LAKE DELTON, Wis. – Amusement park manager Chuck Carnell fancied himself a star after he appeared on a national television program featuring one of the park's scariest rides. But the limelight shifted in one nightmarish moment.
Police say Carnell mistakenly dropped a 12-year-old Florida girl 100 feet to the ground without a safety net last month. Now he's facing a first-degree reckless injury charge, a felony that carries a 25-year prison sentence.
It's a horrible reversal of fortunes for Carnell, who had worked at Extreme World since he was 16 years old, according to police reports released Monday. He rose to a manager's position, became certified as a Terminal Velocity dive master and was even featured in a piece the Travel Channel's "Bert the Conqueror" series did on the free fall ride, the reports said.
Terminal Velocity customers ride an elevator about 165 feet in the air to the top of a tower. The dive master lowers them through a trap door, and they hang suspended in a safety harness until the dive master pulls a ripcord, letting them free fall about 100 feet. A safety net suspended over bags filled with air is supposed to catch them.
The Travel Channel segment lured Teagan Marti, a 12-year-old honors student from Parkland, Fla., and her family north to Extreme World.
According to police reports, Carnell, 33, of Wisconsin Dells, took Teagan and two other men up on the ride just before noon on July 30 because the regular operator was busy talking to an insurance adjuster. He told investigators the outing was the first time he'd run Terminal Velocity in at least two weeks.
One of the other riders told police Carnell boasted to them that he had built the ride and asked whether any of them had seen him on TV.
The rider said Teagan replied she had seen the ride on the Travel Channel. Carnell replied he was on the show and he normally got a bigger reaction from people when they found out he was the operator featured.
The third rider told police Teagan didn't reply.
Meanwhile, on the ground, a worker was busy refilling the air bags that lift the net into place. Carnell and another park employee later told police the bags had slow leaks and often had to be refilled.
The ground worker stopped the elevator about two-thirds of the way up, multiple witnesses said, while she refilled the air bags. While they were suspended, Carnell opened the trap door without getting the all-clear signal from below. He lowered Teagan down and pulled her ripcord.
The girl plunged to the ground, landing on her back. Doctors at the Madison hospital where she was airlifted have said she may be paralyzed.
The other riders said Carnell began to scream and hit his head with his fists. He got on his park radio and told someone he had just killed the girl, that it was his fault and he should go to jail. He also asked for his pastor to come to the park.
The two riders who went up with Teagan said it was difficult to tell from the elevator whether the net had been raised. Detectives who rode the elevator days later reported they could clearly see the net was not in place and they weren't at the top of the tower.
Investigators found Carnell lying against a wall, holding his head.
"I hurt somebody bad," the report said he told detectives, adding, "I just keep seeing her eyes. I see her eyes rolling back in her head."
He said he blanked out and didn't know why he didn't look for the ground operator's all-clear signal.
"I know better," he said. "I should do it. I have no reason why I didn't do it."
Online court records show Carnell was convicted of burglary in 1997, writing bad checks in 2000 and several motor vehicle violations. He told investigators he smoked marijuana two days before Teagan's fall, but denied being under the influence during the incident.
Carnell's attorney, Christopher T. Van Wagner, and Extreme World owner Bill Anderson didn't immediately return messages left Monday.
The Marti family's attorney, Stuart Grossman, said Friday he plans to file a civil lawsuit within the next few weeks.