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Stone County judge hears evidence in state’s criminal case filed in Branson duck boat tragedy

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) – A judge could decide to proceed with a criminal case against three former ‘Branson Ride The Ducks’ employees.

On July 19, 2018, a Stretch Duck 7 duck boat with 31 people on board capsized and sank in stormy weather near Branson.

Seventeen passengers, including nine from the same family and one crew member driving the boat, drowned that night, which became one of the deadliest boating accidents in United States history.

In their initial assessment, authorities blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength. The duck boat sank under high waves while winds around the area reached up to 70 miles per hour that day.

Investigators say Ride the Ducks had plenty of warnings about the severe weather, but the boat still launched more than 20 minutes after a thunderstorm warning was issued for Table Rock Lake.

In July 2021, the Missouri Attorney General and Stone County prosecutor filed 63 criminal charges against three employees on duty when tragedy struck.

Captain Kenneth Scott McKee and two supervisors, Curtis Lanham and Charles Baltzell, all face a slate of felonies that include at least 17 criminal charges each.

3 face criminal charges in the 2018 duck boat sinking on Table Rock Lake.
3 face criminal charges in the 2018 duck boat sinking on Table Rock Lake.(KY3)

Charges range from first-degree involuntary manslaughter to first-degree endangering the welfare of a child.

The new charges come seven months after a federal judge dismissed charges filed by federal prosecutors, concluding that they did not have jurisdiction.

“There was a severe weather event already taking place. Based on his training and experience, he should have never gone in the water that day.

There were also folks the GM and the operations officer who should have known better too, and the consequences here were incredibly tragic,” said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

An affidavit from a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant accuses McKee of failing to exercise his duties as a licensed captain by taking the Duck Boat onto the lake in stormy conditions.

“We are reviewing the charges. Expect not guilty pleas will be entered and will continue vigorously represent Mr. McKee,” J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller, who represent the captain, said in a statement issued after criminal charges were filed this summer.

A summary of the day’s proceeding are as follows:

December 9, 2021

Court is in recess until 2022. A hearing will be scheduled to resolve the matter.

Judge Alan Blankenship grants the state time to submit a written response to defense attorneys request for dismissal of charges.

Defense for Curtis Lanham also makes his argument for dismissal of charges.

Defense attorney for Charles Baltzell argues that his client couldn’t have known about the weather and didn’t exhibit intent to harm anyone when he instructed Kenneth Scott McKee to conduct the water portion of the tour.

The state presents a statement about safety.

11:43 a.m. Court is in session. All the evidence has been submitted. McKee’s defense attorney asks to dismiss.

11:30 a.m. Court in recess.

10:55 a.m. Defense calls Jesse Young, captain of a duck boat out on the water at the same time as the Stretch Duck 7 duck boat on the day of the sinking. He describes the storm as it approaches the lake. He says he rushed to get his boat and passengers off the water.

10:29 a.m. Court resumes. Defense calls Joe Perma, former Branson Ride the Ducks employee. Perma talks about training captains.

10:15 a.m. Court in recess.

9:08 a.m. Defense calls Robert Herre, Maritime Law expert. He compares Stretch 7 Duck Boat to Miss Majestic, the boat that sank on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs Arkansas in the late 1990′s. Additionally, he speaks about life jackets and when passengers should wear them.

The state cross-examines Robert Herre. Prosecutor Matt Selby asks him to review the Branson Ride the Ducks Boat procedure manual about safety.

9:06 a.m. Court in session.

December 8, 2021

3:27 p.m. Court in recess.

2:22 p.m. Defense calls their first witness, a forensic meteorologist, Steven Harned. He testifies that he examined the NTSB report and National Weather Service assessment. Harned explains in great detail how weather reports and data are gathered and interpreted.

The state cross-examines Harned. He’s asked to clarify some terms.

2:20 p.m. Court resumes. Defense moves to dismiss the case. The judge acknowledges the motion.

2:05 p.m. State completes the presentation of its evidence. The court is in recess.

1:35 p.m. State plays the video of the entire fatal ride, water is starting to overtake the boat. The video is stopped before the boat sinks.

1:25 p.m. State plays a video taken from the duck boat as passengers board before the ride starts.

1:10 p.m. State’s fifth witness, tragedy survivor, Tia Coleman, takes the stand. She recounts the events of the day.

Defense does not cross-examine out of respect.

1:05 p.m. Court resumes. Prosecutors show two short videos of the riders on board the duck boat.

12:05 p.m. Court breaks for lunch.

11:45 a.m. State’s fourth witness, Darrell Blankenship, a lieutenant with Missouri State Highway Patrol is called to the stand. He is asked about the type of equipment used at Branson Ride the Ducks facility to monitor the weather. He was part of the investigation team and interviewed staff including the defendants.

Blankenship is cross-examined by the defense. He’s asked about recorded statements submitted into evidence regarding procedures followed pertaining to monitoring weather the day of the incident.

10:36 a.m. State’s third witness, Travis Hitchcock investigator with Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop D Criminal Division takes the stand. He is asked about the details of his investigation.

Hitchcock is cross-examined by defense attorneys. He is asked about his knowledge of storms and weather.

9:59 a.m. State’s second witness, Mitchell Schoop, marina general manager, takes the stand. He describes the weather warnings issued that day. He says he knows the weather could be bad due to reports issued by Ron Hearst of KY3 News. He goes on to describe the number of weather apps he uses on his phone as well as procedures used by his crew to stay safe.

Schoop is cross-examined and asked about his knowledge of viewing and using radar systems. Council brings up the fact that investigators contacted him only recently about what happened the day of the tragedy and asks if his memory is clear since so much time has passed. He says he’s remembering to the best of his ability.

9:17 a.m. State’s first witness, Sgt. Shawn Fields with the Stone County Sheriff’s Office takes the stand. He describes seeing two duck boats enter the water as the storm approaches. He works security for the Branson Belle and was in the parking lot when he saw the Stretch Duck 7 sink. He then recalls pulling Tia Coleman out of the water. He says he also pulled an elderly woman and young boy out of the water. He says the elderly woman is dead. He says he takes the boy on board the showboat to be assisted by an EMT. As he recounts the events, Tia Coleman is seen crying.

Fields is cross-examined by McKee’s attorney. He is asked about his knowledge of bad weather and storms popping up.

9:15 a.m. Tia Coleman enters the courtroom.

9 a.m. Court is in session. Kenneth Scott McKee, Curtis Lanham, and Charles Baltzell are present in the courtroom.

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