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Schlitterbahn

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.

Typhoon Texas

Someplace new for the summer.

Not far from Katy Mills Mall, rainbow-colored slides tower seven stories high over a new water park that has taken shape on 25 acres.

A short hill with a waterfall running through it greets visitors. Inside, they’ll find nine water rides, a 25,000-square-foot wave pool, a lazy river and a Texas-style barbecue restaurant. About 18 acres sit next to the park for a planned expansion.

“It’s finally come to reality,” said Johnny Nelson, a former city administrator for Katy who first discussed the idea of a water park next to the 175-store outlet shopping mall back when it opened in 1999.

Katy has been known more for its powerhouse high school football team and popular mall than for any particular tourist attractions. The Katy MKT Depot and a nearby caboose stand as proud reminders of Katy’s railroad past, but they’re off the beaten path and not huge draws.

The rapid growth of the region, and surveys indicating residents wanted more in the way of family entertainment in the suburb induced city officials to come up with amenities that would attract large numbers of visitors. The water park may be one of them.

Interest in the $50 million Typhoon Texas facility, which [opened] Saturday, has been high on social media. It is anticipated to draw 400,000 visitors each year during its summer operating seasons, according to Byron Hebert, the current city administrator.

It will serve as a main lure in a burgeoning suburban district that already boasts restaurants, hotels and store chains. These attractions will soon be complemented by a $150 million public-private development that includes a 2.5-mile boardwalk around a pond, a hotel, a 55,000-square-foot convention center and an 89-acre nature park.

“To have a water park, to have a mall like Katy Mills, to be doing the work they’re doing in downtown Katy to renovate it too, and then the boardwalk – that’s millions of millions of dollars in capital investment that the community sees,” said Chris Tanea, marketing manager at the Katy Area Economic Development Council. “The city is going to reap huge benefits because of it, but it extends beyond that.”

[…]

Hebert noted that city leaders were pitched water park proposals on six prior occasions; they rejected each, deciding to wait for a private developer to tackle the project. They got their wish last year, and ground was broken in August.

He predicts that the city’s sales tax revenue will increase by at least 2 percent because of the water park, but said it’s too early to say what will be generated by the coming Boardwalk District, which will take several years to finish.

“Katy has really begun to brand itself as a regional destination for this area,” Tanea said. “The goal is to bring more people in because there is so much to offer here, and we still have space for growth.”

One expert, however, sees “virtually no economic impact” for the Houston area as a whole.

“It’s just increasing the entertainment dollars in Katy that would have otherwise gone to other parts of Houston, so it’s more of a direct impact on the immediate Katy area,” said Bill Gilmer, director for the Institute of Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston. “Certainly, San Antonio has its own water park, and so does Dallas, so nobody will be driving from over there.”

Maybe, I don’t know. I’m well familiar with the argument that new entertainment options don’t really have an economic impact but instead just redistribute the collective budget for leisure spending in an area. It’s one of the linchpins of the case against subsidized stadium construction. I feel like big-ticket items like a water park have more than a basically zero-sum effect, however. They’re an indulgence that I think a fair number of people will splurge on, with the payment for it not necessarily coming out of their existing allocation for fun. For sure, it will have a positive effect for the area, and will no doubt put a few bucks into many teenagers’ pockets. For an awful lot of people, it’s now the closest option for that experience. Even for me, it’s not really much farther than Splash Town, and it’s closer than Schlitterbahn Galveston. I admit, I’m thinking about taking the kids out there sometime this summer. The park hours are a little odd; they’re open till 10 most Fridays and even some Thursdays, but generally only till 7 on Saturdays. Not sure why they do it that way – why not till 10 on Saturdays, too? – but whatever. We still like going to the Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels – I have family there as well, which is another reason we go – but this will be on my list as well. What do you think?

Get those tubers out of your truck!

It’ll be summer before you know it, and if you’re contemplating a trip to New Braunfels for a ride on the river, be aware of some new changes to the law there regarding tuber transport.

Tubers who enjoy an exhilarating ride in the back of an outfitter’s pickup to reach the Guadalupe or Comal River may be disappointed this year. The open-air rides won’t be allowed.

The ban on using truck beds to shuttle tubers is just one of several new rules the New Braunfels City Council recently approved to improve regulation of river outfitters and keep tubers safe.

[…]

On March 8, council members approved 18 rules regarding water-recreation shuttle services, including the ban on their use of pickups as shuttles. Though in Texas it is legal for people 18 and older to ride in the back of a pickup, New Braunfels Mayor Bruce Boyer said the change addresses a potential safety issue for some revelers.

“People are tired. People may have, perhaps, lost their inhibitions to some extent,” Boyer said of tubers exiting the river. “We haven’t had a lot of incidents with regard to this, but it really only takes one severe incident … for it to become a huge problem.”

By 2011, the city also will require that all shuttles be designed by the manufacturer to transport passengers. The change will rule out makeshift shuttles crafted from other types of vehicles.

Word to the wise – watch out for non-standard tuber shuttles. Not that anyone should need to be told that, but there you have it.

One more thing:

Vacationers who want to rent a home in residential New Braunfels may face more limited options. The hot-button issue of short-term rentals has bobbed up during recent council meetings.

The dispute pits those who want to tap into tourist dollars by renting out their homes against those who have been appalled by what they see as disruptive carousing by some visitors. Some residents said they have seen visitors litter, strip off clothing, or urinate in bushes.

We generally like to stay at the Schlitterbahn when we visit New Braunfels. Those of you who have done one of these short-term rentals, take note. The issue is scheduled to be discussed by New Braunfels’ city council in early April.

New Schlitterbahn planned

To be built in Cedar Park, which is northwest of Austin.

The park would be built on about 95 acres on RM 1431, about halfway between U.S. 183 and Interstate 35, according to a Cedar Park Economic Development Corp. meeting agenda. The project is expected to cost about $360 million to fully develop, city documents said.

The economic impact of the project is expected to be $2.5 billion over 30 years and could create more than 1,000 jobs , according to an independent study cited in city documents.

“It is a resort destination that we’re announcing – not just a water park,” Schlitterbahn spokesman Jeffrey Siebert said.

The park would be the company’s fifth and its second largest in acreage. Other parks are on South Padre Island and Galveston Island and in Kansas City, Kan.

Siebert said the new water park might include a hotel or other features, but he did not provide details Wednesday.

The park is scheduled to be completed by 2012. This location isn’t that far from the original one in New Braunfels, so I have to wonder if it might cannibalize that site’s business a bit. On the other hand, I know from experience that the New Braunfels park can get really freaking crowded, so maybe a little of that isn’t so bad. In any event, having another Schlitterbahn option is a Good Thing as far as I’m concerned.