A Missouri judge on Tuesday dismissed all criminal charges against three tour boat company employees in connection with a 2018 accident that killed 17 people near Branson, ruling that not enough evidence had been provided to support the counts of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.
In his decision, Judge Alan Blankenship of circuit court in Stone County wrote that prosecutors had not shown that the employees committed felony offenses by taking the boat out on Table Rock Lake before powerful thunderstorms struck.
State and local prosecutors, who pursued the case together, argued at a preliminary hearing that the employees should not have taken the boat out on the lake as bad weather approached and that, if they were going to do so, they should have had the passengers wear flotation devices, according to Judge Blankenship’s decision.
But the judge wrote that prosecutors had not provided “sufficient evidence” to show the intent required to prove the charges. Prosecutors, he wrote, would have had to show that the employees had been acting recklessly or knowingly despite the circumstances.
Judge Blankenship dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning that prosecutors could bring charges again.
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the Missouri attorney general’s office, said in a statement on Tuesday that the office was “disappointed” in the court’s decision. He did not answer questions about why the judge was allowing the prosecutors to file charges again.
“Our office hopes to refile charges and continue this case,” he said.
Matt Selby, the Stone County prosecuting attorney, said that he was also “disappointed” in the judge’s ruling but that “we’ll be trying to make a decision in the next two or three days about what our next step will be, if anything.”
Lawyers for the three employees — Kenneth Scott McKee, Charles Baltzell and Curtis Lanham — each said on Tuesday that they respected the court’s decision.
“This is a terrible tragedy for all involved,” Justin Johnston, a lawyer for Mr. Baltzell, said.
Mr. McKee’s lawyers, J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller, and Mr. Lanham’s lawyers, Thomas Bath and Tricia Bath, also said on Tuesday that the accident had been a tragedy but that they did not think it was appropriate to comment further.
The three employees were charged in July last year with a total of 63 criminal counts.
Mr. McKee, 54, the captain; Mr. Lanham, 39, the general manager; and Mr. Baltzell, 79, the manager on duty, were among the 31 people on the boat when it sank on July 19, 2018. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the employees had taken the boat, Stretch Duck 7, out on calm waters before winds picked up and heavy rain and lightning battered the region.
“In hindsight, it is evident that the defendants did not have enough weather information to appreciate the threat of high winds,” Judge Blankenship wrote.
He said that their company, Ride the Ducks Branson, had relied on a widely used online weather tool, Earth Networks, to check the conditions before the tour and that it had showed an approaching storm but not strong winds.
Judge Blankenship wrote that the weather tool and the employees’ view of the sky “likely gave the impression” that the boat could avoid the storm.
He also said that there was no evidence that Mr. McKee, the captain, who had 16 years of experience, had “an affirmative duty” to require passengers to wear flotation devices.
Ripley Entertainment, which acquired Ride the Ducks Branson in 2017, said in a statement on Tuesday that it had cooperated with all of the investigations into the accident and that it would “continue to support our current and former employees.”
A federal judge dismissed neglect and misconduct charges against the three employees in December 2020.
Among the 17 people who died were children and a family of nine. The boat sank 85 feet underwater as onlookers heard people screaming and watched the boat being swamped by the surging waves. It was one of the deadliest accidents involving a tour boat in U.S. history.