Owner of World’s Tallest Waterslide, Which Decapitated Boy, Won’t Be Charged

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
February 25, 2019USshare
Owner of World’s Tallest Waterslide, Which Decapitated Boy, Won’t Be Charged
Caleb Thomas Schwab, the son of Scott Schwab, a Kansas state lawmaker from Olathe, in June 2016. Caleb died while riding a water slide in Kansas City in 2016. (David Strickland via AP)

The owner of the world’s tallest waterslide, which decapitated a 10-year-old boy when his raft went airborne, saw the second-degree murder charge against him dropped.

Caleb Schwab died in August 2016 on the Verruckt water slide at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City. The ride was later razed and water park co-owner Jeff Henry was charged, in addition to the slide designer John Schooley and former Schlitterbahn Waterpark Manager Tyler Miles.

Judge Robert Burns said on Feb. 22 that the Kansas Attorney General has abused the grand jury process multiple times, including presenting a “highly dramatized” Travel Channel video of Verruckt’s construction to the grand jury.

The state didn’t adequately explain how the video “could be considered ‘legal evidence,'” Burns wrote, noting that the video “depicted a staged demonstration for entertainment purposes, not a factual depiction of the design and construction of the waterslide.”

“The grand jury was clearly swayed by its exposure to this video,” Burns said.

Ride designer Jeffery Henry looks over his creation, the world’s tallest waterslide called Verruckt at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kan., on July 9, 2014. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Burns also found that a witness improperly testified about a 2013 death at Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Texas, which wouldn’t have been admissible in the trial due to not meeting applicable standards for admission of evidence. The same witness referred to standards for rides known as ASTM that were not required under Kansas law at the time the water slide was created, designed, and constructed.

The witness “stated and implied that ASTM standards were legally required and that those standards were not met,” Burns said. The testimony was “unsubstantiated, irrelevant, and somewhat confusing,” he added.

Burns said that the abuses warranted the dismissal of all charges.

Carl Cornwell, an attorney for Henry, said he expected the ruling because of how the prosecution acted. He said that defense attorneys weren’t allowed to be in the courtroom when the prosecution showed the Travel Channel video of rafts flying off the tracks.

waterpark co-owner Jeffrey Henry
An undated mugshot showing Schlitterbahn Waterpark co-owner Jeffrey Henry. (Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office)`

“It wasn’t going fast enough so they put wheels on it. They have pictures of that. Also, they didn’t load one of the boats correctly so it would fly off and land someplace else. Well, that was never shown to the grand jury,” Cornwall told KHSB.

An attorney representing the family of the deceased declined to comment on the ruling; in January 2017, the family settled a civil case for $20 million.

A Schlitterbahn representative said, “We welcome today’s decision, which dismissed the charges against all defendants.” The park is due to reopen in the spring of 2019.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said his office would review the ruling and could bring new charges down the line.

NTD Photo
Crews dismantle the Verruckt waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kan., on Oct. 30, 2018. (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo, File)

“We are obviously disappointed and respectfully disagree with the court’s decision. We will review the ruling carefully, including the court’s observation that the ruling ‘does not preclude the possibility that the State could continue to pursue this matter in a criminal court,’ and take a fresh look at the evidence and applicable law in this tragic and troubling case to determine the best course forward,” he said in a statement.

The ruling comes about six months after two employees at the water park were acquitted of an obstructing an investigation charge.

Former Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison told WDAF that he thought the second-degree murder charge wasn’t warranted.

“When they charged those men with second-degree murder, I always felt like that was a bit of an over-reach honestly,” he said. “Reckless second-degree murder is a very serious charge.”

Blaine LeCesne, a professor at the Loyola University of New Orleans who has tracked the case, added to the Kansas City Star that there didn’t seem to be enough evidence to support the murder charge.

“Even as extreme as those facts may seem, as we saw in the indictment, it still didn’t rise to the level of intent as necessary,” LeCesne said. “In other words, you have to have a very high level of foreseeability of harm to justify a reckless murder or reckless manslaughter charge and that simply wasn’t supported by the facts.”

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