JEFFERSON CITY • Attorney General Josh Hawley on Monday sued the owners of the Offsets, a flooded former quarry north of Fredericktown, Mo., where two people died this month.
Hawley’s office said the site, about 70 miles south of St. Louis, is a “public nuisance” and “poses an unlawful risk to public safety.” He asked a Madison County circuit judge to issue an order closing the swimming hole until safety concerns are addressed.
Since Gary Henson purchased the five-acre lake in the 1980s, at least nine people have died on the property, Hawley’s office said in a written statement. The Offsets, also known as Paradise Cove, charges admission and has gained attention over the years for drowning deaths, fights and partying.
Safion Livingston, 21, of St. Louis, died July 13 after struggling and drowning in the water. A 19-year-old Chesterfield man died July 4 in the same area. Cole Duffell jumped off a cliff into the water, resurfaced and then went under, the Missouri Highway Patrol said.
The nine patrons listed in Hawley’s lawsuit all died in their teens or twenties, and the majority of them were from the St. Louis area. On Sept. 2, 1989, Leonard Brand, of O’Fallon, Mo., died after breaking his neck when he jumped into the lake.
On Sept. 1, 2007, Michael Mattingly, 20, of the Mehlville area, died when he slipped and fell off a bluff into the water. The next day, 27-year-old Nick Kruz, from northern Illinois, died while visiting.
At the time, then-Madison County Sheriff David Lewis and a spokesman for then-Attorney General Jay Nixon both told the Post-Dispatch they did not have the power to shut down the Offsets.
“The Offsets poses a serious danger to the public, as evidenced by the repeated tragedies that have occurred at this commercial location,” Hawley, a Republican, said in his statement. “As attorney general, it is my duty to protect Missouri consumers — and this lawsuit is necessary to prevent future injuries and deaths.”
The lawsuit names Gary and Rebecca Henson, of Farmington, the owners of Offsets Recreation LLC, as defendants. No one answered the Offsets’ phone when a reporter called Monday.
Hawley’s office said that some bluffs are taller than 40 feet, and that when patrons jump into the water, they can’t easily access flat ground because they are surrounded by bluffs.
“There is nowhere for an injured or tiring swimmer to rest, and a swimmer in trouble may have to swim hundreds of feet to safety,” the lawsuit says.
Hawley’s office said that the owners of the destination use signs and waivers that are “insufficient” in warning guests about the property’s dangers. The lawsuit also says there are no life preservers available near the bluffs and no lifeguards on duty.
The lawsuit also says that an added danger is the force with which swimmers hit the water, noting that at least one of the victims broke his neck while jumping.
The Offsets’ waiver does note that there is a risk of injury or death by jumping off the cliffs, and there are signs posted around the property. But near the tallest cliffs, most popular with guests, the only signs read “no flipping,” the lawsuit says.
“The ‘No flipping’ signs encourage and condone jumping from these high bluffs as long as the customers do not incorporate a flip into the jump,” the lawsuit says, adding that there are no warnings about the “extreme height” of the bluffs, “which can be difficult for customers to estimate when standing on the top of the bluffs looking down.”
In a 2007 Post-Dispatch story, then-manager Jerry Douglas insisted the attraction was safe for most people.
“It’s an old abandoned lead mine; it’s not a playground,” Jerry Douglas said then. “People come here to have a good time, and once in a while we have a bad seed.
“But this has been hard on all of us. The last thing we want is for someone to get hurt.”