Granddad Gone Bad

Last summer, Chris Carlson left Indianapolis with his three grandsons for a male-bonding adventure in the Grand Canyon, a hike that would land him in prison for child abuse. Many called him a monster. But is it possible he just didn’t know any better?
Grand Canyon stock photo plus quote from Chris Carlson
Chris Carlson and his grandsons dire hike through the Grand Canyon.

Indiana’s most notorious grandfather

wants you to know he’s sorry. But for what? Hard to say. Chris Carlson has been over it and over it, and he’s still not sure what went wrong that day on the Bright Angel Trail. Help him, he says. When did he cross the line? Tell him. Please, sir? Ma’am? Tell him. Is he sorry for what he did to his grandsons?  Like he tried to explain to the guys at the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, all of that was completely blown out of proportion by the prosecution and the media. But when word got out that Carlson was that guy—the one accused of shoving and browbeating and starving his three grandsons on one of the Grand Canyon’s most dangerous trails, in extreme heat—the inmates weren’t forgiving. Roll up or we’ll roll you up! they said, and stepped to him hard. So here he is, in self-imposed solitary confinement, talking to a reporter on a long-distance call from the safety of a prison office.

Chris Carlson mugshot
Last year (2011), the mugshot of Chris Carlson, now 46, made national news.

Is he sorry for taking the hike?

Hmmm. Maybe. But, on second thought, nah, not really. When they got around to tackling the Grand Canyon last August, Carlson, then 45, and his three oldest grandchildren—then 12, 9, and 8—were practically experts, having spent the summer hiking in nearly half a dozen countries and a good chunk of the western United States. Okay, the boys might have been a little soft when they left Indianapolis at the start of the summer—kind of chubby and out of shape—but by the end they were friggin’ rocks, even the 8-year-old.

Is he sorry for the language he used with them?

Now, come on, Carlson insists. He’s not like other grandfathers—don’t pigeonhole him. He sometimes tries to be the boys’ buddy. And buddies, when they’re working out, when they’re pushing each other, they curse and call each other bad names. Give each other a hard time, you know? Plus, these kids aren’t angels. They’ve even told their own grandmother to fuck off, he’s heard.

Is he sorry for withholding food and water from his grandsons?

Stop, he says. That’s not true. Not one bit. They had plenty of water that day; it was more than 100 degrees, for crying out loud. And the food? Hold it right there, because food—healthy food—is an obsession for Carlson. You don’t get to be a shredded 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and look at least a decade younger than you actually are, by eating junk. (Even when people were trashing Carlson on Internet message boards and comments sections, a number of women cooed that they didn’t care what Carlson had done—he’s hot.) “Hey, man, me and the kids did stop and get donuts now and then,” Carlson says. But he likes to stick to fish. And “only sea fish,” he says. “I don’t eat the shrimp or the oysters or the lobster, basically anything that’s a bottom feeder or pollutant cleaner.” He’s also big on herbs. Horse tail root. Burdock root. Ginseng. “Did I tell you that story about Li Ching-Yuen?” he asks. “Lived 250 years? Had 168 children? Chinese? Look it up.”

The problem with apologizing is, whenever Carlson goes into what really happened on the Bright Angel Trail last summer, it never seems to come out quite right. He’s a talker, and once he gets going, the conversation is the narrative equivalent of an Escher lithograph, with a few strokes of Dali for good measure. So he could try to explain. But where to start? The marijuana? The Jamaican cab driver? Disneyland? The Grateful Dead? His own childhood? Dr. Freaking Phil? They all factor into the story, which, if Carlson had his way, would be titled “The Marathon Summer of Educational Fun and Adventure.” And maybe it did start off as such. But, somewhere along the line, Carlson’s trip, like his long-winded stories, curved weird and broke bad.

When Tara Danaher, 29, said goodbye to her three oldest children on August 9, 2011, she wasn’t concerned.

The boys were setting off with her father, Chris Carlson, on the third and final leg of a summer-long series of vacations that crisscrossed Mexico and parts of Central America, then Jamaica, and, now, the western United States. After each of the previous trips—ostensibly funded by savings and his on-again-off-again, $9-an-hour job as an unskilled laborer—Carlson had returned the boys with wild stories but no scratches. Danaher’s dad might not have been perfect, but he had always been supportive of her, she says, and she considered him a prominent male role model in the lives of her five children. “I’m very protective of my kids,” Danaher says. “I don’t even let them see their father.”

On June 4, Carlson flew the grandsons and three of his own similarly aged children, then 12, 8, and 7—six kids in all—from Indianapolis to Cancun. When they landed, Carlson rented a van and aimed south with just enough Spanish to get by.

For the next three weeks, Carlson and the children drove down the eastern coast of Mexico and listened to untamed radio, stopped at little markets, ate on the side of the road, and sometimes, at night, slept in the van. When they were near the sea, Carlson would buy 50 to 100 pounds of fish, cook the flesh until it was dry, and put the provisions on ice in a large cooler where the food would last for a week. He had learned the trick on one of his many visits to Jamaica.

From Mexico, they crossed into Belize and then Guatemala, and climbed the ancient Mayan temples and the moss-covered ruins of Tikal, once one of the most powerful city-states in the Americas. Then it was on to Coyolito, Honduras, and back through Mexico, where they saw the Pacific beaches south of Acapulco.

Carlson took the group on short walkabouts—2 or 3 miles at first, and gradually longer ones. Nothing out of the ordinary, aside from a shirtless white man traveling on the cheap, hiking in regions deemed dangerous for U.S. citizens by the State Department, alone with six children of various races.

The group flew home via Mexico City on June 25. Carlson laid over at his Indianapolis home for about three weeks before jetting off to Jamaica on July 15 with the six children and a buddy. There, they stayed with old friends and visited the beach towns of Negril and Robin’s Bay. They went to Montego Bay and attended a reggae festival. Carlson and the kids swam and fished for bonito, barracuda, kingfish, mahi mahi, and tuna. And, as they had in Mexico and Central America, they hiked. By the end of the Jamaican trip, Carlson’s brood had logged well more than 100 miles on various treks.

Before the party returned to Indianapolis, Carlson readied his 5-year-old son for the start of school in Robin’s Bay, Jamaica, where the American-born boy was living with friends; Carlson felt that it was a nice place for a child to grow up. The father and son said their goodbyes, and Carlson and the remaining children returned to Indiana on July 31, safe and sound.

As the summer faded, Carlson made preparations for the trip west. He had a white 2000 Ford Econoline cargo van, which he had converted into a makeshift RV. He looked at the final leg—Disneyland, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon—as an opportunity to spend time with his grandsons. The boys’ father hadn’t seen the children in three years. This was a chance, Carlson thought, to instill a little discipline and prove to them that their 45-year-old grandpa was hardly an old man. Carlson called it a “man-up trip,” a “boys’ trip,” and “a time to be macho.”

On August 9, 2011, Carlson came to pick up the trio, and Danaher watched as the doors closed on the vehicle and Carlson pulled away. What could go wrong? she thought.

The Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail deceives. On its path to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon, especially near the trailhead on the South Rim, it’s common to see ill-prepared visitors with little water trotting headlong down the dusty 4-to-6-foot-wide paths flecked with mule dung. So captivated by the beauty of the changing rock formations—the creamy Kaibab, the deep pinks of the Redwall limestone—and the vastness of the breathtaking void, some inexperienced hikers never look back to see just how far and how deep the trail, once a Havasupai Indian footpath, has carried them.

3 Mile Resthouse, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
3 Mile Resthouse, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon

But during the summer, when temperatures in the canyon often soar above 100 degrees, the South Rim–to–Colorado River route is a 9.5-mile, 4,380-foot vertical dip into a boiling caldron. Once you get to the bottom, getting back out requires retracing your steps along the same 9.5-mile route—uphill. And climbing from 2,480 feet above sea level to 6,860 feet at the trailhead adds, in effect, an additional 8.8 miles to the trek. Backpacker magazine called Bright Angel one of America’s most dangerous hikes. In 2010, emergency personnel at Grand Canyon National Park handled 286 search-and-rescue missions; three-fourths of the incidents occurred on that trail

On August 15, 2011, at about 5 p.m., park ranger Elizabeth Aurnou was patrolling the area when she encountered three boys and a man in rubber boots resting in Indian Garden, a shaded picnic area with a drinking fountain about 4.5 miles from the Bright Angel Trailhead.

The shirtless boys, slumped on benches, appeared overheated. Including their side excursion to Plateau Point, a site off the main path, the four had already hiked 7.5 miles on a day when high temperatures topped 100 degrees.

Aurnou approached Chris Carlson and asked how his group was doing. He said they were fine, but Aurnou remained troubled and showed the children how to cool off in the fountain. The boys are fine, Carlson said—they don’t need to get wet. Aurnou offered the boys food, which he declined.

The ranger asked him about his hiking plans for the evening. He told Aurnou that he wanted to hike another 4.5 miles to the Colorado River and back to the South Rim—in all, close to 14 more miles. It was too late, and the distance too long, she countered. The boys looked too exhausted for such a hike.

When Carlson walked off to check on one of the boys who’d gone to the restroom, Aurnou tried to offer the others snacks. But the children told her that their grandfather didn’t allow them to eat anything but health food. Carlson returned from the restroom and explained to Aurnou that the group needed to get going in order to reach the river.

According to Aurnou’s account, later included in a criminal complaint against Carlson, he then approached Aurnou—aggressively, she thought—and she moved back, concerned he would assault her. She noted that Carlson displayed an unusual amount of energy and had a strange look in his eyes. It seemed to her that Carlson was either mentally unstable or on drugs. The ranger informed him that she wasn’t allowing the group to hike to the river and back to the rim, and that if he defied her, it would constitute child endangerment. Aurnou gave him two choices: Make camp for the night or return to the trailhead.

“If she was truly intimidated by anything, it was my physical appearance,” says Carlson. “I mean, she’s got a gun, mace, and five rangers at her disposal. She wasn’t intimidated.” (National Park officials declined IM’s requests for interviews.)

Carlson complained to Aurnou about the park entry fee and explained that he and the boys had driven all the way from Indiana. But Aurnou stood firm, and Carlson and the boys eventually headed back up the trail. He had been to the Grand Canyon on numerous occasions but had never made it to the Colorado River. He had hoped this would be the time.

“It was like we were waiting in line for a ride that got closed at the amusement park,” says Carlson. “I was upset, but I wasn’t pissed off. I was disappointed.”

Carlson and the children slept in a hotel that night and put the Grand Canyon in their rearview mirror for the next 12 days. They toured Hoover Dam and went on to Las Vegas, where they hit a Criss Angel show and rode the Stratosphere. Then they drove to California, visiting Los Angeles and Disneyland. Carlson and the children stayed with friends in Santa Cruz for several days, and then pushed north to Eureka and explored Redwood National Park.

They hiked, and everything went smoothly. But Carlson couldn’t get the Colorado River off his mind. So he and his grandsons returned to the Grand Canyon and, on August 28, they gave the Bright Angel Trail another shot.

To avoid any problems, Carlson and the children started their second Grand Canyon hike earlier in the day than they had on the 15th. But once again, Carlson drew the attention of a park official in the Indian Gardens area, eight hours into their hike. According to the criminal complaint, ranger Erika Andersson thought the boys looked exhausted. But when she approached the children, Carlson wouldn’t let her speak with them.

Like Aurnou, the ranger who had encountered Carlson on the previous trip, Andersson noted Carlson’s energy level and eyes, and reported that she was intimidated and worried about the children’s safety. Though she carried a sidearm and a Taser, Andersson backed off. She felt confronting Carlson was dangerous and knew that if she requested backup, help wouldn’t arrive for 45 minutes at the soonest. She decided to let Carlson and the group proceed up the trail toward the South Rim, where law-enforcement rangers could confront Carlson in a more controlled environment. Andersson called Aurnou and notified her of the incident.

“I might not have been enough of a gentleman, or maybe my social skills were off,” says Carlson. “I was on the move and in the groove and trying to stay focused—I’ve got children. They’re like little puppies when you’ve got ’em and no one else has got ’em. Everyone wants to stop and talk, and you just can’t do that when you’ve got to have your mind focused on something.”

Not long after Andersson contacted Aurnou, the Grand Canyon Regional Communication Center received a call from an emergency phone at the 3 Mile Resthouse. The caller reported seeing a group whose description matched Carlson’s. The children appeared to be hyperventilating, and one of them asked for help.

A gathering storm would prevent any kind of rescue by helicopter, and, by that point, rangers had determined the safest course of action was to confront Carlson at the rim. Meghan Smith, a preventative search-and-rescue ranger stationed just up the trail from the Carlson group, was asked to provide welfare checks on the boys. Carlson was unaware of Smith’s presence, allowing the ranger to eavesdrop. “Keep this pace, do you hear me?” Smith heard Carlson say. “If you hike any slower … I will make you hike twice as fast, do you understand?” When Carlson and the oldest boy spotted the ranger, Carlson stopped talking. “Hello!” said Smith. “How are you guys?” Carlson didn’t stop. “We are fine,” he said. “Glad it’s cloudy.” When Carlson disappeared, Smith called the search-and-rescue desk to report her concern for the children.

Carlson thinks that if something broke—that if he made any kind of mistake—it happened after the 3 Mile Resthouse. For a mile and a half after the stop, “I really kind of pushed them,” he says. “That’s where stuff went wrong a little bit. It never got out of hand in my eyes, but I should have realized where I was, controlled my temper, and realized how I was being perceived.”

Law-enforcement ranger Rick Blair was positioned up on the South Rim, where he could see parts of the trail with binoculars. He spotted Carlson about three-fourths of a mile from the top, hiking at a brisk pace. Blair watched as Carlson whipped his oldest grandson, pushed him, and smacked him on the head as they emerged from the section of Bright Angel known as “Heartbreak Hill.”

Ranger Smith saw one of the boys stumble several times and take missteps near the edge of the trail. The boy tripped again, and Smith heard Carlson say, “If you don’t keep going, I will let you fall over the edge and die.”

Carlson claims he had sped up because the storm was approaching, the boys needed to use the bathroom, and he and the children were downwind from another group of hikers who were smoking cigarettes. As for striking his oldest grandson on the head, Carlson calls those “McFly smacks” (as in the movie Back to the Future). Plus, Carlson says, the children were alternately whining about the hike and horsing around. Someone had to take control.

When Ranger Smith emerged from the trail, she was crying. “I can’t believe the way he’s treating those kids,” she told the law-enforcement rangers. “You guys better do something.” They met Carlson at the Bright Angel Trailhead at the end of the 19-mile hike and separated him from the boys. Carlson was arrested and taken into custody. The children were fed, rehydrated, and questioned before being placed in the care of Arizona Child Protective Services.

Emergency workers who tended to the boys at the trailhead later reported that they became emotional after hearing the children recount some of Carlson’s actions. The boys said they were hit and verbally abused. One of them said that when Carlson found out he had accidentally defecated in his pants, Carlson grabbed him by his genitals and stuck a finger in his anus. “Chris needs to go to jail for a long time,” one of the children reportedly told other officials. “He is a bad man.”

The U.S. government charged Carlson with six counts of criminally negligent child abuse spanning both Grand Canyon visits. The 24-page criminal complaint outlining the government’s case was based, in part, on interviews with Carlson’s grandsons.

In the document, the feds alleged that Carlson shoved his eldest grandson 13 times, whipped him with a rolled-up T-shirt, pushed him to the ground, grabbed him by the back of the neck, and called him a “motherfucker.” At one point during the trip, the boy asked a passerby to call 911.

When his middle grandson’s legs began to fail on the hike out of the canyon, Carlson grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off of the ground.

Carlson followed one of his grandsons into an outhouse, pulled the boy’s shorts down, hit him in the back of the head, and pushed him into the wall while choking him.

He withheld water from the children and kept breaks brief, even as temperatures in the canyon during their second hike reportedly reached 108 degrees. (That same day, an adult park-goer died on a different trail; a medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be “hyperthermia and dehydration due to environmental heat exposure.”)

The complaint alleged cruelty after cruelty. And there was more to come.

Subsequent court documents indicate the boys were questioned extensively about their observations of Carlson possessing and dealing marijuana, handling large amounts of cash, and making recent trips to marijuana farms and dispensaries. As one ranger later testified, the children’s familiarity with diverse strains of marijuana was “abnormal.”

Less than a month after she had seen them off, Tara Danaher, the boys’ mother, found herself sobbing outside of a courthouse in Flagstaff, Arizona, and answering questions from federal investigators: Why had Carlson pushed her children to potentially deadly levels of exertion on what authorities were describing as a sadistic 19-mile hike? How had her father, a man of limited income, scraped together the money for a summer of trips abroad? Was Carlson using the children to traffic drugs?

Danaher didn’t have any answers for the feds. But she had a question of her own:

What the hell happened?

Chris Carlson was at gunpoint when Bill Browne first met him, in a patch of some of the most magnificent marijuana Browne had ever seen. “Like giant Christmas trees with huge, huge buds,” Browne says of the 2006 encounter. “You just don’t see Indiana-grown marijuana like that.”

Browne, a conservation officer with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and another officer, Travis Wooley, were babysitting a moonlit bean field in Fayette County in mid-September when two men appeared and approached the marijuana patch. One of the men was tall and white, the other short and black.

As the pair tended to the plants, the tall man reached into his shirt, pulled out a vial that hung from his neck, and snorted a white substance that Browne initially believed to be cocaine but later learned was some type of powdered herb.

Browne trained his semiautomatic handgun on the tall man’s nose.

“Don’t move,” he said, but both of the suspects darted off.

Browne tracked down the short accomplice. He had a thick accent and said he was from Jamaica. Meanwhile, the tall man sprinted fast enough to escape Wooley. The short man was placed under arrest.

A bail bondsman and lawyers called to confirm that the short man, Conroy Talbert, was a Jamaican. Browne made a few calls of his own, including one to an Indiana State Police colleague. Browne asked if he knew anything about Jamaicans in the area.

“We are at a house on Banta Road,” said the trooper. “There are about 1,500 marijuana plants drying in the house, and we found a Jamaican passport.”

Browne traveled to the south side of Indianapolis and, as it turned out, the home of the tall man from the bean field: Chris Carlson.

In his investigation, Browne began to piece together the relationship between Carlson and his Jamaican companion. “Chris vacationed in Jamaica,” he says. “On one of his trips, he hopped into a taxi and told the cabbie he was looking for marijuana seeds.” Then, as best as Browne could tell, the two men imported the seeds and Jamaican know-how back to Indiana.

After the bust, Carlson got two felony convictions and a sentence of three years in the Fayette County jail. Talbert, who says he did join Carlson to look at the plants but didn’t participate in growing them, is now back in Jamaica.

Bobby Revalee, a deputy in the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, also worked the case, and he, like Browne, was awed by Carlson’s marijuana-growing prowess. But he was even more impressed with the discipline of Carlson’s diet. “He was in such phenomenal shape,” says Revalee. “When he talked about having grandkids, that just shocked me. He didn’t look old enough.”

Partly because of that drug conviction, Carlson realizes that he has a perception problem. And there are other things he prefers not to talk about because he knows people are going to make judgments. Like about how he became a father at 16. How he has five children with five different women. How one of those women is the half-sister of his oldest daughter. How he was not a part of the oldest daughter’s life until she was 13. How three years later, she had her first child, making Carlson a grandfather at 32. How unfortunately, the mother of one of Carlson’s daughters accused him of molesting their child for a three-year period from the time the girl was a toddler. (The allegations proved to be false, and the mother was ordered to pay Carlson more than $100,000 in damages.) And how he left for that trip to the Grand Canyon the day before his fifth child, a son, was born. Carlson has never held him.

But don’t get him wrong: He isn’t apologizing for the marijuana or the women or the children. And he’s not looking for sympathy. “I’m not asking anyone to mollycoddle me,” he says, “just like I didn’t want to mollycoddle my grandchildren on that day in the Grand Canyon.”

Damon Carlson is sitting outside of a coffee shop in Carmel, clutching his brother’s past, which he keeps tucked away in a brown-paper grocery sack. Worn and frayed from being rolled and unrolled, the bag, Damon believes, will get the truth out about Chris Carlson or, at the least, help rehabilitate his image. But the 48-year-old home remodeler won’t share the contents with just anyone. When he hears a question he doesn’t like, he pulls the bag closer to his chest. Conversely, he shows his approval by unrolling the bag—but just a bit, like a striptease. “I think there are a lot of people who want what’s in here,” he says, tapping the bag. “We all have things in our past. Some are hidden, and some are in the open. Of course, a lot of his are in the open.” Damon peers into the bag, pondering whether or not to produce what’s inside.

The Carlson boys grew up in Indianapolis, Damon says, but bounced between their parents, who divorced when Damon and Chris were very young. Their father, a bail bondsman who passed away nearly three years ago, left to start a new family. He married two times. Their mother, who still lives in the Indianapolis area, was married numerous times.

For a while, just before they entered their teenage years, the boys were split up. While Damon stayed in Indianapolis with his father, Chris and his mother went to Northern California. In the late 1970s, Chris and his mother saw the Grand Canyon—his first visit—but cut their hike short before they reached the Colorado River.

Chris and his mother eventually returned to Indianapolis, where he graduated from North Central High School in 1984. The same year, he saw his first Grateful Dead show. The band opened with “Jack Straw,” a murder ballad about a pair of outlaws on the run, and Chris was hooked. For the next decade, he took in close to 200 Dead shows in between jobs in food service and construction. He spent time in Bloomington, where he played bass guitar in a band and mingled with students at Indiana University. In 1990, Chris, a fan of reggae icons Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, made a pilgrimage to Jamaica. The laid-back lifestyle appealed to him, and it wasn’t long before he was wandering the dirt roads like a shirtless, shoeless local. “When I was a boy and I had no money for school or food, he’d give me lunch money,” says Conroy Talbert, the Jamaican arrested at the marijuana grow site in Indiana. “Everything he has, he shares. He’s a brother to me.”

In the early 1990s, Chris moved in with his grandmother, Dorothy, in a mobile home in Lawrence. In the mornings, Dorothy would boil a couple of pots of coffee and sip on it throughout the day. In the late afternoon and early evenings, she and Chris would watch The Lawrence Welk ShowMatlock, Hee Haw, and The Andy Griffith Show. After a late night out, Chris would knock three times on his grandmother’s window. She would tap back twice and then open the door. It was probably the most “normal” domestic arrangement Chris has ever had. Dorothy died in 1993.

Perhaps the storyteller was the victim of a story—that’s what Carlson believes. The boys’ accounts of their hike made for a lurid tale, “but 99.9 percent isn’t true or got twisted or blown out of proportion,” he says.

He thinks things devolved when the National Park officials separated him from the boys and starting asking them questions. “They’re coming off this really exotic, almost dreamy summer, and the stage was set for some imaginative storytelling,” he says. “A lot of what they said was true, but they certainly embellished.”

Did his oldest grandson really ask the other hiker for help? A year later, Carlson still isn’t sure. Children readily see themselves as playing the part of the hero, he’s read. “I think when [the oldest boy] got to the top, [the middle grandson] got some attention, and then they asked if someone called for help, and I think [the oldest] stepped to the plate, trying to vie, jockey, and jostle for attention.”

Carlson claims that his grandsons’ testimony at trial differed from their initial statements to park officials. One of them reportedly said he’d had an “awesome” time on the trips with his grandfather. (Another wrote a letter to the judge in Carlson’s case. “Dear judge, I would like Papa to be in jail for only one more month,” he wrote. “It would be nice if you could let that happen.”) Why the discrepancy? Tara Danaher, the boys’ mother, believes the children were coached and coerced by the rangers, EMTs, child-welfare workers, and prosecutors. “Basically,” she says, “my kids were kidnapped.” (She doesn’t offer a theory for the conspiracy, but says that if there really was abuse and the children were truly in mortal danger, the authorities should have intervened even sooner.) After a three-day trial last February, a jury found Carlson guilty of the charges stemming from the second Grand Canyon visit, but not the first.

The federal prosecutor didn’t pursue the drug angle in court, though the boys had told staffers at a Flagstaff children’s center that they spied on their grandfather in Mexico and California and believed he was involved in drug transactions. Additionally, a search of Carlson’s van netted $3,000 in cash kept in a plastic bag and hidden near the center console.

Carlson says the notion that he was using his grandchildren as drug mules, as investigators suspected, is flat ridiculous. Yes, before a fishing trip they picked up a friend who worked at a medical marijuana farm in California. Yes, of course, they saw all kinds of medical marijuana dispensaries—Venice Beach is lousy with them. And in Jamaica? They’re a lot more laid back there than we are here in the United States. Besides, what 8- or 9- or 12-year-old doesn’t know about marijuana? It’s on the cover of Time magazine and all over ESPN, Carlson says. So, drug mules? No. Hell no. Besides, Carlson quit getting high eight years ago after he was arrested, he says, and since then his focus has been exclusively on his children and grandchildren.

In April 2012, Danaher was a guest on Dr. Phil. Carlson, wearing an orange jumpsuit, made an appearance from prison via satellite. Dr. Phil lifted his britches and told Carlson, “I think you need to dial it way, way back.” Danaher defended her father but said her first allegiance was to her children. She told Dr. Phil that the children had been placed in foster care after the trip and that she had limited visitation privileges. “This ain’t my first rodeo,” Dr. Phil told Danaher. “These children need to be with their mother.” (The boys were back in Danaher’s custody as of August 2012.)

Federal investigators also looked into Carlson’s ties to Jamaica. The son who was living there with Carlson’s friend—a boy the government called a “missing child” who “had never been reported missing”—was repatriated and returned to the United States. The boy is the subject of a Child in Need of Services (CHINS) case in Indiana juvenile court. The specific details are not a matter of public record, though Carlson says he is fighting to have the boy placed back with family. The special agent in charge of the investigation received a victim-service award from the Department of the Interior for his work on the case.

At his June sentencing in Phoenix, Carlson chatted into his lawyer’s ear throughout the two-hour proceeding and frequently interrupted U.S. District Judge Frederick Martone. No one from Carlson’s family attended. Before handing down the sentence, Martone addressed Carlson: “I think any grandfather would be proud to have any one of them,” he said. “It’s amazing—they walked into this courtroom and testified about such difficult things with both earnestness and sincerity, and on occasion good humor. So whatever we do here today, you should take that to the bank, that you’ve got three great grandkids. If you had anything to do with that, you should be proud.”

The judge sentenced Carlson to 27 months, the minimum term that could have been imposed. Martone also ordered Carlson to undergo psychological evaluation and parenting classes. Following his incarceration, Carlson is to have one year of supervised release, during which he is to have no contact with his grandsons.

Before the federal marshals led Carlson away, he turned to address the court.

“I’m sorry for this whole mess,” he said.

Chris Carlson wants you to know he’s a good person, and that he’s a lot like you—struggling to do what’s right, juggling life as a parent and grandfather. He’s figuring it all out on the fly, trying to build a skill set however he can. “It’s a hodgepodge,” he says. “I get ideas from everywhere. From Scooby-Doo. From Jamaica. From my mother. I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit from everywhere. From school. From church. Learning how to love from the Grateful Dead. It’s a mesh of everything. Parenting skills? I’m learning.”

Carlson is keenly aware that his oldest grandson isn’t much younger than he was when he became a father at 16. He knows the boys aren’t angels and admits that he’s never been much of one, either. Seeing familiar frailties and flaws in your offspring is one of the most frustrating things about becoming a parent or grandparent.

“I’m not trying to pin myself down and be an old man. [The oldest grandson] is getting big. I look to the future. I’m someone who plans ahead. In two or three years, this guy might be able to knock me down on my ass, man. I want to be looked at with respect and as an elder. But, also, I don’t want to be out of the clique, man. These guys are listening to Lil Wayne and Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg and Nicki Minaj. And, on the one hand, they’re being taught how to use guns and drugs, and they’re going to be confronted with all of that stuff. On the other hand, I like some of the stuff that they are saying. It’s cool to be hip and with the times. So I don’t want to be dated and dinosaured out with the kids. As a grandparent, I look at myself as both a friend and a guide.”

And that desire to be not just a grandfather but also one of the guys, he says, helps explain what really happened out on the Bright Angel Trail.

“We’re giving each other a little—I can’t think of a polite way to say ‘breaking each other’s balls.’ But, I mean, me and friends call each other ‘bitch-ass’—‘C’mon, pussy.’ Stuff like that. You give each other a hard time when you’re working out, when you’re pushing each other. So, there’s some of that. Look, these kids aren’t little puff-cream pies. They’re throwing rocks down the hill. They’re smacking each other. If you let [the oldest grandson] smack around [the middle child] or [the youngest], he’s going to think it’s okay to push them around and think he can get away with it. But, one day, that’s going to catch up with him, number one, and, number two, he shouldn’t be doing that. He needs to answer to an authority.”

Carlson says he’s still learning how to handle male children of his grandsons’ age. The oldest boy, he says, has a 13-year-old mind but a 30-year-old’s body. “He’s almost 6 foot tall and 150 pounds. I can’t very well put him on my lap, and he’s hard to hug. His mind might need that, but it’s tough. I guess I have a macho-phobia of that sort of thing.”

It’s something Carlson is working on.

“I don’t know if you have ever spanked your child and felt bad about it,” he says. “I don’t know if you felt like you were being too harsh. That’s how I feel—like I was being too harsh. Too harsh, but I didn’t commit a crime. And I’ll tell you one thing, absolutely and for sure, I’d never let any harm come to either my children or grandchildren. I love them.”

At the table outside the coffee shop, Damon Carlson is digging around in the paper bag. He finally produces a stack of photographs. He flips through them with his thick fingers. They appear to be of Chris with his children and grandchildren.

“One of the problems in this world is the breakdown of the family,” says Damon, himself a divorced father. “I want to help break that chain.”

He lays 10, 20, 30 pictures on the table. Many are shots of children smiling and hanging on Chris Carlson in exotic locales. Everyone looks healthy, happy. But the rest of the bag’s contents—court documents, witness statements, and interviews with child-protection workers—paint a different picture.

Damon says he and his brother were raised to be survivors, to do the best they could with what little they had. But when the subject turns to parenthood, he wonders—“How do you know how to do something if you’ve never been taught?”