By Dan Margolies – Kansas News Service/KCUR.org
The co-owner of the Schlitterbahn water park was arrested in Cameron County, Texas, Monday in connection with the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab on the Verruckt water slide in August 2016.
Jeffrey Wayne Henry, also described as a designer of the slide in an indictment handed up by a Wyandotte County grand jury on Friday, was arrested by U.S. marshals on a Kansas warrant.
The indictment, while describing Henry as a “visionary and designer of the Verruckt project,” did not charge him with criminal conduct. Instead, it indicted Schlitterbahn itself. It also charged the former director of operations, Tyler Austin Miles, at its Kansas City, Kansas, water park, where Caleb Schwab died.
A spokeswoman for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office is handling the case, did not return a call seeking comment on the precise nature of the charges against Henry or why he was not charged in Friday’s indictment.
But the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department’s website listed charges of murder, aggravated battery and aggravated endangerment of a child.
Charges listed at a jail after an arrest is made in a case from a different jurisdiction can be in error, however. Miles was charged not with murder but with involuntary manslaughter as well as aggravated battery and aggravated endangerment of a child.
Winter Prosapio, a spokeswoman for Schlitterbahn, said in a statement that the company was not surprised that Henry was charged “considering the allegations from Friday’s indictment.” Schlitterbahn is a family-run company based in New Braunfels, Texas.
“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,” she said.
The indictment appeared to lay the groundwork for charges against Henry, who owns Schlitterbahn with two of his siblings. The indictment described him as a high school dropout with no technical or engineering credentials and said that he and co-designer John Timothy Schooley rushed the water slide project to completion, while skipping “fundamental steps in the design process.”
“In place of mathematical and physics calculations, they rushed forward relying almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods,” the indictment states.
Caleb, the son of Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, was decapitated after the raft he was riding in went airborne and struck a metal pole. Lawmakers and their families had been invited to the park for free that day.
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.
In her statement, Prosapio, the Schlitterbahn spokeswoman, defended the company and Miles, the former director of operations, saying the allegations “that we operated, and failed to maintain, a ride that could foreseeably cause such a tragic accident is beyond the pale of speculation. Many of us, and our children and grandchildren, have ridden the ride with complete confidence as to its safety. Our operational mantra has been and will forever be Safety First.”
Prosapio said Schlitterbahn’s legal team “will be speaking out against each of the allegations point by point in the coming weeks and months. Rest assured, we stand behind our staff and all our parks. We will be fighting these charges aggressively. We know that Tyler is innocent and that we run a safe operation — our 40 years of entertaining millions of people speaks to that.”
The indictment charged that Miles, 29, obstructed the investigation of Schwab’s death and covered up other incidents in which people were injured on the water slide.
Miles’ attorneys, Tom Bath and Tricia Bath, called those allegations false and said he cooperated with law enforcement.
“The Constitution requires that an indictment be based upon legal evidence – not speculation or conjecture,” they said in a statement. “This indictment is based upon grand jury proceedings, which are conducted in secret. While neither we nor the public have had an opportunity to see transcripts of grand jury witness testimony, the indictment is littered with references to evidence that is not legal.”
Schlitterbahn was founded in 1979 by Bob and Billye Henry and their three children. It operates four outdoor water parks in Texas. The one in western Kansas City, Kansas, opened in 2009.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.