(Reuters) - The captain of the World War Two-style tourist “duck boat” that sank on a Missouri lake during a storm in July, killing 17 people, was charged on Thursday with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty in an indictment by a federal grand jury, prosecutors said.
Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, of Verona, Missouri, was charged in a 17-count indictment, one count for each of the passengers who died when the vessel sank on July 19.
McKee was captain of the vessel operated by Ripley Entertainment Inc, which ran duck boat tours in Branson, Missouri, and on nearby Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake, where the incident occurred. He could face a prison sentence of up to 10 years for each of the 17 counts.
There were 31 passengers aboard the duck boat on Table Rock Lake when hurricane-strength winds churned up the water and sank the craft, causing one of the deadliest U.S. tourist tragedies in recent years.
“The captain of the vessel always has a duty to operate his vessel in a safe manner and that’s why Mr. McKee is under indictment this morning,” Timothy Garrison, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said at a news conference.
McKee is accused of failing to properly assess the severe weather, instruct passengers to use personal flotation devices, or head for shore and prepare to abandon ship, the indictment said.
Garrison said McKee was not yet in custody.
McKee’s attorney J.R. Hobbs said in an email that he was working out with his client how he should surrender to officials.
“We have received the indictment and anticipate that a not-guilty plea will be entered,” Hobbs said.
In addition to a possible sentence in federal prison without parole, McKee could face a $250,000 fine.
Garrison declined to say whether other people were being investigated.
The families of four people who died have filed lawsuits against Ripley Entertainment, which operates under the name Ride the Ducks, saying it recklessly allowed the vessel out in dangerous weather.
Nine members of the same family were among the 17 killed.
The boats, modeled on the amphibious landing craft used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, have a checkered history involving more than three dozen fatalities on water and land, including the Table Rock Lake sinking, according to the complaint.
Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; editing by Bill Berkrot and Leslie Adler