PHOENIX — A federal trial began Wednesday for an Indiana man accused of forcing his grandsons to hike for miles in the Grand Canyon without food or water in brutal August heat.
Investigators have said that Christopher Alan Carlson of Indianapolis told them that the boys were overweight and that he thought hiking the Grand Canyon would help get them into shape.
"He told me that he loved his grandchildren very much, but at the same time there were tough people in the world and his grandchildren needed to be tough as well," National Park Service Special Agent Chris Smith said at the time.
Carlson, who is in his mid-40s, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of child abuse. A jury was selected Wednesday morning and opening statements from the prosecution and defense were set for the afternoon.
The criminal complaint against Carlson said the boys told investigators that Carlson hit, pushed and choked them repeatedly and kicked them with his steel-toed boots, and also forced their fingers down their throats to make them vomit during trips into the Grand Canyon.
The complaint also said he put his grandsons — who were 12, 9 and 8 years old at the time — in circumstances "likely to cause death or serious bodily injuries."
The charges against Carlson stem from two hikes described in court documents as grueling. The first, on Aug. 15, was at least 7 ½ miles and the second on Aug. 28 lasted 19 miles.
The boys told investigators that they were not allowed to eat breakfast the morning of Aug. 28 and were given only celery on the hike from the South Rim down to the Colorado River. They said Carlson denied them water as he drank it in front of them, and that they surreptitiously took drinks from the river once they reached it.
One brother described how he feared his older brother would fall to his death in the canyon because Carlson forced him to walk on the edge of the trail even though he was cramping and falling down.
Another brother said that when he fell, Carlson picked him up by the throat and threw him to the ground, and another said Carlson had slammed his face into a rock. Investigators said the boys were covered in cuts, bruises and scars that backed up their stories.
A ranger with binoculars spotted the group on the Aug. 28 hike, when the temperature soared to 108 degrees and a man died on another trail from heat exposure. The ranger reported seeing Carlson shoving the oldest boy and whipping him with a rolled-up T-shirt.
Rangers fed the boys and gave them water after one showed symptoms of heat stroke and the other two had signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
They were placed in the care of state Child Protective Services just after the incident. Court records show they have recently been living with their grandmother in Indiana.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Williams wrote in court documents that the children never had to be hospitalized and denied that Carlson beat them or deprived them of food and water.
Williams said that Carlson wanted to show the boys the Grand Canyon because he "wanted them to experience more than city life."
"Mr. Carlson can be described as a health nut and only allows the kids to eat health food," he wrote, adding that Carlson gave the boys high-carb food and plenty of water the night before the Aug. 28 hike and provided them with food and water during the trek.
The boy's mother, Tara Danaher, of Indianapolis, sobbed at a court hearing on Sept. 1 and said her children went on trips with Carlson over the summer, including to Central America and Jamaica. She said she talked with her children throughout the summer and that they never expressed any concerns.
The highlight of the latest trip that included the Grand Canyon was supposed to be Disneyland, she said.
All the potential jurors were from northern Arizona's Yavapai County, requiring some to drive more than an hour to Phoenix for the trial. Judge Frederick Martone told jurors that child abuse cases are typically tried in county courts but case is under federal jurisdiction because the alleged crimes occurred in a national park.
Carlson, dressed in khaki pants and a plaid shirt, sat quietly in court on Wednesday.