A judge on Tuesday dismissed criminal charges against three men prosecuted after a tourist boat sank and killed 17 people during a 2018 Missouri storm.
The boat was swamped by waves caused by strong winds shortly after it entered Table Rock Lake near Branson on July 19, 2018. Riders from Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and Arkansas were killed. Fourteen people survived.
Prosecutors last year charged Kenneth Scott McKee, 54, the captain of the vessel known as a duck boat; Curtis P. Lanham, 39, the general manager at Ride the Ducks in Branson; and Charles V. Baltzell, 79, the operations supervisor who was a manager on duty the night the boat sank, each with 17 counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter.
While Stone County Judge Alan Blankenship said the men — amphibious boat staff — were aware of the storm, he said there's no evidence that they knew about the storm’s “gust front,” KYTV-TV reported.
Lawyers for the defendants said they're grateful and respect the judge's decision.
“This was a tragedy for all involved," McKee’s attorney James Hobbs said.
The Missouri Attorney General's Office is considering refiling charges.
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“We’re disappointed in the Court’s decision, but we’re not giving up in our pursuit of justice on behalf of the 17 victims and their families,” spokesman Chris Nuelle said in a statement. "Our Office hopes to refile charges and continue this case, and will confer with the local prosecutor to that end in the coming days.”
When the criminal charges were filed last year, an affidavit from an investigator accused McKee of taking the boat onto the lake despite concerns about an approaching storm. Lanham and Baltzell are accused of failing to communicate weather conditions and to stop operations after a severe thunderstorm warning was issued.
During the preliminary hearing, attorneys for the defendants said the men were not aware that a thunderstorm warning had been issued and a meteorologist at a nearby TV station was urging people to leave the lake immediately, The Kansas City Star reported.
Testimony showed the employees at Ride the Ducks, which operated the popular tourist attraction, typically checked only a radar from Earth Networks, a private meteorological company, for weather conditions. The radar showed rain, not wind, was expected that day at the lake.