Grand Canyon Rockslide
Looking back from the Clear Creek Trail on the bridges spanning the Colorado River at Phantom Ranch. (Dennis Foster)

An Indiana man has been federally charged with several counts of child abuse after allegedly forcing his three young grandsons on brutal Grand Canyon hikes this month.

He is accused of beating them, making them walk on ulcerated blisters, denying them food and water, and forcing them to run up the trail under the intense sun.

According to a complaint filed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Flagstaff, rangers and passersby took note of several instances regarding alleged abuse by Christopher A. Carlson, of Indianapolis, against the boys, ages 12, 9 and 8, on two trips to the Grand Canyon during a summer cross-country trip.

One of these hikes, a 19-mile trek, occurred last weekend, when temperatures reached 108 degrees at Phantom Ranch along the Colorado River.

A law enforcement ranger intervened on the first trip, on Aug. 15, when she saw Carlson and the boys at the day-use area at Indian Garden. According to the complaint, other park visitors had told the ranger that they were concerned for the boys, who looked exhausted. The group had already hiked that day from the South Rim to Plateau Point and back to Indian Garden, a distance of about 7 1/2 miles, and Carlson was reportedly intent on taking the boys to the Colorado River and back to the rim that evening.

CHILD ENDANGERMENT

The ranger said it would have been child endangerment to take the boys to the river and back and that she would not allow them to go because it was too late -- 5 p.m. when she spoke with them -- too far and too strenuous for the tired children. A trip to the river and back would have added about 8 miles to the hike back to the rim, itself about 4 miles from Indian Garden.

Carlson, reportedly defensive and aggressive, eventually complied and hiked the children back out. He also reportedly declined the ranger's offer of food and said everybody was "fine," the complaint stated. The ranger contacted other rangers at the Three Mile Rest House and the rim to keep an eye out for the group. After hiking out, the group reportedly left the park.

They returned this past weekend. On Sunday afternoon, another ranger in the Indian Garden area of the Bright Angel Trail spotted the man and boys and contacted the law enforcement ranger who had met the group on the earlier trip to say she was concerned for the children.

Not long after, a passing hiker used the emergency phone at the Three Mile Rest House to report the group after the oldest child secretly asked for help. The children were described as hyperventilating and running, and another ranger in the area said Carlson was threatening to make them hike faster and that the youngest boy was crying.

TRAILSIDE CONFRONTATION AVOIDED

Coordinated efforts among rangers led to another law enforcement ranger on the rim spotting the group with binoculars and watching them on the last three-quarter-mile of trail before the trailhead. During that time, the ranger on the rim noted Carlson allegedly shoving the oldest boy and whipping him with a rolled-up shirt as he hiked. Rangers chose to meet the group at the trailhead to avoid a risky confrontation on the narrow, exposed trail.

The boys told investigators that they had been hit, pushed, choked, pinched, squeezed and whipped during the day's hike, and that they had vomited several times, sometimes when the man forced their fingers down their throats.

They also said they were not allowed to drink water until they reached Phantom Ranch and sneaked water from the Colorado River, and that they had been limited to little food. Rangers fed and hydrated the boys inside an ambulance.

On Sunday, the day the children were separated from their grandfather, an adult hiker died on Tanner Trail after suffering hyperthermia and dehydration.

Rangers and trail signs regularly remind park visitors of the extreme summertime heat and urge precautions. Heat-related illnesses, deaths and rescues of distressed hikers are common.

LIPS SUNBURNED OFF

The children were placed in the care of Child Protective Services. A medical exam showed several injuries in various stages of healing, implying chronic abuse. The boys' lips had been sunburned off and they had several cuts and bruises. The eldest boy described some symptoms of potentially fatal heat stroke from Sunday's hike, including dizziness, double vision and sounds around him becoming hushed. The boys also had badly chafed groins, because Carlson did not allow them to wear underwear.

Carlson remains in custody at the Coconino County jail. He will be back in court Thursday for additional hearings.

Hillary Davis can be reached at hdavis@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

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