Prosecutors: Possible negligence in Missouri boat sinking
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Federal prosecutors say in court filings that the U.S. Coast Guard found probable cause that the captain of a tourist boat that sank in Missouri, killing 17 people, committed misconduct, negligence or was inattentive to his duties.
The U.S. attorney's office also said in motions filed Wednesday that the captain of a second duck boat that made it safely to shore when a storm came up on Table Rock Lake near Branson July 19 acted in a "grossly negligent manner" that day. The filing doesn't elaborate on the allegations.
In the motion, federal prosecutors are asking the federal court based in Kansas City to delay the discovery process in any lawsuits filed against the operators of the Ride the Ducks tours until the criminal investigation is completed.
Three federal lawsuits have been filed in the Western District of Missouri against the duck boat operators, including Ripley Entertainment, which owned the Ride the Ducks attraction at the lake.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Garrison and assistant U.S. attorneys Randall Eggert and Casey Clark argue in the motion that much of the same evidence, documents and witnesses will be part of the criminal investigation and lawsuits. They contend that attorneys in the lawsuits are not entitled to know the substance of the government's case while the investigation is underway and sharing of some evidence could undermine the criminal case.
They say the criminal case takes precedence over civil matters because of the public's interest in knowing if criminal conduct led to the tragedy. The Coast Guard referred the investigation to federal prosecutors on Aug. 13. No criminal charges have been filed.
Prosecutors say their investigation involves people named in the lawsuits and others, including Capt. Kenneth McKee, who was piloting Stretch Boat 7, which sank, and Capt. Barry King, who was piloting Stretch Duck 54, which made it safely to shore. McKee didn't immediately reply to a call seeking comment. A woman who answered King's phone said he had been advised not to talk to the media.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Amy Midgett said the agency won't comment on the pending criminal investigation. And Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, said in a statement that the company continues to cooperate with authorities but won't comment on the ongoing investigation.
Ride the Ducks of Branson offers tours that first drive on land before entering the lake for nearly 20-minute ride. Video and audio recovered after the boat sank showed the lake was calm when the boat went into the water but severe winds up to 70 mph began blowing suddenly and one boat, carrying 31 people, sank within minutes.
In the lawsuits, attorneys contend the duck boat operators ignored weather warnings that day and had long ignored consultants and others who said the boats' design was dangerous and should be changed.