Image: Christopher Carlson (Mug shot from a 2006 arrest)
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police
Christopher Carlson (Mug shot from a 2006 arrest).
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/1/2011 7:05:13 PM ET 2011-09-01T23:05:13

An Indiana man is accused of forcing his three young grandsons on brutal hikes at the Grand Canyon, beating them, making them walk on ulcerated blisters, denying them food and water and pushing them to run up the trail under the intense sun.

Christopher A. Carlson, of Indianapolis, was charged with child abuse. Rangers and passers-by noted the alleged abuse by Carlson against the boys, ages 12, 9 and 8, according to a court documents.

One of the hikes down the most popular trail at the Grand Canyon lasted 18 miles last weekend, when temperatures reached up to 108 degrees at Phantom Ranch along the Colorado River. A ranger spotted the group with binoculars on a trail and saw Carlson shoving the oldest boy and whipping him with a rolled up a T-shirt, authorities said.

When asked about the condition of the boys during a hike on Aug. 15, Carlson became defensive, the ranger said. He refused to let the boys cool off in a water fountain and also refused to let the boys eat food the ranger offered, NBC Indianapolis affiliate WTHR reported.

When Carlson left the area briefly, the ranger asked the younger boys how they felt. The boys said they were tired, sore and didn't want to continue the hike. After Carlson returned, the ranger said, he became aggressive, but agreed to hike out of the park with the boys, WTHR reported.

The boys later said that Carlson told them to "look happy" if they passed people on the trail and say they were "fine" if asked.

On Aug. 28, during the 18-mile hike, one of the boys told a passing hiker to "call the emergency," which later led to rangers confronting Carlson on the steep trail, WTHR reported.

According to court documents, the boys had injuries that were consistent with ongoing abuse.

The boys were badly sunburned and had severely chafed groins because Carlson allegedly didn't let them wear underwear, the Arizona Daily Sun reported.

The boys' mother, Tara Danaher, of Indianapolis, sobbed and covered her face during a hearing Thursday to determine whether Carlson should remain in custody. She said her children went on a series of trips with their grandfather this summer, including to Central America and Jamaica. The highlight of the latest trip that included the Grand Canyon was supposed to be Disneyland, she said.

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Danaher, 28, said she talked with her children throughout the summer and that they never expressed any concerns.

"I don't want to say I can't believe it because anything is possible in this world," she said during breaks in the court hearing. "I want to know what the hell happened."

The boys told investigators that they had been hit, pushed, choked, pinched, squeezed and whipped, and had vomited several times when Carlson forced their fingers down their throats.

Image: Grand Canyon
Submitted by Bob Lynch  /  UGC
Photo of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

They also said they were not allowed to drink water and had been limited to little food. Rangers fed and hydrated the boys inside an ambulance and they were placed in the care of child protective services.

The same day the rangers confronted Carlson, an adult died hiking in the Grand Canyon from hyperthermia and dehydration, reported the Arizona Daily Sun.

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The trail that the group hiked on two separate times last month can be deceiving. The Bright Angel Trail starts around 7,000 feet in elevation and drops to 2,400 feet at the river, and the temperature varies widely. The National Park Service advises hikers not to make the trip to the river and back in one day but people do it sometimes.

Carlson took the children on the latest hike on Aug. 28. Park Service Special Agent Chris Smith testified Thursday that Carlson told authorities that the boys had been overweight and he thought the hike would 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," Smith said.

Defense attorney Luke Mulligan suggested that rangers could have done more if they believed the children were at risk of serious injury or death.

Carlson has not yet entered a plea in the case.

The boys are in the custody of the state. Police didn't place the boys with their mother because the best interests of the boys are "not her primary concern," WTHR reported.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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