PHOENIX (AP) — A grandfather who forced his grandsons on two grueling hikes in the Grand Canyon in searing August heat was found guilty of child abuse after a trial in which the three boys described going without food and water and being choked and kicked during the long treks.
Investigators said Christopher Alan Carlson of Indianapolis told them the boys were overweight and that he thought hiking the Grand Canyon would help get them into shape. But a criminal complaint said Carlson put his grandsons in circumstances "likely to cause death or serious bodily injuries," and investigators said the boys — 8, 9 and 12 at the time — were covered in cuts, bruises and scars at the end of a 19-mile hike on Aug. 28.
An Arizona jury on Wednesday found Carlson guilty of three of six charges of child abuse stemming from that hike and another one on Aug. 15. He's scheduled to be sentenced June 1, but because the jury convicted him on the three lesser offenses, it was unclear if he could face up to life in prison.
All three of the boys testified during the trial, which began Feb. 15. The oldest boy told jurors that he secretly asked a hiker to call 911 toward the end of the Aug. 28 hike after he began throwing up and after he fell down because of cramping and experienced changes to his vision.
"I needed medical attention and I was hurting and he was hitting and pushing me and calling me fat," said the boy. "I was scared and it was hard and I was all weak and tired and kind of hurt."
He said Carlson became angry whenever he started walking too slow, and at one point, hit him in the face with a rock, causing his lips to bleed.
"I started crying and walking faster and he kicked me in the butt and said, 'Run,'" the boy said.
The boy said Carlson was in a hurry to get to the top of the Grand Canyon so he could see the sunset.
A ranger with binoculars spotted the group during their Aug. 28 hike, the same day 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.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Williams portrayed the 45-year-old Carlson as an active health nut who had a firm hand and wanted to show the boys the world. Like anyone after a long hike, the boys were tired, hungry and thirsty, but Carlson only allowed the boys to eat healthy food like tofu, hummus and veggie burgers, Williams said in his opening statement.
"I suppose to an 8, 9 or 10-year-old that might seem like child abuse if you like cheeseburgers, French fries and pizza," he said. "He wanted to get them from behind the TV, the games and fast food."
Prosecutors told jurors that Carlson deprived the boys of food and water during the hikes. The boys reported that they did get some water, but not always enough, and ate celery and other snacks during the hike.
Prosecutor Camille Bibles told jurors that the middle child got severe blisters on the first hike and that they hadn't fully healed by the second hike. She showed jurors photos of the blisters, which turned into bleeding ulcers. The wounds forced the boy to undergo treatment usually reserved for burn patients and he couldn't wear shoes for weeks, Bibles said.
A nurse also testified and said that all the boys had severely chafed thighs because Carlson didn't let them wear underwear, and that the boys were dehydrated and had signs of heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
The middle grandson, who is now 10 years old, said that Carlson discovered that the kids had hidden unwanted cauliflower, asparagus and fish in their van. Carlson made them eat it even though the food had hair and other debris on it. Another time, the boy said Carlson made him eat broccoli that he had tried to flush down the toilet.
Carlson is such a young grandfather because he had his first child — Tara Danaher, the mother of the boys — when he was 15. Danaher was 17 when her oldest was born.