GALENA, Mo. — On Tuesday, a Missouri judge dismissed all 63 criminal state charges against three men charged in a deadly boat sinking.
ABC affiliate KY3 reports Judge Alan Blankenship has said the unique characteristics of the boat lead to it rapidly sinking. He also said the staff did not have enough information about the changing weather on the lake.
"Calling this a tragedy is a complete understatement. It's a tremendous loss of life. I'm sorry for what happened," Blankenship said.
The charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning it is possible to re-file charges against all three men.
Seventeen people, including nine members of the Coleman family from Indianapolis, died when the duck boat capsized and sank on on Table Rock Lake near Branson on July 19, 2018. There were 31 people total were on board. Tia Coleman, one of two surviving family members from the tragedy, was in the courtroom and did not want to comment to KY3 after the ruling.
Captain Kenneth McKee, general manager Curtis Lanham and manager on duty Charles Baltzell, all Ride the Ducks employees, were charged in state court in July 2021. Each faced 17 counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, and McKee also faced 12 counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
In December 2020, a federal judge dismissed neglect and misconduct charges against the three employees.
"On behalf of all involved we respect the court's decision. It was a terrible tragedy for everyone affected. Under these circumstances, we don't believe any further comment is appropriate," J.R. Hobbs, McKee's defense attorney, said.
“This case represents a terrible tragedy for all involved, but we respect the court’s decision and we have no further comment at this time," John Justin Johnston, attorney for Baltzell, told WRTV.
A spokesperson for the Missouri Attorney General released the following statement to WRTV:
"The evidence is clear the defendants were aware of an approaching storm, but there is no evidence they were aware of the gust front "high winds several miles ahead of the approaching storm," a court document signed by Blankenship said. "The evidence does not support the mens rea [intent] element of 'reckless or acts recklessly' as defined by Missouri law."
The document goes on to say "this court feels great sadness for this needless loss of life and the impact on the victims' family and friends. However, because the court does not find sufficient evidence ... the court dismisses each count against each defendant."
In a statement to KY3, Tia Coleman's attorney, Andrew Duffy, said "There was an indefensible decision made to have the duck boats try to 'beat the storm' instead of refunding passenger money. That catastrophic decision cost 17 innocent souls their lives and destroyed families. To have no one criminally responsible for the senseless, easily preventable loss of life would be grossly unjust."
Stone County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Selby tells WRTV they are working with the attorney general's office and that the dismissal was a stage in the proceedings. They are considering options and could make a decision in the next few days, Selby said.
WRTV has reached out to Lanham's attorney for comment and have not heard back.