Crime & Courts

Two duck boat captains from Table Rock Lake tragedy targeted in federal investigation

The captains of two Ride the Ducks boats that battled rough waters before one sank last month are targets of a criminal investigation, according to federal court documents filed Wednesday.

Kenneth Scott McKee, captain of the sunken Stretch Duck 07, and Barry King, captain of Stretch Duck 54, “are aware of their status as targets of the Government action,” the document says. They are under investigation for allegedly operating the vessel in a manner that endangered lives.

Seventeen of the 31 passengers on Duck 07 died when the boat sank in Table Rock Lake near Branson on July 19. Duck 54 was also on the water but made it to shore.

The documents filed in U.S. District Court Wednesday also indicate that Ripley Entertainment, which owns the duck boats, is another “target” or “subject” of the investigation. And they say that “several Ripley agents, employees, or officers have been identified as targets and/or subjects of the Government action.”

The U.S. Attorneys’ manual defines a “target” as “a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant.” A “subject” of an investigation, the manual says, “is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.”

King’s wife turned to social media after the sinking that night to tell Facebook friends her husband was OK. She wrote that he was also on the lake that night, at the same time, and faced rough weather.

“He said he rode 4 ft waves and prayed,” she said. “He and his passengers rode on angels wings to safety. Our heart aches for the Captain and passengers of the Duck that capsized.”

One woman responded: “So thankful Barry was guided to safety! Definitely on angels wings! Prayers for all.”

The Star repeatedly has attempted to talk with both captains. Those attempts have been unsuccessful.

Cellphone video taken from the nearby Showboat Branson Belle, which was docked at the time of the storm, captured the two boats as they struggled in the lake. A viral video of the incident ended right before McKee’s boat went under. He was among the 14 survivors.

The first 911 call about Stretch Duck 07 came at 7:09 p.m., 14 minutes after the boat entered the water that night.

The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph with waves of more than 3 feet.

According to a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the captain and driver were on board at 6:28 that evening when someone stepped onto the back of the boat and told the crew to take the water portion of the tour first. It isn’t known who that person is. The driver, whose job is to steer the duck boat on land, died in the sinking.

The U.S. Coast Guard referred the investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri on Aug. 13 to pursue possible federal criminal charges. That office, based in Kansas City, includes the Table Rock Lake area.

According to the document filed Wednesday, the Coast Guard notified the U.S. Attorney’s Office that its preliminary probable cause determination was that the sinking of Stretch Duck 07 and the loss of lives “resulted from the misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties of the captain of the vessel at the time of the sinking, which is a violation of federal criminal law.”

The certificate of inspection for Stretch Duck 07 set stringent guidelines for wind and water conditions. It states that the “vessel shall not be operated waterborne when winds exceed 35 mph, and/or the wave height exceeds two feet.”

The Coast Guard also notified the U.S. Attorney’s Office of its preliminary probable cause determination “that the operation of Stretch Duck 54 on July 19, 2018, was undertaken by the captain of that vessel in a grossly negligent manner that interfered with the safe operation of the vessel and endangered the lives or bodies of persons on board the vessel.”

The federal investigation is being conducted in addition to a separate criminal probe by the Missouri attorney general.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office confirmed to The Star on July 30 that it had opened a criminal investigation to explore the possibility of violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.

The act forbids fraud and deception in the sale of goods and services.

Several lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts, three on behalf of passengers who died and one on behalf of a survivor. Another was filed earlier this month by a man who jumped in the lake to try to help pull passengers to safety.

The latest suit was filed Aug. 20 in U.S. District Court by the daughter of William Asher, a St. Louis man who died in the tragedy. Jennifer Asher alleges that Ripley Entertainment “took the lives of seventeen people when it made the conscious decision to disregard the known dangers of its vehicles in volatile weather and instructed its employees to begin their excursion on the water.”

Wednesday’s filing asked the court to put a hold on the discovery process for all lawsuits until the criminal investigation is complete. Prosecutors say the action is necessary to prevent civil lawsuits from interfering with a federal probe.

Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said last week that the company was cooperating fully with federal and state authorities.

“We are providing all documentation and materials requested in the case,” she said in an email to The Star. “However, as a party to the ongoing NTSB investigation, we are refrained from commenting to the media on the matters being investigated.”

The court documents filed Wednesday, however, cite a federal law regarding negligence or misconduct when operating a vessel.

According to that law: “Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

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