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Jeff Henry

Schlitterbahn indictments dismissed

Some good news for the company, following the worst thing that ever happened at a Schlitterbahn water park.

A Wyandotte County judge on Friday said that the Kansas Attorney General ‘irreparably tainted’ a grand jury with prejudicial evidence to obtain indictments against several Schlitterbahn employees and associates involved in the design, construction and operation of a water slide that killed a 10-year-old boy in 2016.

Judge Robert Burns dismissed indictments against three individuals and two corporate affiliates of Schlitterbahn, the company that built the 17-story Verruckt water slide in Kansas City, Kan., in 2014. It drew large crowds until Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, was killed by decapitation on the ride. The water slide, once billed as the world’s tallest, was torn down last year.

Burns sided with defense attorneys who argued that lawyers in Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office showed a Wyandotte County grand jury evidence that would not have been admissible in trial — clips of reality television, misleading expert testimony and references to an unrelated death from years ago — that improperly influenced the grand jury in handing down criminal charges.

Taken all together, Burns found the grand jury had been abused to obtain indictments, which contained charges as serious as second-degree murder for two of the defendants.

“The court has grave doubts as to whether the irregularities and improprieties improperly influenced the grand jury and ultimately bolstered its decision to indict these defendants,” Burns said. “Quite simply, these defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires.”

For now, Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, Verruckt designer John Schooley and former Schlitterbahn operations manager Tyler Miles face no criminal charges in Caleb’s death. The Kansas Attorney General can seek criminal charges again, either through another grand jury, through a preliminary hearing or seek an appeal of Burns’ decision. Or they could just walk away from the case.

See here for the background, and here for a deeper dive. I still have very mixed feelings about all this, and if you keep reading the story you’ll see that the reasons for the dismissal were more technical and procedural than substantive. I don’t feel like the Schlitterbahn folks were exonerated in any way, just that maybe the Kansas AG didn’t do a good job. (To be fair, the story notes that a lot of people thought the indictments were problematic in the first place.) The Schlitterbahn settled a civil case related to Caleb Schwab’s death for $20 million, so it’s not like there were no consequences. I’m just still not ready to forgive and move on. Texas Monthly has more.

The Schlitterbahn story

Texas Monthly does its thing on Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry and the criminal charges that stemmed from the death of an 11-year-old boy on the biggest ride at the park in Kansas City.

Investigators and detectives from the Kansas City Police Department, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and the Kansas attorney general’s office also arrived at Schlitterbahn. A detective interviewed 29-year-old Tyler Miles, who had been working at the park since 2013 and had advanced from construction worker to lifeguard to director of operations, responsible for all aspects of the park’s day-to-day ride operations. “Have you been aware of any complaints regarding Verrückt the ride in the last season?” the detective asked.

Miles answered, “I have not, sir,” according to the detective. His lawyers would later say he was so confident in the ride’s safety that on the very day that Caleb was killed, he had brought his wife to the park to ride Verrückt.

Investigators later learned, however, that Schlitterbahn employees were required to submit regular “ops reports” about the rides they monitored and, according to reports that the investigators read, Verrückt had problems that were never revealed to the public. For instance, eleven Schlitterbahn customers said they had been injured on Verrückt between August 31, 2014, and August 5, 2016 (two days before Caleb’s death). In five of the incidents, riders claimed they were injured while their rafts were still in the chute. (One rider reported that her head had slammed into the headrest and she sustained a concussion when her raft entered the runout pool at a high speed.) In five other incidents, riders claimed their rafts went airborne over the crest of the second hill and that they suffered head, neck, and back injuries when their rafts slammed back down onto the chute. And a man named Norris “J. J.’’ Groves reported that when his raft went airborne, his face and forehead struck the netting and a metal hoop, causing his right eye to swell shut for the rest of the day.

An investigator spoke to a seventeen-year-old lifeguard who said that Miles had ordered him to write a report that downplayed the severity of the Groves incident. Meanwhile, sifting through Verrückt’s maintenance reports, other investigators concluded that Miles had avoided or delayed making repairs that would have taken the ride out of commission. According to investigators, Miles hadn’t even ordered repairs when a Schlitterbahn manager informed him, on July 15, 2016 (three weeks before Caleb’s death), that maintenance work on Verrückt’s brake system was a priority.

What’s more, according to court documents, the investigators learned that on July 3, 2014, one week before the ride’s grand opening, an engineering firm hired by Jeff and Schooley to perform accelerometer tests on Verrückt’s rafts had issued a report suggesting that if the combined weight of the three passengers in a raft was between 400 and 550 pounds—the weight Jeff and Schooley had agreed was appropriate—there was a chance the raft would go airborne on the second hill. The ride opened anyway, with the weight range unchanged.

By 2017, attorneys for Schlitterbahn were meeting with the Schwab family’s attorneys. They eventually agreed that the water park and various companies associated with the design and construction of Verrückt would pay Caleb’s family a $20 million settlement, an astonishing sum. The two sisters who had ridden behind Caleb, both of whom suffered facial injuries, also received a settlement, of an undisclosed amount.

Still, neither Jeff nor his siblings offered any public explanation for what had happened. Had there been a problem with the distribution of the three passengers’ weight that caused the raft to lift off into the air? Had something gone wrong with the cannon nozzle that shot the raft up the second hill? Was the wind a factor? No one seemed to know, not even Jeff.

He said he wanted to return to Verrückt, which closed immediately after Caleb’s death but still loomed over the Kansas City landscape like some grisly monument, so he could find out what had gone wrong. His hope, he said, was to reconstruct the fatal ride exactly as it took place, assisted by a team of independent experts. But prosecutors for the Kansas attorney general’s office persuaded a judge to lock down the ride. They believed it was a valuable piece of evidence that should not be touched. Schlitterbahn was perhaps not the scene of a freak horrific accident, the prosecutors were saying, but the scene of a crime.

See here for the background and be sure to read the whole thing, as any story by Skip Hollandsworth is worth reading. Verrückt has since been torn down, and if there is a criminal trial it will happen next year. I’m still struggling with how I feel about this, and I hope that enough facts come out during the trial to help me sort it out. Read the story and see what you think.

The Schlitterbahn indictments

I’m still stunned by this.

Three Schlitterbahn Waterparks officials now have been swept up in a criminal probe into the 2016 decapitation death of a 10-year-old boy at the company’s Kansas park.

An indictment unsealed Tuesday in Kansas reveals for the first time that ride designer John Timothy Schooley and Henry and Sons Construction Company Inc., Schlitterbahn’s construction firm, also face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated endangering of a child in the death of Caleb Thomas Schwab, along with park co-owner Jeffrey Wayne Henry.

The 10-year-old, the son of Kansas State Rep. Scott Schwab, died Aug. 7, 2016 while riding the 168-foot Verrückt slide when he hit a hoop that held protective netting on the ride’s second hill.

The indictment names Henry as Verrückt’s “visionary and designer” and Schooley as the slide’s lead designer. It accuses both men of ignoring safety standards during the slide’s design process and warnings about the ride’s potential danger.

If convicted on all 18 counts, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of almost 139 years and fines potentially totaling $3.4 million.

[…]

Neither Henry, who dropped out of high school to work for his father’s water park, nor Schooley had technical or engineering credentials pertaining to amusement ride design or safety, the charging document says. Furthermore, neither man possessed the expertise required to properly and safely design a ride as complex as Verrückt, according to the indictment.

Henry, who co-owns the New Braunfels theme park company with his two siblings, first conceived of the Verrückt project in November 2012 as a way to impress producers of the Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks series and fast-tracked the slide’s design and construction phases, skipping over necessary calculations and safety measures in the process, according to the indictment.

Nothing like wanting to meet a reality show’s production deadlines to speed up the production of a water park ride. This long look at the indictments and the process that led to the faulty design decisions will make you question your desire to ever go to an amusement park again.

Henry first conceived of building the world’s tallest and fastest water slide on Nov. 13, 2012 in a “spur-of-the-moment” effort to catch the attention of the producers of the Travel Channel’s Xtreme Waterparks series, the indictment says.

But neither Henry, who dropped out of high school to work for his father at the original New Braunfels park, nor John Timothy Schooley, named as Verrückt’s lead designer, had technical or engineering credentials applicable to amusement ride design or safety or the expertise required to properly design a ride as complex as Verrückt, the charging document alleges.

The document quotes Schooley as saying, “If we actually knew how to do this, and it could be done that easily, it wouldn’t be that spectacular.”

The pair’s combined lack of expertise along with a rushed completion timeline led Henry and Schooley — longtime friends and business partners — to miss essential steps in the slide’s design and construction process, the indictment alleges, and favor “crude trial-and-error” methods over complex mathematical and physics calculations. According to the indictment, investigators found no evidence that the pair had made vital calculations measuring the physics of the ride — speed, weight, distance, velocity, momentum, gravitational force, centripetal force and friction.

Henry was known as a micromanager who pushed for the ride to be completed by June 15, 2013, about seven months after his initial conception, according to the document. Industry experts told the Kansas grand jury that a team of about four members including two qualified engineers would need at a maximum of six months for design calculations alone on a project like Verrückt, the indictment says. The Verrückt project didn’t employ a single engineer in the design phase, prosecutors allege.

Henry wrote two emails Dec. 14, 2012 to Schooley and other park employees: “We all need to circle on this. I must communicate reality to all. Time, is of the essence. No time to die. J”

In a separate email, Henry wrote, “I have to micro manage (sic) this. Now. This is a designed product for TV, absolutely cannot be anything else. Speed is 100 percent required. A floor a day. Tough schedule. Jeff”

Within 36 days of Henry’s initial idea, the design and construction on the Verrückt prototype was finished, court documents show.

Read the whole thing. I’ve been a fan of the Schlitterbahn for almost 30 years, but I don’t know that I can bring myself to visit it any more. I hope the defense can present a compelling alternate explanation for what happened, because what’s being shown here is disturbing, to say the least. See here and here for more. I’ll try to keep an eye on this going forward.