Criminal Murder Charges dropped in Schlitterbahn Waterslide Case where 10-year-old boy was decapitated during a ride at Kansas water park
It was shocking and tragic when Caleb Schwab, 10, was decapitated on August 17, 2016 on the Verruckt waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City. The waterslide was the highest in the world, measuring 17 stories tall.
Schwab’s death led the attorney general to convene a grand jury, which led to one count of second-degree murder, 12 counts of aggravated battery and five counts of aggravated endangering a child against ride designer Jeffrey Henry, John Schooley and general contractor Henry and Sons Construction Co.
After years of contested and contentious hearings, Kansas District Court Judge Robert Burns eventually dismissed all charges against Jeff Henry, the other individuals and the several charged companies on grounds of grand jury abuse. Among other reasons, the Attorney General had shown the Kansas State grand jury a made-for-TV Travel Channel video which was highly dramatized and misleading. The grand jury was shown a video of one of the crafts in which the park guests would ride was modified by attaching wheels to substantially and unsafely increase the speed of the boats. A fact of which the Attorney General was aware, but failed to advise the grand jury. All of which gave a substantially distorted and misleading impression to the grand jury. In fact, the judge questioned how this video could be considered “legal evidence,” which is required under Kansas law. After watching the video, the court concluded the video was not a “likeness of what it purported to represent.” It was determined the video depicted a staged demonstration for entertainment purposes and was not a factual depiction of the design and construction of the waterslide. Without major redaction, this video would not have been allowed into evidence at a jury trial. The grand jury was clearly swayed by its exposure to this video, making such presentation misleading and prejudicial.
The State also referred to the American Society of Testing and Materials, standards which were not required under Kansas law at the time the Verruckt was created, designed and constructed. Edward Pribonic, the State’s proposed expert witness, asserted “important design features which failed” as a reason for Schwab’s death. The court deemed Pribonic’s statements to be more speculative than conclusive, questioning whether his assertions are actually based upon reliable scientific evidence and testing.
The last area of alleged grand jury abuse comes from another testimony from Pribonic, where he told a grand jury about another death at a water ride at a Schlitterbahn waterpark in South Padre Island, Texas in 2013. However, the court already specifically ruled out that 2013 death in Texas would not be admissible in this trial since it doesn’t meet the applicable standards for admission as evidence of prior bad acts. It was concluded that the death is wholly unrelated to the case and should not have been heard by the grand jury.
In the end, the Judge ruled that the State had committed grand jury abuse by presenting the fictionalized and misleading video, by submitting misleading expert testimony, and by presenting impermissible testimony about an unrelated death on a dissimilar ride at a different Schlitterbahn location in a distant State. Based on these findings, the court determined the defendants were not afforded the due process protections and fundamental fairness Kansas law requires of grand jury presentations, as set by the Kansas Supreme Court in State vs. Turner.
“I obviously recognize that the circumstances and events giving rise to these indictments are indisputably tragic,” the judge wrote. “A young child’s life was lost and his troubling death was mourned by family, friends and the entire Kansas City community and beyond.” Nevertheless, based upon the evidence presented, the Court dismissed all charges against all defendants.
Caleb’s family received nearly $20 million in settlements, CBS News reports. The two women with Caleb on the raft settled for an undisclosed amount.