BARABOO — The operator of the Wisconsin Dells free-fall ride that critically injured a 12-year-old girl last month didn't look for or get a co-worker's "all clear signal" that a net was in place before releasing the girl to fall 100 feet to the ground, according to a Sauk County criminal complaint.
Charles A. Carnell, 33, of Lake Delton, has been charged with first degree reckless injury, a felony, in connection with the injuries suffered by Teagan Marti of Parkland, Fla. Marti remains in critical condition at a local hospital.
Carnell appeared in court Wednesday and bail was set at $1,000 cash on condition he not operate any thrill rides at the location of the incident, the Extreme World amusement park.
Carnell didn't speak in court. But his lawyer, Chris Van Wagner, said his client was "devastated" and "in shock" and that criminal charges weren't warranted.
"He made a mistake," Van Wagner said after the hearing. "He fully cooperated with the investigation. You don't do anything criminally wrong and they issue a felony charge and they arrest you. A mistake is not a crime, so they didn't need to arrest him. I respectfully disagree with the issue as a criminal charge in the case where they've shown neglect and nothing more."
If convicted, Carnell faces a maximum fine of $100,000 or 25 years in prison or both.
Carnell was responsible for lifting the girl into the air and dropping her to fall about 100 feet into a net about 40 feet above the ground on a thrill ride known as Terminal Velocity. But he told a Lake Delton police officer that he didn't check for a signal from a co-worker on the ground to make sure the net was in place before he dropped Teagan, the complaint said.
"He stated that he totally blanked it out. He said he didn't know why," according to the complaint.
The complaint also says he didn't lift her to the top of the platform.
Charge differs from past incidents
The charge against Carnell in Sauk County contrasts with a decision made in 2007 in Winnebago County after a 16-year-old girl fell to her death on a giant swing ride that was also attributed to operator error.
In Winnebago County, a police investigation found that carabiner attaching Elizabeth Mohl to the Air Glory ride wasn't properly locked down, allowing it to come open, and a safety rope intended as a backup wasn't properly fastened to the harness. But after reviewing the investigation, the district attorney's office didn't file charges.
Carnell was taken into custody Tuesday at Extreme World by Lake Delton police and transported to the Sauk County Jail. Van Wagner said Carnell will be able to continue working at the amusement park but will not be operating any of the park's three thrill rides. Carnell's bail conditions include having no contact with the Marti family.
Bill Anderson, Extreme World owner, was at the court appearance but declined to comment. The park opened in 1993.
Previously, Anderson has said Carnell worked for the company for 17 years with no problems and had a "great" track record.
"He's been with me almost since day one," Anderson said shortly after the July 30 incident.
A pre-trial conference has been slated for 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 20.
Teagan has undergone surgery at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison and was still in critical condition Wednesday.
The complaint quoted her doctors saying her injuries include swelling of the brain; several severe spinal fractures; multiple pelvis fractures; and lacerations to her liver, spleen, intestines and duodenum.
When an officer arrived at the scene the girl's "skin was gray and her lips were blue. There was blood coming from her mouth, ears and nose," the complaint said.
According to the complaint:
Carnell was the "dive master" on the Terminal Velocity ride and responsible for taking Teagan and two others to the top of the ride.
At some point while the cage was being carried to the top of the structure it stopped before it got to the top and was lowered slightly. Carnell looked over the side of the cage and saw his co-worker blowing up the air bags at the bottom of the ride.
The cage began to lift a second time and when it stopped Carnell thought the cage was at the top of the ride. But he said he didn't look for the "all clear signal" from his co-worker — which was what he was supposed to do — which meant the net below was in place and the air bags surrounding it are inflated.
Carnell looked through the trap door to ready Teagan for the jump and thought the bags were inflated.
Carnell got Teagan in place through the trap door in the bottom of the cage, unhooked the safety device and pulled the release from her jump harness. Carnell estimated the cage was about 100 feet in the air at the time.
When the girl hit the ground Carnell "realized the cage was not at the proper height."
Asked why he thought the cage kept stopping, Carnell said it was a common practice because of slow leaks in the air bags. Ground operators will stop the ascent of the cage to inflate the bags, he said.