A water park built the world's tallest water ride; now its owner is being charged with murder

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IMAGE VIA HAMJAMS_DC | INSTAGRAM
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In 2016, when a 10-year-old child was decapitated while on a raft ride at a water park in Kansas City, it looked like a freak accident. But a recently unsealed grand jury indictment now claims that not only was it not a freak accident, but, in fact, the water park knew of the dangers and attempted to strong-arm its employees into never telling the truth.

Now, Schlitterbahn and many of its top employees face multiple felony charges, including the co-owner, who faces second-degree murder charges.

The Schlitterbahn chain of water parks is known for their original groundbreaking rides and thrill focus. The family-owned chain of water parks began designing their own rides nearly three decades ago, creating the first surfing simulator, the world’s first water coaster, and numerous other groundbreaking rides through its sister design company that park co-owner Jeff Henry helped lead. Water coasters, while still not common, are signature rides at many parks, including both Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Universal’s Volcano Bay.



The chain also created the world’s first wave river, another feature found at Universal’s Volcano Bay. Both Volcano Bay’s wave river and water coaster are from a different manufacturer, but they use designs first engineered by Schlitterbahn.

Opening in 1979 in New Braunfels, Texas, Schlitterbahn was already a familiar name in the tourism industry when it began a rapid expansion in 2001 that included three new parks in Texas and one in Kansas City over the next 13 years. Plans for a Fort Lauderdale park were put on hold after a nearby water park sued. That case was closed last year when a judge ruled the contract between Schlitterbahn and the City of Fort Lauderdale to be void due to a lack of competitive bid process. The company has also been floated as a potential manager for the Margaritaville water park that will open on 192 next year, though that looks highly unlikely now.

Inventors get inspiration from many places, and Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry is no exception. On Nov. 12, 2012, Henry was named Inventor of the Year, and the next day he came up with his boldest design yet. With its long history of groundbreaking rides, the 2012 announcement of the world’s tallest water slide at Schlitterbahn Kansas City just seemed like par for the course for the company. That decision on Nov. 13 to build the world’s tallest water slide didn’t come from just anywhere. According to the indictment, Henry came up with the idea as a way to impress the producers of the Travel Channel series Xtreme Waterparks. The ride was designed by park co-owner Jeff Henry, park manager Tyler Miles and John Schooley, a personal friend of Henry’s.

By December the ride had been announced, and Henry was hard at work. In a series of recently uncovered emails, Henry admits that the ride was being designed as a publicity stunt and that the construction schedule would be hard to achieve. In one email to Schooley Henry states, “I have to micro manage this. NOW. This is a designed product for TV, absolutely cannot be anything else. Speed is 100% required. A floor a day. Tough schedule.” In an attempt to get on the television show Henry was calling for a seven-month timeline to include all design, construction and testing. After numerous delays the slide, known as Verrückt, opened in 2014.

With a 168-foot initial drop followed by a five-story second hill featuring the world’s tallest water coaster uphill section, the ride made news even before opening when local media began reporting that rafts were flying off after hitting the crest of the second hill. The unsealed indictment states “Verrückt suffered from a long list of dangerous design flaws; however, the most obvious and potentially lethal flaw was that Verrückt design guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants.”

A redesign didn’t help. After the local media began running stories showing video footage of the rafts flying off the ride during testing, the park started to test the ride only at night, while simultaneously publicly discrediting the reports. Nets held up by hoops were added to block the rafts from flying off.

The ride was also viewed by Henry as a way for the chain to become a world leader in the industry, allowing Schlitterbahn to redefine industry standards. Instead, if the indictment is to be believed, industry standards were overlooked.

Despite stating that the ride met ASTM standards, an industry go-to organization for water slide standards, the indictment lists numerous ASTM violations including the rafts going airborne, water blasters on the second hill and the safety nets. The indictment states that “[t]he presence of the overhead netting and support hoops speaks volumes about the designers’ extreme disregard for the value of human life.”

Signage on the ride initially called for riders to be 14 years old or older, after an outside consultant recommended an age limit of 16 or older, but the night before opening the ride the decision was made to allow younger riders.

The ride opened with stickers covering the age restrictions.

In the 182 days that followed, there were more than a dozen documented injuries on Verrückt, including multiple concussions. One instance documented in the indictment tells of a former lifeguard who received neck, back and head injuries after her raft went airborne. Park manager Tyler Miles responded, helping the former employee’s husband carry her to the first aid area where Miles filled out an incident report. That report now seems to be missing.

In another instance, lifeguards reported that the raft was going too fast before a ride hit the overhead hoop, causing the rider’s eye to swell shut for the rest of the day. The indictment claims that Miles intercepted the incident reports, destroyed them, and then coached the lifeguards to write new statements that omitted details on how the injuries had occurred. Park manager “Miles then ordered medical staff to alter their medical reports.”

Even as riders were routinely being injured on Verrückt, the lack of routine maintenance meant it was falling into disrepair and “rust and corrosion were pervasive." Critical systems such as the rafts, passenger restraints, brakes, air compressors and conveyors failed repeatedly. However, during the active season, Schlitterbahn personnel only fixed the components necessary to keep paying customers moving up and down Verrückt.

The indictment goes on, “maintenance workers repaired broken conveyors immediately, but disregarded the deteriorating brake system even after it completely failed. … Tears and punctures on the rafts were patched (typically by using duct tape), but the hook and loop restraints were allowed to erode so severely that the restraints commonly tore loose during rides.” At least 21 written staff reports advising the park manager to fix the brakes were ignored, according to the indictment. The failed braking system meant there were even more airborne rafts on the ride.

It was an airborne raft that just days later killed 10-year-old Caleb Schwab, son of Kansas State Rep. Scott Schwab. He was decapitated and two women in his raft were severely injured.

The death sent shockwaves throughout the industry, but Schlitterbahn leaders had already undertaken what looks like a coverup of the dangers of the ride. Authorities now say Miles withheld thousands of written daily reports that showed the dangers of the ride, while lying to investigators about complaints regarding its operation.

Just as the investigation began heating up, about a month after the incident, a 17-year-old lifeguard came forward describing to investigators how Miles had coerced him into writing a coached statement regarding the accident where the incident report is now missing. According to the indictment, a lawyer representing the water park then showed up at the lifeguard’s home requesting to speak with him. His mother refused, saying that her son had given his report to the police already. The lawyer then asked for a copy of the report. Again the mother refused and asked the lawyer to leave. She immediately called the lead detective on the case. The detective told her that the lawyer had just reached out to them saying the mother had requested that the lawyer get a copy of the report. She hadn’t. While still on the phone with the detective the lawyer reached out to the mother saying that he had just spoken to the detective and that the detective wanted her to give the lawyer the report. The detective, with whom she was still on the phone, confirmed this not to be the case.

The indictment points out that the cover-up with the lifeguard was not public knowledge, so the fact that lawyers from the water park showed up at the home of the lifeguard suggests the park knew about said cover-up.

Now, both the water park and park manager Tyler Miles have been charged with 20 felony counts including aggravated battery, endangering a child, interference with law enforcement and involuntary manslaughter.

On top of the 20 felony charges, the park co-owner Jeff Henry and ride designer John Schooley have both been charged with second-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated child endangerment. Park co-owner Jeff Henry was arrested in Brownsville, Texas, by U.S. Marshals last week and faces his first court appearance later this week. Schooley is currently out of the country, with his current whereabouts not entirely clear, but his lawyer has said he is working to come back to the country in a timely fashion. U.S. Marshals are currently tracking him down.

In a Facebook post published Friday evening, the water park questioned indictments and the grand jury process that creates them, while maintaining that it properly operates its rides.
“First of all, the allegation 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, had ridden the ride with complete confidence as to its safety. Our operational mantra has been and will forever be Safety First.

The allegations are serious, and we feel it’s vital people understand how the grand jury process in Kansas works.

A Kansas grand jury is not like a jury in the way most people think of them in criminal cases. In Kansas, grand juries do NOT hear two sides. People accused in a Kansas grand jury proceeding do NOT get to present their side. Nor are they able to challenge information presented or cross-examine witnesses.

In fact, in a Kansas grand jury proceeding, people don’t even get to hear the evidence against them. The prosecutor controls all aspects of what gets presented and the standard for allowing an indictment to proceed is the LOWEST standard applied in law.

We look forward to our opportunity to present evidence in the weeks and months to come.”

In a separate statement, the park said: “This indictment, as in the previous one related to Tyler Miles, is wrought with references to the outtakes of a dramatic, scripted television show, and filled with information that we fully dispute.”

The chain was expected to announce new expansions in Florida, but now many industry leaders are expecting the chain to close its Kansas City park and possibly rebrand its other parks.

Off the record, some industry leaders have expressed concern that the park was charged along with the three leaders, but as more details have emerged, there seems to be an agreement among industry leaders that the safety protocols used by the industry were not in place here, despite the park stating otherwise.

Kansas has already passed a new law requiring inspections on water slides taller than 15 feet. Last week, the state also announced it would be performing a full audit on Schlitterbahn Kansas City's inspection reports. Still, many expect a ripple effect across the industry, including here in Orlando, because of the supposed negligence by Schlitterbahn leadership.

But as Schlitterbahn pointed out themselves in a statement reacting to the charges, “Jeff Henry has designed waterpark rides the world over. Nearly every waterpark that exists today has an attraction or feature based on his designs or ideas.”