SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The captain of a duck boat that sank on Table Rock Lake earlier this summer killing 17 passengers was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday morning.
Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, of Verona, faces 17 counts of misconduct, negligence, or inattention to duty by a ship's officer, resulting in the death of another person. McKee is charged with one count for each of the 17 passengers who died during the sinking on July 19.
U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison announced the indictment of McKee at a news conference in Springfield on Thursday. The charge is sometimes referred to as "seaman's manslaughter," Garrison said.
"This indictment represents the beginning and not the end of our efforts in this matter," Garrison said. "We're strongly committed to bringing this investigation to a conclusion as quickly as we can without sacrificing or compromising the integrity of this investigation. We owe that to the victims and surviving family members of this tragedy."
There were 29 passengers and two crew members on the boat when it capsized July 19 during a storm on Table Rock Lake. The boat sank to the bottom of the lake. Among the 17 killed were nine members of an Indiana family.
Though the storm was fast-moving, officials said earlier that a weather watch had been issued hours before the amphibious vehicle capsized. Prior to the indictment, an initial probe by the U.S. Coast Guard found probable cause that the accident was the result of the captain's conduct, according to earlier court filings.
The indictment alleges that McKee did not properly judge the risk before entering the lake or during the excursion. McKee, the grand jury said, failed to properly assess incoming weather prior to and after entering the water; operated the boat in violation of conditions and limitations specified in the boat's certification of inspection; failed to tell passengers to put on personal floatation devices when severe weather arrived; and failed to prepare to abandon ship the first and second time the boat's bilge alarm sounded.
McKee's actions "separately and collectively contributed to and caused the destruction of the life of any person on board" the boat, the indictment says. The grand jury specifies 16 different actions McKee either did or did not take leading up to the sinking that resulted in the deaths.
Various lawsuits have been filed against Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats. The company stopped operations after the tragedy.
The investigation remains ongoing, and Garrison did not say if any other indictments would be coming. He also declined to comment on how or if the criminal case would affect those civil cases.
"Part of the reason that we're trying to get our criminal investigation completed as quickly as possible, is so that we can provide as limited a hindrance to the prosecution of the civil cases," Garrison said.
Among those killed were the husband and three children of Tia Coleman and some of her other family members who were in Branson on a vacation. The victims also included two couples from Missouri, a father and son from Arkansas, and retired pastor who operated the boat when it was on land, and an Illinois woman who died saving her granddaughter.
McKee's attorney has been informed of the indictment, and Garrison said he anticipates that McKee will surrender himself. He faces up to 10 years in prison for each count, and Garrison declined to say if he would be seeking the maximum possible punishments.
"That's a matter that will have to come under consideration if guilt is established," Garrison said.
Wornell writes for Joplin Globe, a CNHI News publication in southwest Missouri.