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Schlitterbahn death case expands with 2 maintenance workers charged, focus on brakes

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© Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/TNS A worker takes down netting from the Varruckt waterslide on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, at the…

By Steve Vockrodt, The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo.

Two maintenance workers have been charged with obstruction of law enforcement in the Schlitterbahn case, according to indictments unsealed Wednesday by a Wyandotte County judge.

David Hughes, 58, of Basehor, and John Zalsman, 54, of Kansas City, Kan., each made their first appearance in Wyandotte County court on Wednesday, entering not guilty pleas during a brief hearing. The indictment was filed under seal on May 23.

Assistant Kansas Attorney General Adam Zentner described the nature of the offense as a "very isolated incident" and that the evidence in their matter involved "substantially reduced evidence" compared to the five defendants previously brought up on criminal charges in relation to the 2016 death of a 10-year-old boy on the Verruckt water slide.

The indictment says Hughes was the maintenance supervisor at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan., and that Zalsman and another man were on the maintenance staff.

The indictment says Hughes and Zalsman were interviewed by Kansas Bureau of Investigation special agents, who asked why a brake mat meant to slow the raft carrying riders on Verruckt had not been repaired after it fell off on July 28, 2016, days before Caleb Schwab's fatal ride.

Hughes and Zalsman allegedly told the KBI agents that the brake mat never existed on the incline of the second ascent of Verruckt after it opened to the public in 2014.

A third maintenance worker was shown a screenshot from a rider's GoPro camera that showed the brake mat was in place on June 10, 2016, long after the park had opened and just 18 days before it allegedly fell off, according to the indictment.

That maintenance worker, who is not charged in Wednesday's indictment, "then changed his story about the brake mat," according to the indictment. That maintenance worker added that Tyler Miles, a former director of operations for the water park, and Hughes were responsible for telling maintenance crews to make repairs, the indictment says.

Both men said nothing as they left Wyandotte County Judge Robert Burns' courtroom. They have each been released from custody on $10,000 bonds.

Kevin Regan, criminal defense attorney for Hughes, and Chris Joseph, attorney for Zalsman, both declined to comment.

"We have no reason to believe that any employee obstructed justice," Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio said in a statement. "John and Dave have decades of experience in maintenance and are respected professionals on our maintenance team. With the help of men and women like John and Dave, we run a safe operation and know that this was a tragic accident. We stand behind our staff and the safety of our park."

Wednesday's indictment alleged that braking systems, passenger restraints, air compressors and rafts on Verruckt failed repeatedly but that "Schlitterbahn personnel only fixed the components necessary to keep paying customers moving up and down Verruckt."

The document said the "deteriorating brake system" on Verruckt "completely failed" 10 days before Caleb was killed.

The indictment says that 21 staff reports between May 22, 2015, and July 27, 2016, had indicated that Verruckt's braking system was in the process of failure. On July 15, 2016, a manager flagged the ride's braking system as an "urgent priority level 1" issue, which meant that the ride should not be in operation until it was fixed, according to the indictment, but Verruckt remained in service.

Starting on July 28 and continuing until Aug. 5, two days before Caleb's death, eight written reports indicated that the braking system had failed, according to the indictment.

Zalsman and Hughes join Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, Miles, Verruckt designer John Schooley, general contractor Henry & Sons Construction and a corporate entity of Schlitterbahn's in facing criminal charges stemming from Caleb's death at the water park on Aug. 7, 2016.

Caleb was killed when his raft went airborne on the 17-story Verruckt thrill ride, billed as the world's tallest water slide.

Henry, Schooley and Henry & Sons face the most serious charges. They're accused of second-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated endangerment of a child.

They're accused of designing Verruckt without qualifications or regard to rider safety. They both deny the charges and have pleaded not guilty.

Miles faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated battery and endangerment of a child, as well as obstruction of law enforcement. Miles was accused of not providing evidence to law enforcement, covering up evidence of previous rider injuries. Miles denies the charges and has pleaded not guilty.

The same charges against Miles were filed against a corporate entity of Schlitterbahn's.

The Kansas City, Kan., water park opened for the 2018 season on Friday. Just days before the opening, the Kansas Department of Labor released an audit that showed that 11 of the park's rides were not in compliance with the Kansas Amusement Ride Act.

Schlitterbahn disputed the audit but agreed to open the park on a limited basis and keep the 11 rides closed until all issues described in the audit were addressed. It was not immediately clear on Wednesday whether any of the 11 rides have since re-opened.

Much of the Kansas Department of Labor audit described missing paperwork, operation manuals and safety signs. It also said that parts of one ride were entering a sixth season of operation when a operator manual said the part should have been replaced after five years.

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U.S. - U.S. Daily News: Schlitterbahn death case expands with 2 maintenance workers charged, focus on brakes
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