Kansas agency settles lawsuit filed in wake of 2011 lake death

Kansans Tony and Pauletta Bieker settled into a low-key weekend respite with camping, boating and fishing on Antelope Lake.

Events of late July 16 and early July 17, 2011, spiraled into a nightmare for the Rexford couple staying at the small lake northwest of Hays, managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Tony Bieker’s boat had become stuck amid underwater obstacles in shallows at least 50 yards from shore. Unable to dislodge the watercraft, he decided to wait for daylight to flag down help. His wife was ashore in a campground.

In the darkness, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism officer Michael McGinnis arrived on the scene, pointed emergency lights at Bieker and ordered him to get the boat “off the water.”

Bieker responded by entering calm, moonlit water without a lifejacket in an unsuccessful bid to gain leverage and knock the boat free. Bieker’s wife, Pauletta, told McGinnis it wasn’t safe for him to move outside the vessel at night. Bieker was unable to climb back into the boat and began swimming to shore.

As he swam, Bieker made it about halfway before floundering.

“I’m not going to make it. I love you,” he yelled to his wife, according to court documents.

McGinnis didn’t call for backup before Bieker went under, prevented Pauletta Bieker from venturing into the water and failed in three tries to throw a safety device to Bieker. McGinnis waded out to retrieve Bieker, with the officer reporting only the man’s left shoulder and top of his head were above water. He pulled him to the bank and began emergency treatment.

Bieker, 65, was airlifted from the Graham County Hospital to Hays Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

The legal drama over culpability in the fatality came to light in Topeka five years later as state government officials wrangled over liability claims raised in a 2013 wrongful death lawsuit brought by Hays lawyer Christopher Sook against the state and McGinnis. Sook didn’t respond to a request for comment in the case.

The State Finance Council, comprised of Gov. Sam Brownback and top Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, voted to affirm Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s recommendation the state pay Bieker’s widow a settlement amount of $33,000. The plaintiff had sought a judgment in excess of $75,000.

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