State filed charges in Table Rock Lake duck boat tragedy with days to spare

Harrison Keegan
Springfield News-Leader

In Missouri, the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges in most felony cases is three years.

If prosecutors wait longer than that, the suspect is essentially untouchable.

So the timing was significant on July 15 when Stone County Prosecutor Matt Selby and the Missouri Attorney General's Office filed felony charges against three Ride the Ducks Branson employees in connection with the July 2018 sinking on Table Rock Lake that resulted in 17 deaths.

Had the prosecution waited another week, the statute of limitations would have run out.

Instead, duck boat captain Kenneth Scott McKee, operations supervisor Charles Baltzell and general manager Curtis Lanham are each facing 17 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the tragedy.

McKee is also facing more serious charges of endangering the welfare of a child, for allegedly putting at-risk the lives of several children. 

The capsized duck boat is being hauled away on a flatbed trailer down Missouri 265 on Monday, July 23, 2018 in Branson, Mo.

The state charges serve as an insurance policy of sorts for law enforcement as they seek criminal punishment for the duck boat operators.

McKee, Baltzell and Lanham had initially been facing criminal charges in federal court, but those charges were dismissed in December after a judge determined Table Rock Lake was not a navigable waterway under admiralty jurisdiction.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has appealed the judge's decisions, and that case is ongoing in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

With the filing of the state charges, the government has assured itself another avenue to try to prosecute the Ride the Ducks Branson employees if the federal appeal is unsuccessful.

The defendants, meanwhile, face the weight of litigation involving them simultaneously in state and federal court.

The allegations in the state case are that McKee, Baltzell and Lanham were criminally negligently in allowing the duck boat, named Stretch Duck 7, onto the water when a storm was approaching, and thus they should be held criminally responsible.

When the duck boat took on water and sank, 17 people died and 14 others survived.

Lanham's attorney, Tom Bath, said he is ready to defend his client against these charges.

"We don't believe any crime was committed," Bath said.

McKee's attorney declined to comment for this report, and an attorney for the other defendant could not be reached by press time.

In addition to the criminal proceedings in this case, there were also dozens of civil lawsuits filed against duck boat operators Ripley Entertainment by the survivors or families of the deceased.