By Dan Margolies – Kansas News Service/KCUR.org
A Wyandotte County grand jury has indicted Schlitterbahn Waterpark and one of its former executives on involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on the Verruckt water slide in August 2016.
The individual, Tyler Austin Miles, 29, is being held on a $50,000 bond at the Wyandotte County jail. Miles was Schlitterbahn’s water park operations director before he left last year.
In a news release, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office said that additional charges were filed over injuries sustained by 13 other individuals injured while riding the water slide, including four other children.
The additional charges include aggravated battery and aggravated endangerment of a child. Miles was also indicted on two charges of interfering with law enforcement and Schlitterbahn on one count of interference with law enforcement.
The indictment was unsealed by Wyandotte County District Judge Robert Burns.
Miles turned himself in to the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office on Friday morning, and bond was set at $50,000, according to the release. A jury trial has been set for Sept. 10.
The Kansas City Star reported on Sunday that a grand jury had been empaneled to look into possible criminal charges over Caleb Schwab’s death.
Caleb, the son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, died on Aug. 7, 2016, after the raft he was riding in went airborne and struck a metal pole. Lawmakers and their families were invited to the park for free that day. A subsequent autopsy revealed he had been decapitated.
The 17-story ride opened in 2014 near The Legends in western Kansas City, Kansas, and was billed as the tallest water slide in the world. The slide had operated without any serious incident until Caleb Schwab’s death.
Although decommissioned, the slide remains standing as possible evidence. The park has declared plans to tear it down.
Schlitterbahn released a statement after Miles was taken into custody saying it was “deeply disappointed to learn that any individual is being personally charged for the terrible accident on Verruckt.”
“Our review of the facts and circumstances of the accident has never shown any evidence of criminal conduct on the part of anyone,” the company said. “The safety of our guests and employees has been at the forefront of our culture throughout our 40 years of operations. … We have set the highest bar for safety in our industry.”
The statement went on to commend Miles, saying he had “demonstrated the highest dedication to safety, from the training of our lifeguards and ride operators, to ensuring all rides have operated in accordance with our strict protocols.”
“He was conscientious and committed to providing visitors to the waterpark a safe and enjoyable experience,” the statement said. “Tyler left us in September to accept great opportunity; we were sorry to see him go and wished him well. We stand by him and are shocked by these allegations.”
A Kansas City Star investigation revealed that the slide’s design had major flaws and that Kansas lacked regulations governing amusement park safety. The state has since enacted regulations providing for daily inspections and fines for safety violations. More changes are pending in the legislature this year.
The Star, citing court documents, also reported that Caleb Schwab’s family will receive nearly $20 million in settlements from companies involved in his death. Two women who were on the ride with Caleb Schwab sustained serious injuries and later settled with Schlitterbahn for an undisclosed amount.
It’s rare for criminal charges to be filed against individuals or companies that operate amusement park rides. In 2011, a former amusement park employee in Wisconsin who dropped a 12-year-old girl 10 stories from a thrill ride was convicted by a judge of felony second degree reckless injury.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that when that worker was charged in 2010, only five instances of criminal charges nationwide had been filed in connection with deaths on amusement park rides. Two of the cases were brought in Massachusetts and one each in Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, according to the newspaper’s search of news stories
In the Tennessee case, an amusement park manager was charged with second degree murder in the death of a woman who fell 60 feet to her death from a ride after her harness came loose. A jury convicted him of a lesser charge of reckless homicide.
More recently, authorities in Ohio last year declined to file criminal charges over a fatal accident at the Ohio State Fair. The accident, in which a passenger gondola broke loose, left an 18-year-old man dead and seven others injured.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.