Grand jury indicts captain of Missouri duck boat that sank in severe weather, killing 17 people

Charges were filed Thursday against the captain of a Missouri duck boat that sank in severe weather in July, killing 17 people, including nine members of the same family, federal officials announced.

Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, was indicted by a federal grand jury and is facing 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship's officer resulting in death.

McKee is accused of not properly assessing the weather before or after the boat went on the lake near the tourist town of Branson, U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said during a news conference in Springfield.

“Our entire community was shocked and saddened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last summer,” Garrison said. “Today’s indictment alleges that the misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty by the ship’s captain caused or contributed to the loss of those lives.”

Garrison said that McKee operated the boat in conditions that "exceeded" what the vehicle was supposed to be able to withstand. The boat was on an excursion on July 19 on Table Rock Lake when it sank after a severe storm rolled into the area.

Video and audio from the boat, recovered by divers, showed the lake was calm when the boat entered, but the weather suddenly turned violent.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in preliminary reports on the accident that the wind speed at the time was more than 70 mph, just short of hurricane force. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly exceeding 60 mph.


The wave height wasn’t known, but cell phone video shot by passengers on a nearby excursion boat showed waves that appeared to be far greater than 2 feet high.

The U.S. Coast Guard found probable cause that the accident "resulted from the misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties" by the boat's captain, Kenneth McKee, according to an August court filing. The U.S. attorney's office added that the captain of a second duck boat that safely made it to shore during the storm acted in a "grossly negligent manner," though the court filing didn't elaborate on those findings.

The duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., was raised four days after the tragedy. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP, File))

Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats that were originally designed for used in World War II but refurbished as a tourist attraction, suspended operations following the accident.

The sinking killed nine members of Tia Coleman's family, including her three young children and husband, who were vacationing from Indiana.

Nine members of the Coleman family from Indiana died in the duck boat accident on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo. (GoFundMe via Coleman Family Campaign)

The other people killed included two couples from Missouri, an Illinois woman who died while saving her granddaughter's life, an Arkansas father and son, and a retired pastor who was the boat's operator on land. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of victims and their survivors.

The vessel's certificate of inspection issued by the Coast Guard in 2017 established rules and limitations on when it could be on the water. It states the boat "shall not be operated waterborne" when winds exceed 35 mph and/or wave heights exceed 2 feet.

Back in July, a mechanical inspector told Fox news he warned the company about massive design flaws and dangerous safety issues almost a year before the tragedy.

The duck boat was raised from the Missouri lake four days after it sank during a storm. (Fox News)

"My first thought was I was thankful that me and my family weren't on the ducks," Steve Paul told Fox News at the time. "My second thought was, 'Oh man, I probably inspected that boat.'"

Paul said he sent the company a "2-to-3-page fleet inspection report" as well as 24 checklist reports and "as many as 20 photos for each duck" he inspected in August 2017.

In the report, he cautioned that the boats' engines -- and pumps that remove water from their hulls -- might fail in bad weather. In rough conditions, water could get into the exhaust system, and then into the motor, cutting it off. With the motor off, its pump for removing water from the hull would not operate.

Branson is among several places around the country where the amphibious vehicles offer excursions for tourists. Since 1999, 42 deaths have been associated with duck boat accidents. On May 1, 1999, 13 people died when the Miss Majestic duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Fox News' Barnini Chakraborty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.