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Captain in Missouri duck boat tragedy asks judge to dismiss criminal charges

Duck boats sit idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks Saturday, July 21, 2018 in Branson, Mo.
Charlie Riedel
Duck boats sit idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks Saturday, July 21, 2018 in Branson, Mo.

The captain of a duck boat that sank in the midst of a severe storm on Table Rock Lake in 2018, resulting in the deaths of 17 people, asked a Missouri judge to have charges against him dismissed.

Lawyers for Kenneth Scott McKee argued this week that Stone County prosecutors lack probable cause to bring several felony charges against their client to trial.

Prosecutors filed criminal charges against McKee and two others earlier this year stemming from a disastrous Ride the Ducks boat tour on Table Rock Lake that started just ahead of a storm that whipped up waves high enough that it sank the vessel and killed 17 of the 31 people on board.

The charges generally accuse McKee, Charles Baltzell and Curtis Lanham of disregarding passenger safety and acting recklessly by allowing the duck boat to head out on Table Rock Lake as the storm approached.

A probable cause statement filed in July accused McKee of failing in his responsibilities as a captain.

“Captain McKee failed to exercise his duties and responsibilities as a licensed Captain, by entering the lake during a severe thunderstorm warning,” said a statement by a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant.

The tragedy on July 19, 2018 killed most of the members of an Indianapolis family, as well as others. It also highlighted the disregard that regulators, including the Coast Guard and Congress, showed toward recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2002 to improve the safety of duck boats following another disaster that occurred on a lake in Arkansas in 1999.

In a motion to dismiss the charges, lawyers for McKee argue that Table Rock Lake appeared calm as he brought the duck boat onto the water.

“While clouds could be observed in the distance, any storm appeared to be sufficiently far away to not pose any risk of death or injury,” the motion said.

The motion was filed just before a preliminary hearing started on Wednesday and continued into Thursday. Preliminary hearings occur before a judge, who hears evidence from prosecutors and defendants and decides whether the state has probable cause to believe a crime occurred and can be tried.

J.R. Hobbs, an attorney for McKee, said he expected Stone County Judge Alan Blankenship would announce his decision about whether the case can continue forward at some later date.

Hobbs’ motion also argued that Stone County prosecutors don’t have evidence that would show McKee knew the severity of the oncoming storm. It cites a report by NTSB investigators that said while McKee was aware that weather was on its way, he didn’t know how intense it would be and that there was no indication at the time he arrived at the lake that he shouldn’t take the boat on the water.

The probable cause statement said McKee failed to tell passengers to wear personal flotation devices, more commonly known as life jackets.

McKee’s lawyers argued that life jackets would have posed greater danger to passengers as extra flotation could have pinned passengers up against an overhead canopy as they tried to escape the sinking boat.

“No Missouri state statute establishes a captain’s duty to require passengers to don life jackets,” the motion said. “None of the operator manuals or opinions provide the unequivocal duty to don life jackets because ultimately the captain is allowed to use his best judgment.”

The NTSB arrived at the same conclusion.

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Steve Vockrodt