The manager of a roadside amusement park in a Great Smoky Mountains tourist town is to stand trial for murder this week, accused in the death of a woman who plunged 60 feet from a whirling carnival ride.
Fatalities at U.S. amusement parks and sideshows are uncommon — only about four each year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Criminal prosecutions are rarer still.
“I have never known of a similar case,” said District Attorney General Al Schmutzer, who will prosecute Charles Stan Martin, 56, on charges of second-degree murder and reckless homicide in the March 2004 death of June Carol Alexander.
Jury selection is to begin Wednesday, and the trial may last three or four days. Martin could get up to 25 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder; and another 2 to 4 if convicted of reckless homicide.
Alexander, 51, had been sitting between her 15-year-old son and her sister on “The Hawk” at Rockin’ Raceway in Pigeon Forge, about 30 miles southeast of Knoxville. The ride is shaped like a ship and rocks back and forth, going higher each time until it turns completely upside down.
Alexander, who weighed about 240 pounds, fell out as the ride reached its apex.
Investigators determined Alexander’s safety harness didn’t engage, and they found “jumper wires” in the main electrical panel that may have short-circuited the system.
According to a $96 million negligence lawsuit filed by Alexander’s family, she had complained about her harness as the ride began swinging back and forth and asked to get off. The 17-year-old operator pressed the emergency button, but the ride kept going, the lawsuit said.
“We don’t have any evidence nor do we allege that he intended to kill anyone,” Schmutzer said of Martin. “But the proof for second-degree murder is ‘knowing’ ... the knowing of circumstances that could reasonably cause death.”
Defense attorney Bryan Delius said he is worried his client is being made a scapegoat for a resort community heavily dependent on tourism. Dolly Parton’s Dollywood also is in Pigeon Forge.
The U.S. amusement park industry, which takes roughly 300 million people on about 1.5 billion rides a year, is watching closely.
“Anytime there is a fatality or an injury of any sort, the amusement industry is very concerned with the outcome,” said Beth Robertson, spokeswoman for the Virginia-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “We absolutely trust the courts to do their jobs ... and the prosecutor must do his duty.”
Criminal charges after amusement ride deaths are unusual and relatively recent development.
In 1999, a Texas grand jury charged five people and two companies with manslaughter after an accident on a ride at the Austin-Travis County Livestock Show left a 15-year-old girl dead and two other riders injured.
Prosecutors later dropped the indictments. But in 2000, the ride’s owner pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a month in jail. A private inspector also pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was fined $30,000.
Last July, an Ohio fair worker was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and reckless homicide by a jury that found he improperly wired a bumper car ride that fatally shocked an 8-year-old boy. The owner of the ride pleaded guilty to attempted involuntary manslaughter.
The tragedy at Rockin’ Raceway has prompted legislation calling for new vigilance of amusement parks in Tennessee, one of 13 states with no regulation of the industry.