, told the board. “The manager on duty and the people at the dock had the most pertinent information” to decide what to do.

The NTSB also faulted the Coast Guard for not requiring sufficient reserve buoyancy and or addressing emergency evacuation issues caused by the boat’s fixed canopy. The Coast Guard has convened a Marine Board of Investigation into the accident.

McKee was expected to enter not guilty pleas to all counts. The 2018 events “remain an unfortunate accident and tragedy,” McKee’s attorneys, J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn Keller said in a statement. He “has consistently denied any criminal responsibility for his conduct through his pleas of not guilty and does not believe any further comment is appropriate at this time.”

The accident “was a horrible tragedy that resulted from a storm that struck with a ferocity that was not typical and not anticipated,” Lanham’s attorney Tricia Bath said in a statement. “As his been the case since Curtis was initially charged in federal court, we are confident that he committed no crime.”

Baltzell’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.  

Ripley continues “to cooperate with all investigations into the sudden and severe storm known” that resulted “in a tragic accident,” spokesman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said. Everyone charged is “entitled to a strong presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We have and will continue to offer support for our current and former employees as this process moves forward.”

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

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