Kansas water park where boy died appears unlikely to open

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Kansas water park where a 10-year-old boy was decapitated isn’t hiring lifeguards, advertising or selling tickets with less than a month left before its typical Memorial Day weekend opening date, underlining speculation that it could be put up for sale.

Schlitterbahn remains mum on its plans, but has largely removed reference from its website about the park in Kansas City, Kansas, where Caleb Schwab was killed in 2016 when the raft he was riding on the 17-story Verruckt slide went airborne and hit a metal pole. Verruckt — German for “crazy” — never reopened and was torn down last year. Season tickets have been on sale for months for Schlitterbahn’s four Texas locations, but not the Kansas park.

“Schlitterbahn has not informed us of their plans, but we are assuming they are not opening this summer,” said Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, spokesman Mike Taylor. “We are hopeful that Schlitterbahn will come under new ownership and branding, and will open next summer.”

Speculation about a potential sale was fueled by mortgage lender, EPR Properties, announcing last week that Schlitterbahn is expected to pay off its approximately $190 million loan on the property soon. EPR chief executive Gary Silvers told analysts on a conference call about its first-quarter earnings that Schlitterbahn is working with an undisclosed third-party lender on the deal.

Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio declined to comment on the Kansas park’s future, including whether it would open.

“Schlitterbahn is a privately held company and does not comment on financials,” she said in an email. “Our Texas parks are off to a strong start for the 2019 season, but we have no news to share about our KC property at this time.”

EPR said in a previous filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it agreed to advance Schlitterbahn additional amounts under the mortgage. The filing noted an offseason shortfall and the cost of legal issues stemming from Caleb’s death during a special day for elected officials and their families. Caleb’s father, Scott Schwab, then a state lawmaker, was elected Kansas secretary of state last year. With his urging, lawmakers voted to strengthen the state’s relatively lax oversight of amusement park rides.

Caleb’s family received nearly $20 million in settlements, and two women who were seriously injured while riding with him settled for an undisclosed amount.

Prosecutors also filed criminal charges against Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry, the designer of Verruckt, the park’s operations manager and two maintenance workers, alleging that shoddy planning and maintenance led to Caleb’s death. But the maintenance workers were acquitted in October, and a judge dismissed charges against the other three in January citing improper evidence.

One issue was that grand jurors were shown clips from a Travel Channel television show documenting construction of the Verruckt, in which Henry and others emphasized the risks to riders on a raft dropping 17 stories before climbing a second, 50-foot (15.24-meter) hump. Defense attorneys argued the video didn’t show how the ride actually worked and that prosecutors didn’t properly explain to the jury that it was a dramatization. The video showed boats flying up in a similar manner to how Caleb died.

Charges of drug possession and hiring someone for sex also are pending against Henry in a neighboring Kansas county.

Taylor, the Wyandotte County official, said the big issue is having an abandoned water park in a bustling tourist area that includes the Kansas Speedway race track, the Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium and a busy shopping area.

“From the Unified Government’s perspective we would love to see the park open in the future and be a viable tourist attraction.”