A state judge dismissed all charges against five defendants in connection with injuries to two women and the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on a waterslide in Kansas City, Kan., in 2016. The 168-ft-tall Verruckt waterslide was one of the world’s tallest. Schwab was thrown from his raft on the ride and decapitated by metal supports of a safety netting canopy over the slide.
The Kansas City district attorney had obtained second-degree murder charges against Schlitterbahn Waterparks Resorts co-owner Jeff Henry and ride designer John Schooley. Lesser charges had been filed against former Schlitterbahn operations manager Tyler Miles and Schlitterbahn’s affiliated construction company, Henry & Son’s Construction. Also charged was KC Water Park Management, a business entity for the Kansas City park.
Judge Robert Burns said in his ruling that the office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt “irreparably tainted” a grand jury with prejudicial evidence.
Prosecutors had shown the grand jury a 2014 Travel Channel television program, “Xtreme Waterparks,” that detailed the design and construction of Verruckt. Attorneys for Henry and Schooley said producers encouraged them to play up the danger of the ride because “Xtreme Waterparks,” was a scripted program designed to appeal to thrill seekers.
“Quite simply, these defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires,” Burns wrote.
He did leave open the possibility of the attorney general sending the case to a new grand jury or, a more common process in Kansas, a preliminary hearing from which new criminal charges could be filed.
“We are obviously disappointed and respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” Schmidt said in a statement. “We will review the ruling carefully, including the court’s observation that the ruling ‘does not preclude the possibility that the State could continue to pursue this matter in a criminal court,’ and take a fresh look at the evidence and applicable law in this tragic and troubling case to determine the best course forward.”
Defense attorneys asked early on in discovery for transcripts of the grand jury proceedings. When they realized that the evidence presented leaned heavily on footage from “Xtreme Waterparks” they filed motions to have the charges dismissed.
The Schwab family previously settled a civil suit against Schlitterbahn Waterparks for $20 million. Jeff Morris, Henry & Sons Construction’s attorney said he and his client agreed with Burns’ assessment about the tragedy of Schwab’s death but that the accident did not rise to the level of a criminal act. The professional engineering requirements for Verrukt’s design and construction were limited to auditing paperwork by the state (ENR August 26, 2016).
Schlitterbahn Waterparks, a New Braunfels, Texas-based operator of five U.S. Waterparks, owned by the Henry family has not yet committed to opening the Kansas City park in 2019 but welcomed the decision.
“We welcome the decision which dismissed the charges against all defendants. We are thankful for all the support and encouragement we’ve received,” said Winter Prosapio, corporate director of communications .