Designer of deadly waterslide charged along with park owner
TOPEKA, Kan. – A water park company co-owner accused of making a spur of the moment decision to build the world’s tallest waterslide and rushing it into service, and a designer accused of shoddy planning, were charged Tuesday in the 2016 death of a 10-year-old boy who was decapitated on the ride when the raft he was on went airborne and hit an overhead hoop.
The Kansas attorney general’s office said Jeffrey Henry, 62, co-owner of Texas-based Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts, and designer John Schooley were charged with reckless second-degree murder in the death of Caleb Schwab on the 17-story ride Verruckt, a German word for insane. The indictment also charges them with injuries to 13 other people on the slide. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of 9 years to 41 years.
The company that built the ride, Henry & Sons Construction Co., which is described as the private construction company of Schlitterbahn, also was charged.
Henry was ordered held in a Texas jail without bond Tuesday, pending extradition to Kansas. The attorney general’s office says Schooley is not in custody. Schooley didn’t have a listed phone number and no one answered the phone at Henry & Sons Construction Co. Eric B Terry, who represented the company in an earlier unrelated case, didn’t immediately return a phone or email message.
The charges announced Tuesday bring to three the number of people accused in Schwab’s death. A Kansas grand jury last week indicted Tyler Austin Miles, the former operations manager of the Schlitterbahn park in Kansas City, Kansas, on 20 felony charges. The charges include a single count of involuntary manslaughter in Schwab’s death. Miles has been released on $50,000 bond, according to one of his attorneys, Tricia Bath.
Indictments say neither Henry nor Schooley had technical or engineering expertise related to amusement park rides. Henry made a “spur of the moment” decision in 2012 to build the world’s tallest water slide to impress the producers of a Travel Channel show, the indictments say. Henry’s desire to “rush the project” and a lack of expertise caused the company to “skip fundamental steps in the design process.”
The indictment said that “not a single engineer was directly involved in Verruckt’s dynamic engineering or slide path design.” The indictment said that in 2014, when there were news reports emerging about airborne rafts, a company spokesperson “discredited” them and Henry and his designer began “secretly testing at night to avoid scrutiny.”
The indictment listed 13 injuries during the 182 days the ride was in operation, including two concussions. In one of those cases, a 15-year-old girl went temporarily blind while riding.
Caleb, the son of Kansas Republican state Rep. Scott Schwab, was decapitated after the raft on which he was riding went airborne on a day on which admission was free for Kansas state legislators and their families. The family reached settlements of nearly $20 million with Schlitterbahn and various companies associated with the design and construction of the waterslide. The two women who rode on the same raft with Caleb suffered serious injuries and settled claims with Schlitterbahn for an undisclosed amount.
“Clearly the issues with Schlitterbahn go far beyond Caleb’s incident, and we know the attorney general will take appropriate steps in the interest of public safety,” the family said in a statement released Monday through their attorneys.
The indictment said Schooley was responsible for doing “the math” that went into the slide’s design and signed an operations manual claiming the ride met all American Society for Testing and Materials standards. But the indictment lists a dozen instances in which the design violated those standards and says investigators could find no evidence that so-called dynamic engineering calculations were made to determine the physics a passenger would experience. The indictment said Schooley lacked the technical expertise to properly design a complex amusement ride such as Verruckt.
The indictment said Schooley admitted, “If we actually knew how to do this, and it could be done that easily, it wouldn’t be that spectacular.”
The company has promised to aggressively fight the criminal charges against Miles and the park, and respond to the allegations in the 47-page indictment “point by point.”
“We as a company and as a family will fight these allegations and have confidence that once the facts are presented it will be clear that what happened on the ride was an unforeseeable accident,” Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio said in an emailed statement.
Prosapio said Schlitterbahn does not expect any changes to the Kansas City park’s season, which is set to open May 25 and runs through Labor Day. The Verruckt slide has been closed since Caleb died.
Mike Taylor, a spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, says it does not believe it has the legal authority to shut down a business, other than for an epidemic or contagious disease outbreak.
The company also operates water parks in Galveston, Corpus Christi, South Padre Island and New Braunfels, Texas, according to its website.
Associated Press writers David Warren and Terry Wallace in Dallas also contributed to this report.