It was a Sunday afternoon, August 7, 2016, the temperature a pleasant 78 degrees, as ten-year-old Caleb Schwab began the 264-step climb to the top of Verrückt, the world’s tallest waterslide, which loomed like a colossus over the forty-acre Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City. Caleb was a brown-eyed boy, his nose dotted with freckles. He had come to the park with his father, Scott, a state legislator; his mother, Michele; and his three brothers. That day, Schlitterbahn was offering free admission to Kansas elected officials and their families, along with a buffet lunch, and the Schwabs, who lived in the town of Olathe, southwest of Kansas City, were thrilled. A free day at Schlitterbahn. What could be better?
The Kansas City Schlitterbahn is one of five Schlitterbahn parks in the country. The others are in Texas: in New Braunfels, South Padre Island, Galveston, and Corpus Christi. Every year, an estimated two million visitors go to the parks to plunge down slides, zoom through twisting tube chutes, and float and swim in man-made rivers and enormous pools. For the most devoted fans, Schlitterbahn is an aquatic version of Disney World, with something for everyone, from huge playgrounds for children to swim-up bars for adults that serve beer and margaritas. Some “Bahnophiles” spend every summer weekend, or even entire vacations, at a Schlitterbahn.
And in Kansas City, even those who cared little for water or who couldn’t afford Schlitterbahn’s $45 admission ($35 for children) would drive by the park just to get a look at Verrückt. At 168 feet 7 inches tall, Verrückt, which means “insane” in German, was taller than Niagara Falls. Three riders inside a rubber raft would plummet down a nearly vertical seventeen-story drop at speeds reaching up to 68 miles per hour. The moment they reached the bottom, they would shoot up a 55-foot-tall incline—the equivalent of a five-story building—before racing down one last steep slope, finally coming to a stop in a long, water-filled runout.
The idea for Verrückt came from 63-year-old Jeff Henry, who co-owned the Schlitterbahn parks with his older brother, Gary, and younger sister, Jana, and acted as the company’s chief visionary, a conjurer of splashy joyrides. In the water park business, Jeff was considered a genius of sorts—“an out of the box visionary of waterpark designs,” wrote Tim O’Brien in his 2006 book Legends: Pioneers of the Amusement Park Industry. Jeff often said that his goal in life was to make Schlitterbahn customers happy—“to put a smile on their faces, to give them a thrill or two,” he told me during one of our conversations this summer. “I’m a water showman. That’s what I do.”
And Verrückt, a ride that lasted only eighteen seconds, was considered to be his crowning achievement. When the slide opened to the public, in July 2014, riders’ reviews were a publicist’s dream. (“Most amazing ride I’ve ever ridden.” “Like dropping out of the sky.” “Terrifying and horrible and terrific.”) By the time young Caleb climbed Verrückt’s stairs, some 100,000 adrenaline junkies, a few of whom had flown in from across the world, had ridden Verrückt, and Jeff was planning to build a second version of the slide at the Schlitterbahn in Galveston.
According to park rules, a Verrückt rider had to be at least 54 inches (4 feet 6 inches) tall. Caleb was 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 72 pounds. He told his parents he had to try it.
When Caleb reached the top of the platform, he could see the sprawl of Kansas City, including the downtown skyline, some sixteen miles away. He stepped into the front of the raft, and an employee secured him to his seat with a Velcro belt and a shoulder strap. Behind him were two young women—one 32 years old and the other 25—sisters who lived near the Kansas-Nebraska state line. It was quiet. The sounds of the park below—laughter and shouting—were nothing more than a faint murmur.
The gate swung open, and the conveyor belt underneath the raft began to move. The raft tipped forward. Suddenly, it was hurtling downward: it must have felt to Caleb as if he’d fallen off a skyscraper. Within a few seconds, the raft reached the bottom of the hill and swooped up the second, 55-foot hill. But instead of staying in its fiberglass flume and cresting the hill, the raft flew up into the air. Caleb’s head collided with a net and a semicircular metal hoop that arced over the top of the slide. The hoop sliced into his neck, and he was instantly decapitated. His head and body flew out of the raft and landed on the chute.
Waiting for Caleb at the bottom of Verrückt was one of his brothers, along with numerous spectators. As the boy’s small corpse slid toward the runout pool, everyone began to scream. Onlookers prevented Caleb’s mother from witnessing the scene. “It was as horrible a moment as you could imagine,” a person who was there told me. “A nightmare beyond comprehension. I can’t begin to describe it.”
A half century earlier, in 1966, a Houston accountant named Bob Henry told his wife, Billye, that he was tired of city life. He said he wanted to raise their three children in a small town, just as he had been raised.
Leafing through a newspaper, Billye spotted an ad for a property called Camp Landa, a modest thirteen-acre campground with some sagging frame cabins that was for sale in the Hill Country town of New Braunfels, thirty miles north of San Antonio and fifty miles south of Austin. Bob, Billye, and the kids—Gary, Jeff, and Jana—piled into the family’s Ford station wagon and drove to the Landa to give it a look. The camp sat next to the spring-fed Comal River, which gently meanders two and a half miles through New Braunfels before merging with the Guadalupe River. Century-old cedar, oak, and cypress trees were scattered throughout the camp. A light breeze rattled the leaves. “This is paradise,” Bob said, and he struck a deal to buy the Landa that day.
The Henrys moved into a small house on the property, which they renamed the Landa Resort. Billye ran the cafe, and Gary, Jeff, and Jana did odd jobs: sweeping out the cabins, mowing the grass, laying brick, shingling, and grouting. To attract more customers, Bob erected two slides that dumped guests into the Comal.
“I always set out to break all the records. I want to be the first at the bar to buy a drink, and I want to be the first to meet a pretty girl, and I want to be the first at everything. I want to have the biggest, the tallest, and the fastest rides at my parks.”
Like his father, Gary, the eldest child, had a sharp, analytical mind. He would later attend the University of Texas and major in accounting. Jana, the youngest, would attend what was then known as Southwest Texas State University, in nearby San Marcos, and major in fashion merchandising. But Jeff, the middle child, wasn’t interested at all in a formal education. As a boy, he was the classic river rat, a Huck Finn in cutoff shorts who spent almost all his free time on the Comal. He swam, fished, canoed, rafted, and hunted for turtles. He pedaled his bicycle across town to buy busted car-tire inner tubes at gas stations, which he patched up and rented to tourists who wanted to float the river. He gave river tours, and he operated a petting zoo. “Thank you for bringing me here,” he once said to his dad. “This is the best life I could ever imagine.”
Jeff was so busy with his own projects that he barely had time to go to New Braunfels High School, and when he did, he often showed up for class barefoot. He was smart, and he joined the debate team, but he didn’t turn in his homework and refused to take tests, telling his teachers that tests were a waste of time. During his senior year, the school superintendent went to his father and said, “Bob, I have to be honest. We’re not sure how to handle Jeff.” According to family legend, the superintendent then handed Bob a diploma. “Tell Jeff we’re going to let him graduate so that he no longer has to come back to school.”
After high school, Jeff opened a video arcade bar in San Marcos that he called the Too Bitter Bar, the walls of which contained painted murals of moons, watermelons, lips, and bananas. He also kept working for his father. Around this time he noticed that some of the people going down his father’s slides were hitting the water too hard. So he invented what he described as a “water brake,” a dip at the end of the slide that slowed the guests down.
In 1977, when he was 22 years old, he took a trip with a buddy to Orlando, Florida, where he visited two newly opened water parks: Wet ’n Wild and Disney’s River Country. (At that point, there were fewer than a half dozen water parks around the U.S.) Jeff quickly got on the phone to tell Bob and Billye all about it. “He had the ability to see what other people were doing and then take that to the next level,” Gary told me. “And he saw before anyone else what we could do in New Braunfels.”
Bob loved the idea of a water park. He bought a piece of property next door to the Landa, built a sixty-foot replica of a German castle (to reflect New Braunfels’s heritage), and had four blue fiberglass waterslides erected around the castle. He named the park Schlitterbahn, which means, roughly, “slippery road” in German, and hired his children to help him manage it. The quiet, efficient Gary oversaw the park’s buildings and finances; Jana handled the marketing; and Jeff was in charge of the attractions.
Schlitterbahn opened in 1979, drawing approximately five thousand visitors in its first season (the park is open full-time only from Memorial Day until Labor Day). For Schlitterbahn’s second season, Jeff added a 50,000-square-foot pool and an inner tube ride that he named the Hillside Tube Chute. In subsequent seasons, he built the Cliffhanger Tube Chute, the Tunnel Tube Chute, and the 45-minute-long Raging River Tube Chute. He encircled the park with a man-made river that behaved a lot like a real river, with light rapids, quick drops, and backwater eddies, and he filled the children’s playground with animal sculptures, telescopes, water cannons, giant sand buckets, and small slides that sent kids into shallow pools.
By 1990 Schlitterbahn had become a sensation, drawing nearly 500,000 people a year. Visitors loved the fact that they could park for free and bring their own food and drinks to the picnic areas. And, of course, they loved Jeff’s increasingly daring rides. On a 25-acre piece of property that the Henrys bought, three blocks east of the main park, he erected two rides that he had co-created with a former surfer turned inventor named Tom Lochtefeld. The first was the Boogie Bahn, which allowed riders to actually surf on boogie boards over a thin, fast-flowing sheet of water that shot over a sloped surface. The second was the Dragon Blaster, a watery version of a roller coaster (a “water coaster,” Jeff called it), which used high-pressure jets of water to push tubers up and around chutes instead of just sending them straight downhill. Jeff came up with an artificial river that he called the Torrent River, where large waves unexpectedly rose and broke around the tubers. He later added another water coaster, the Master Blaster, that was six stories tall and filled with thrilling hairpin turns.
The ride quickly became the park’s most popular attraction.
Despite all his success, Jeff remained, at heart, a river rat. Bearded and scruffy, he almost always wore a dirty, creased ball cap, an old fishing shirt, shorts, and muddy boots. He drove an old truck. When he was in meetings, he pulled off his boots and propped his bare feet up on the table. He apparently enjoyed smoking pot. (In 1994 he pleaded guilty to third-degree felony drug possession after he was caught with seventeen ounces of marijuana.) And he was sometimes as obstinate with coworkers as he used to be with his high school teachers. “You could be in his presence for thirty minutes and leave disliking him immensely,” a water park consultant who worked with him told me. “He always thought he was right.”
Yet Jeff made no apologies. He said that if he was demanding and impatient, it was because he was consumed with making Schlitterbahn the best water park in the world. In a black notebook, he constantly wrote down ideas for new rides he wanted to build. To get even more ideas, he pored over the history of Roman aqueducts and leafed through Jules Verne novels. He never got a conventional education beyond high school and never formally studied physics or engineering. And that never worried the people around him. “That would be like someone being concerned that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a college degree,” his brother told me. “The people that have a spark of genius don’t necessarily need college. Plus, Jeff always surrounded himself with other knowledgeable people who were able to do the numbers work that he wasn’t inclined to do.”
When he wasn’t working on Schlitterbahn rides, Jeff exported his inventions around the world. He sold his technology for slides and river systems to the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas and to the Palm in Dubai. In 1989, at a water park in Brazil, he created a 135-foot-high slide, called Insano, that at the time was the world’s tallest. (A single rider, lying on his back, shot straight down the slide, slowed during the long water brake, and finally came to a stop in a runout pool.) Industry veterans nicknamed him the Lord of the Slides and the Wizard of Wet.
“I always set out to break all the records,” Jeff told USA Today. “I want to be the first at the bar to buy a drink, and I want to be the first to meet a pretty girl, and I want to be the first at everything. I want to have the biggest, the tallest, and the fastest rides at my parks.”
Had Jeff discovered his natural talents in almost any industry other than water parks, he might have had a harder time pushing the limits with his creations. But in the U.S., water park rides are not tightly regulated. Although the federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to set safety standards for such products as baby cribs and bicycles, it has no authority to regulate water parks. That responsibility lies entirely with the states. Some states have agencies that inspect water parks; others rely on the parks’ own insurance companies to do inspections. Texas law, for instance, says that a park must obtain a $1 million liability policy for each of its rides and must have all rides inspected once a year by an inspector hired by the insurance company. But there is nothing in the law that requires the inspector to have any particular certifications. Nor does the law require an inspector to evaluate the safety of such factors as the ride’s speed or the geometric angle of its slide path. According to Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins, the inspector is charged only with making sure that the ride is in sound condition and meets the “manufacturer’s specifications.” In other words, a water park is allowed to police itself.
Schlitterbahn initially seemed to be policing itself just fine. In 1998 the New Braunfels Schlitterbahn was named the country’s Best Waterpark in a poll conducted by Amusement Today. Sensing opportunity, the Henrys opened a Schlitterbahn in South Padre Island, in 2001. Jeff’s job was to fill the park with new attractions, and he didn’t disappoint. He devised a complicated artificial river system that moved tubers from one major slide to the next so they would rarely need to leave the water to stand in line.
In 2006 the Henrys expanded again, opening a year-round park in Galveston with a retractable roof. By then, developers from around the country who also wanted a Schlitterbahn were regularly approaching the Henry family with proposals. One of the most intriguing came from a Kansas City investor. He asked the Henrys to build a Schlitterbahn water park in Wyandotte County, Kansas, which covers the western half of metro Kansas City. The plans would eventually call for hotels, rental cabins, hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail outlets, and a residential area surrounding the park. To get the project going, a real estate investment trust offered to loan the Henrys $174.3 million. The State of Kansas also agreed to throw in an estimated $200 million in sales tax revenue bonds. These were Disneylike numbers. Schlitterbahn was entering the big leagues of American entertainment.
The deal was announced in 2005, but because of a drawn-out construction process, as well as the economic downturn of 2008, the venture had to be scaled back significantly, with no hotels, no homes, and little retail. When the park opened in 2009, expanses of dirt surrounded much of it. Industry insiders said the Kansas City Schlitterbahn needed a jolt—something big, really big—that would help it live up to the early hype and investment.
In October 2012, Jeff was at an amusement park industry trade show with his chief collaborator, John Schooley, a soft-spoken, silver-haired former yacht builder who had constructed slides at water parks in Asia before coming to New Braunfels to work for Jeff in 1998. The two men were approached by producers from the Travel Channel who said they were looking for an episode to lead off the new season of their popular TV series Xtreme Waterparks. They asked Jeff if he had any projects in the works.
Jeff, who has a streak of P. T. Barnum in him, suddenly blurted out that he and Schooley were going to build the world’s tallest and fastest waterslide at the Kansas City Schlitterbahn.
This was news to everyone, even at Schlitterbahn. For nearly a decade, Jeff and Schooley had been working on what they called a cannon nozzle: a highly pressurized water nozzle, much more advanced than the ones used in the Dragon Blaster and Master Blaster, that would propel riders up higher hills. They had no immediate plans to build a ride using the cannon nozzle, and certainly had no plans to build it in Kansas City, until Jeff made his pronouncement to the Travel Channel producers. “Something clicked in my head, and I just realized the time had come to do it,” he told me later.
He returned to Texas and met with Gary and Jana. (By this time, Bob had handed off the company to his three children, giving each of them a third of the voting shares.) He sketched out his plan for Verrückt: a one-of-a-kind slide that would not only send riders almost straight down a staggeringly tall hill but also shoot them up and over a second imposing hill, giving people multiple heart-stopping thrills. The slide would become the talk of the amusement park industry, he said.
Gary and Jana agreed that Jeff should proceed with Verrückt. Soon, reporters from an array of media outlets—USA Today, Wired, ESPN’s Grantland, even Smithsonian magazine—were calling to ask Jeff about his latest adventure, and he was always ready with a good quote. He told one reporter that Verrückt was “an erotic piece of art” and would go down in history as “the most terrifying ride ever built in a water park.” He told another reporter that he had conceived of Verrückt because he could no longer tolerate the thought of the world’s tallest slide being in Brazil. (After he had created the 135-foot Insano, a Brazilian company built a body slide that was just under 164 feet.) “I’m from Texas,” he said later. “It was a matter of pride.”
Jeff never made any secret of how he built his rides. As he told Legends author O’Brien, he relied on “trial and error, because no models of what was ‘supposed’ to be done existed at the time.” Sometimes he’d change his mind about a ride as he was building it and redesign it on the spot. If the completed ride still didn’t meet his expectations, he’d tear it down and start over. “You go back, you fix it, you make it work, you keep it safe,” he said.
To make Verrückt work, Jeff and Schooley (who also had no formal engineering credentials) and their staff were going to have to figure out the precise details of everything from the slope of Verrückt’s hills to the size of the rafts. They would need to determine what the minimum and maximum weights of the passengers in each raft should be, and they would need to find out what gravitational and centrifugal forces those passengers would be able to sustain. They would have to study such factors as the effect of water friction and even wind velocity on the rafts. And as if that wasn’t enough, they were going to have to invent a special conveyor system to transport the rafts back up to the top of the platform.
Although Jeff and Schooley said they used engineers and architects to help them design Verrückt, they also continued to depend on traditional trial and error. In a field near Schlitterbahn’s corporate headquarters, in New Braunfels, they constructed a small model of Verrückt, one twelfth the size of the real thing, and they sent a model car down the slide, along with cantaloupes and watermelons, to test it. They next built a ninety-foot-tall model of Verrückt (about half its eventual size), putting the initial drop at a 60-degree vertical angle, which they believed was steep enough for the riders to feel as if they were falling but was still gradual enough for the rafts to maintain solid contact with the chute. Followed by a camera crew from Xtreme Waterparks, Jeff and Schooley loaded a raft with sandbags and sent it down the slide. Everything went fine until the raft reached the top of the second hill. It lifted off the chute and went airborne, landing several yards away.
To slow the rafts’ velocity, Jeff and Schooley lessened the angle at the bottom of the initial drop. They then headed to Kansas City to build the 168-foot, 7-inch Verrückt. But with cameras still rolling, more sandbag-laden rafts continued to fly into the air. The Travel Channel crew asked Jeff why the slide was not working. “I’m not quite sure yet,” he replied. “There’s a whole bunch of factors that crept in on this one that we just didn’t know about.”
Whenever he did interviews for the TV show, Jeff seemed obsessed with Verrückt, as if it were his white whale. “Verrückt could hurt me; it could kill me. It is a seriously dangerous piece of equipment today because there are things that we don’t know about it,” he said at one point. “If we mess up, it could be the end. I could die going down this ride.”
Jeff told me later that he was making such statements only at the behest of the TV producers. “They wanted me to create suspense and danger, to make Verrückt look really scary to add drama to the show,” he said. “You know the [raft] that went airborne on our ninety-foot model in New Braunfels? It was faked. We added Rollerblade wheels to the boat to make it fly off.”
Maybe so (the Travel Channel declined to comment), but even if Jeff had been playacting for the cameras, there was something about Verrückt that bothered him. On April 25, 2014, Jeff climbed to the top of the Verrückt tower with Kansas governor Sam Brownback and officials from Guinness World Records, who proclaimed that Verrückt was indeed the tallest waterslide in the world. A few days later, Jeff ordered that two thirds of the slide be dismantled. It still wasn’t working, he said. Tests were showing that the rafts were going too fast and the g-forces were so powerful that passengers might pass out. (“Even an astronaut couldn’t handle it,” Jeff later told me.)
“Man, are they hitting that net up there? That boat flew. That boat looked like it flew.”
He and Schooley added an extra five feet of height to the second hill to slow riders down and decreased the angle of its descent. Finally, in June 2014, after several successful sandbag runs, they decided it was time for humans to ride it. Jeff, Schooley, and the brother of Jeff’s assistant piled into a raft. Jeff was wearing cowboy boots. “Well, man, if I don’t ever see you again, it’s been fun,” he said to Schooley, trying to be lighthearted. But at least one of the men was clearly nervous. “If you see a couple of people [go down the slide], you say it’s survivable,” Schooley later told a reporter. “But the first time, you don’t know. You really don’t know.”
On their first attempt, the cannon nozzle misfired, and the raft never made it up the five-story hill: it slid back down to the bottom. They walked up the stairs to try the ride again. This time, it worked perfectly. When they reached the runout pool, the three men in the raft shouted and pumped their fists in the air.
Over the next several days, more Schlitterbahn employees rode Verrückt without problems, and on July 10, after thirty months of work, the slide opened to the public. Numerous media outlets, including NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America, were there to capture the festivities.
People got in line to ride Verrückt. There was no age restriction—only the height requirement—so kids joined the line. The riders were divided into groups of three and ordered to step on a large scale. If the total weight of the three riders was between 400 and 550 pounds, they were sent up the stairs. At the top of the platform, they were weighed again and placed in a raft. An employee pushed a button, and the raft would take off.
That day, the Travel Channel’s cameras focused on Jeff and Schooley as they stood on an elevated platform near Verrückt’s second hill. During construction, the men had ordered that a net be placed above the chute, propped up every few feet by semicircular poles, to keep people from flying out. (The same netting system had been placed on Schlitterbahn’s Master Blaster rides.) As they watched one raft crest the hill, Jeff turned to Schooley and said, “Man, are they hitting that net up there? That boat flew. That boat looked like it flew.”
Once again, Jeff later insisted to me that he had been hamming it up for the camera and that he did not in fact see a raft fly off the chute on opening day. Indeed, for the next two years, there were no public indications that Verrückt had any problems at all. So many Schlitterbahn customers wanted to go down the ride that park officials began requiring them to sign up for time slots.
Then, on August 7, 2016, Caleb Schwab and his family arrived at the park.
At Caleb’s funeral at the LifeMission Church in Olathe, five days after his death, the grief among the mourners was overwhelming. Some of his baseball teammates sat in the front row, wearing their jerseys. At the end of the service, Caleb’s father asked the boys to gather at the front of the church and do a final huddle in honor of his son.
The Henrys made no public comment. All that came from Schlitterbahn was a statement from company spokesperson Winter Prosapio, who said, “We honestly don’t know what happened.” She added that Schlitterbahn was “deeply and intensely saddened for the Schwab family and all who were impacted by the tragic accident.”
Kansas City reporters began digging. They quickly learned that their state, like Texas, allows water parks to be self-inspected. (Under the headline “The making of Schlitterbahn’s Verrückt water slide: Too much, too fast?” a Kansas City Star article concluded that “the ultimate safety of [Verrückt] mostly began and ended with those inspired to build it.”) The reporters quoted former Verrückt riders who said their shoulder straps had busted loose or that their rafts had caught air. “Our boat one hundred percent went off the tracks,” one woman said. A local TV station interviewed a former park lifeguard who said Verrückt had terrified him and his coworkers.“We had to ride it three times before we actually opened the park every day,” Nathan Campbell said. “[Schlitterbahn managers] would ask lifeguards who would want to volunteer, and no one would put their hands up . . . It was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’ ’’
Investigators and detectives from the Kansas City Police Department, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and the Kansas attorney general’s office also arrived at Schlitterbahn. A detective interviewed 29-year-old Tyler Miles, who had been working at the park since 2013 and had advanced from construction worker to lifeguard to director of operations, responsible for all aspects of the park’s day-to-day ride operations. “Have you been aware of any complaints regarding Verrückt the ride in the last season?” the detective asked.
Miles answered, “I have not, sir,” according to the detective. His lawyers would later say he was so confident in the ride’s safety that on the very day that Caleb was killed, he had brought his wife to the park to ride Verrückt.
Investigators laterlearned, however, that Schlitterbahn employees were required to submit regular “ops reports” about the rides they monitored and, according to reports that the investigators read, Verrückt had problems that were never revealed to the public. For instance, eleven Schlitterbahn customers said they had been injured on Verrückt between August 31, 2014, and August 5, 2016 (two days before Caleb’s death). In five of the incidents, riders claimed they were injured while their rafts were still in the chute. (One rider reported that her head had slammed into the headrest and she sustained a concussion when her raft entered the runout pool at a high speed.) In five other incidents, riders claimed their rafts went airborne over the crest of the second hill and that they suffered head, neck, and back injuries when their rafts slammed back down onto the chute. And a man named Norris “J. J.’’ Groves reported that when his raft went airborne, his face and forehead struck the netting and a metal hoop, causing his right eye to swell shut for the rest of the day.
An investigator spoke to a seventeen-year-old lifeguard who said that Miles had ordered him to write a report that downplayed the severity of the Groves incident. Meanwhile, sifting through Verrückt’s maintenance reports, other investigators concluded that Miles had avoided or delayed making repairs that would have taken the ride out of commission. According to investigators, Miles hadn’t even ordered repairs when a Schlitterbahn manager informed him, on July 15, 2016 (three weeks before Caleb’s death), that maintenance work on Verrückt’s brake system was a priority.
What’s more, according to court documents, the investigators learned that on July 3, 2014, one week before the ride’s grand opening, an engineering firm hired by Jeff and Schooley to perform accelerometer tests on Verrückt’s rafts had issued a report suggesting that if the combined weight of the three passengers in a raft was between 400 and 550 pounds—the weight Jeff and Schooley had agreed was appropriate—there was a chance the raft would go airborne on the second hill. The ride opened anyway, with the weight range unchanged.
By 2017, attorneys for Schlitterbahn were meeting with the Schwab family’s attorneys. They eventually agreed that the water park and various companies associated with the design and construction of Verrückt would pay Caleb’s family a $20 million settlement, an astonishing sum. The two sisters who had ridden behind Caleb, both of whom suffered facial injuries, also received a settlement, of an undisclosed amount.
Still, neither Jeff nor his siblings offered any public explanation for what had happened. Had there been a problem with the distribution of the three passengers’ weight that caused the raft to lift off into the air? Had something gone wrong with the cannon nozzle that shot the raft up the second hill? Was the wind a factor? No one seemed to know, not even Jeff.
He said he wanted to return to Verrückt, which closed immediately after Caleb’s death but still loomed over the Kansas City landscape like some grisly monument, so he could find out what had gone wrong. His hope, he said, was to reconstruct the fatal ride exactly as it took place, assisted by a team of independent experts. But prosecutors for the Kansas attorney general’s office persuaded a judge to lock down the ride. They believed it was a valuable piece of evidence that should not be touched. Schlitterbahn was perhaps not the scene of a freak horrific accident, the prosecutors were saying, but the scene of a crime.
This past spring, Kansas City prosecutors began meeting with a grand jury, and in late March, the jury issued indictments. When Jeff and Schooley erected Verrückt, the state charged, they had knowingly created a “deadly weapon.” Instead of using fundamental mathematical and physics calculations to design and build the ride, the two men had “rushed forward relying almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods.” And although they realized that their finished product “guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants,” they went ahead and opened the ride anyway. To make matters worse, the grand jury charged, operations director Miles had deliberately concealed evidence about Verrückt’s dangers, going so far as to give a police detective false information.
Miles and the Kansas City Schlitterbahn itself were indicted for aggravated battery, aggravated endangerment of a child, interference with law enforcement, and involuntary manslaughter. Jeff, Schooley, and Schlitterbahn’s New Braunfels–based construction company, Henry & Sons Construction, were charged with aggravated battery, aggravated child endangerment, and second-degree murder, a much more significant charge than manslaughter that could result in sentences for Jeff and Schooley ranging from 9 to 41 years in prison, along with a $300,000 maximum fine per man.
Once again, Jeff and his siblings had no public comment, though Prosapio released another statement that said that Schlitterbahn was “shocked” by the indictments. “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, have ridden the ride with complete confidence as to its safety . . . We run a safe operation—our 40 years of entertaining millions of people speaks to that.”
All the defendants pleaded not guilty in a Kansas courtroom. Before Jeff’s arraignment, his 39-year-old daughter, Amber, from his first marriage, raced to a Walmart and purchased a suit for her father to wear. He posted a $500,000 bond and surrendered his passport. As he walked out of the courthouse, his face ashen, a reporter asked if he had any training in engineering or physics. “No comment,” Jeff said. But one of his lawyers acknowledged that Jeff didn’t have such training. He added, “Neither did Henry Ford, and he built the car.”
Jeff returned to Texas and stayed out of public view, splitting his time between a condo he owns in South Padre and a home he owns outside New Braunfels on a remote piece of property a short walk away from the grave sites of his mother and father. (Bob died in October 2016, after a long illness, and Billye died in her sleep last year.) He stopped going to any of the Schlitterbahn parks he created, and the company laid off most of his design and construction staff. He endured another jolt of bad publicity when the news media learned about his marijuana use. (Besides the felony conviction in 1994, he was convicted in 2007 on a misdemeanor charge of possession.) Reporters from the San Antonio Express-News also revealed that in September 2013, Jeff’s second wife, Louise Settree, had claimed in divorce papers that he had “assaulted, battered, beat and tormented” her during their nearly five-year marriage and that his use of alcohol and drugs had contributed to the “horrific assaults.” His treatment of her, Settree claimed, was “so extreme in degree . . . as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” (Jeff’s attorney dismissed her accusations, claiming that such statements are common in contentious divorce proceedings.)
On June 16 of this year, after I’d attempted to contact Jeff a half dozen times through his legal team and his family, he called me at 1:26 in the morning. When I returned the call several hours later, just after 7 a.m., he picked up on the first ring. He sounded utterly distraught. “If I really believed I was responsible for the death of that little boy, I’d kill myself right now,” he said. He seemed close to tears. “There are members of my family who would like to commit me to a facility because I’m suffering from depression. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed for four days.”
He had decided to talk to me, he said, so that people would understand he had done nothing wrong. Over the next two days, we spoke four times, despite his lawyers demanding we stop. “How do you indict someone for murder if you don’t know what happened?” he asked at one point. “How is that possible?”
Jeff said that soon after Verrückt was up and running, he had left Kansas City to do some work on a Schlitterbahn park in Corpus Christi, which had opened in 2014, and he had never gone back. He said that he was never told about the eleven injuries on Verrückt prior to Caleb’s death, nor was he told about the 2016 maintenance problems. “If any raft had left the surface, that ride should have been shut down, and I would have gone straight there to figure out what was wrong,” he said. “But nobody bothered to tell me something was wrong with it.”
As for the outside engineering firm’s finding that a raft with three passengers weighing between 400 and 550 pounds could go airborne, Jeff said he thought it relied on outdated information. He also heatedly denied allegations that he had been worried about Verrückt’s dangers as he was building it, chuckling mirthlessly when he told me he’d been acting when he made his fearful on-camera comments, a few of which were quoted verbatim in the indictment. “The real Jeff Henry was not indicted. The actor Jeff Henry, who was trying to glamorize the ride, was indicted.”
Verrückt, he told me, “is the state-of-the-art technology. I thought we had designed the biggest, baddest thing ever built, a ride that could operate safely and never have a serious accident, ever, if things were complied with and if the thing was maintained and operated as designed. I’m telling you, the ride that was built by John Schooley and Jeff Henry is not the same ride that that boy was on the day he died.”
When the case goes to trial, which isn’t likely to happen for at least another year, Jeff’s and Schooley’s attorneys might use that very argument: that the employees who operated Verrückt made mistakes, such as ignoring maintenance problems, and that Henry and Schooley knew nothing about it. And the lawyers could argue that the two men were not criminally negligent. To have committed a crime, they would have had to have known that their actions could result in injury or death.
But prosecutors could tell the jury that Jeff and Schooley knew very well that Verrückt could lead to a catastrophe, yet they continued to push forward. Consumed with hubris, they were determined to be known as the creators of the tallest and fastest ride in all of water park history.
Schlitterbahn, meanwhile, is reeling. Plans to expand to other cities have been shelved. EPR Properties, the real estate investment trust in Kansas City that loaned Schlitterbahn $174 million for its Kansas park, has warned its investors that the criminal indictments could hurt Schlitterbahn’s chances of repaying its loan, which might force EPR to foreclose on the park, along with the parks in New Braunfels and South Padre Island, which had been put up as collateral for the loan. Last year a bank in Corpus Christi that held roughly $32 million in debt on that city’s Schlitterbahn took ownership of the park, after plans for an attached resort quintupled in size and the project’s costs ballooned, eventually forcing the property into foreclosure. (Schlitterbahn continues to manage the park.)
“It’s a tragedy,” Jeff told me. “We were a Texas tradition, and now it’s over.”
When I later asked his brother, Gary, about Jeff’s comments, he quietly said, “It has been a horrific couple of years.” But he added that Schlitterbahn is not going out of business. (And he did get good news in July, when prosecutors agreed to let the company tear down Verrückt this fall.) “I get up every day and think about all the great people who work at Schlitterbahn,” he said. “I think about all the great customers who choose to come to a Schlitterbahn to spend their family vacations. I get fired up to come to work and take care of those customers.”
I recently drove to the original Schlitterbahn, in New Braunfels. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon, the kind tailor-made for Jeff’s innocent old vision of summer fun. Families poured through the gates. Children frolicked in watery playgrounds, teenagers lined up to ride the Boogie Bahn and the water coasters, and parents floated on the artificial rivers. I didn’t hear anyone mention the indictments in Kansas City.
I was hoping to meet Jeff, but he was still staying to himself. His daughter Amber did meet me. We walked past the home where Bob, Billye, and the Henry kids lived five decades ago (it’s now rented out to Schlitterbahn visitors). We stood on the bank of the Comal, where Jeff used to go swimming, and we ambled over to the first tube chutes that Jeff designed and built when he was a young man.
For a couple of minutes, I watched some kids zip down one of the chutes, grinning from ear to ear. I watched some other kids at a picnic table happily downing ice cream. I listened to the wind rustling through the cedar, oak, and cypress trees, and then I noticed Amber staring at me.
“It’s sort of beautiful, isn’t it?” she said. It was.