The U.S. Coast Guard has referred the July 19 sinking of a Branson, Missouri, duck boat to federal investigators to pursue a possible criminal case.
A spokeswoman for the Coast Guard confirmed that her agency referred the case Aug. 13 to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri. That office, based in Kansas City, includes the Table Rock Lake area where the boat sank, killing 17.
"During the course of the initial part of our investigation, the fact-finding part, we identified stuff that could point to some sort of criminal activity," said Alana Miller, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. "And we are not in the business of criminal investigations."
Miller would not elaborate on what that potential criminal activity may be. She did say that the Marine Board of Investigation and the Coast Guard Investigative Service division consulted with its legal department before the case was referred.
Don Ledford, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined comment Tuesday.
"What I can say is that the Department of Justice policy is that we don't comment on investigations," Ledford said. "We don't even confirm or deny the existence of an investigation."
The federal investigation is in addition to a separate criminal probe by the Missouri attorney general.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's office confirmed to The Kansas City Star on July 30 that it had opened a criminal investigation to explore the possibility of violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.
The act forbids fraud and deception in the sale of goods and services.
The first 911 call about the vessel, Stretch Duck 07, came at 7:09 p.m., 14 minutes after the boat entered the water July 19.
The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph with waves more than three feet.
According to a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the boat's captain and driver were on board at 6:28 that evening when someone stepped onto the back of the boat and told the crew to take the water portion of the tour first. It isn't known who that person is.
Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney who is representing some plaintiffs in civil litigation against Ripley's Entertainment, the owner of Ride the Ducks in Branson, said he was not surprised to learn of a criminal investigation.
"The criminal law regarding operations of vessels makes someone responsible if they are neglectful or negligent," Mongeluzzi told The Star. "We have already pleaded in our complaints that Ripley's, through their employees and officers, were negligent.
"We fully support a criminal investigation, if one is happening, and believe that the people who made the decisions that cost 17 lives should be held accountable, both civilly and criminally."
Several lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts, two on behalf of passengers who died, and one on behalf of a survivor. Another was filed last week by a man who jumped in the lake to try to help pull passengers to safety.
It isn't known what the focus of the criminal investigation is, but there is a federal law regarding negligence or misconduct when operating a vessel.
According to that law: "Every captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both."
Tia Coleman, one of 14 people who survived the July 19 sinking, has spoken out about the safety of duck boats. She and others have called for a ban on the boats unless safety improvements are implemented. She and her nephew were the only two in their family of 11 to survive the tragedy.