Aspen Times Weekly: A Family Forever Changed | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: A Family Forever Changed

by Jason Auslander
The Beard family today at the Colorado Springs home on Aug. 17 (left to right): Brandon, 7; Corbin, 3; Sarah, 2; mom Camille; and 16-year-old Elise.
Jason Auslander/The Aspen Times |

Was it lightning or carbon monoxide?

Camille Beard is convinced her husband and son didn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I know it was lightning,” she said recently during an interview at her home in Colorado Springs. “Nothing else makes sense.”

Her husband, Jeffrey Beard, was found lying on his left side inside the tent with the camp stove he’d used earlier to heat water for warmth located near his chest area, she said. The right side of his face was burned, along with a burn on his right shoulder and a “Z” mark burned through his shirt and into his right arm.

She also said he had three marks on the left side of his body nearest the stove she thinks were lightning entrance or exit wounds.

“Lightning charred the stove,” Camille said. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Autopsy reports that noted 61 percent carbon monoxide blood saturation in her 13-year-old son, Cameron, and 60 percent saturation in her husband are inaccurate, she said.

“Sixty percent carbon monoxide is absolutely wrong,” Camille said. “(The ‘Z’ scar on her husband’s shoulder) is a lightning scar. His shirt was melted.”

Camille also said Cameron had a burn on the side of his face.

The mortician who prepared the bodies for burial told Camille and other family members that the burn injuries “had to be lightning caused,” she said.

Finally, Camille said both Brandon and Elise Beard — who survived and were sleeping in the same tent as their father and brother — were tested for carbon monoxide after they were brought to Aspen Valley Hospital and the readings were negative.

Elise Beard said in an interview that her father lay on one side of the tent, while she lay next to him with her brother, Cameron, next to her and finally her brother, Brandon, next to Cameron.

She told a reporter she saw no indication of a lightning strike on the tent before she left on the morning of July 15. Elise also said she left the tent in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and “the world was tilting.”

Elise told a Pitkin County sheriff’s investigator she thought she smelled gas from the camp stove during the night and that she felt nauseous, according to a sheriff’s department report. She said Brandon was “hallucinating there were snakes wiggling in the tent,” according to the report.

Those experiences could all be indications of carbon monoxide poisoning, said Dr. Robert Kurtzman, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies on Cameron and Jeffrey.

Camille said in the interview with The Aspen Times that she didn’t want her children to have to talk about what happened during the night. She declined to comment on Brandon’s alleged hallucinations.

Kurtzman said the mortician who told Camille the burns were lightning caused overstepped his bounds. He said it’s not uncommon for experienced funeral directors to believe they are qualified to analyze bodies.

“This man did a great disservice to this family and created doubt in this woman’s mind,” Kurtzman said. “And there’s no way to undo that.”

Kurtzman said he has no doubt that Cameron and Jeffrey died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

His autopsy report on Jeffrey notes a “postmortem thermal injury on the right side of the face, neck and shoulder and on the right forearm. There is no other injury. The facial hair is singed greatest on the cheek and in gradual gradient diminishing towards the remainder of the face and scalp.

“There are no entrance or exit injuries typical of electric/lightning injury,” the report states.

Kurtzman said carbon monoxide is not produced by lightning. In order to be poisoned by carbon monoxide, a person must be alive and breathing, he said.

Also, both Cameron and Jeffrey’s bodies were pink in color, another indication of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to autopsy reports.

Lightning burns have different characteristics than heat source burns, he said. The “Z” in Jeffrey’s arm was caused by the stove, Kurtzman said.

“The type of injury he had was a heat source thermal injury,” he said.

Cameron’s autopsy report notes no evidence of any injury, and Kurtzman said he saw no burns on his body.

However, a sheriff’s investigator who inspected the bodies at Aspen Valley Hospital after they were brought down by a helicopter wrote that Cameron “appeared to have a small burn mark on one cheek, but no other obvious damage to his body,” according to the investigator’s report.

Kurtzman also said he would expect Brandon and Elise not to show elevated signs of carbon monoxide at the hospital because it had likely dissipated from their bodies by the time they were tested.

As for why Brandon and Elise survived, while their father and brother had highly lethal levels of carbon monoxide, Kurtzman pointed to conditions inside the tent. He said they could have been inside their sleeping bags or facing in a direction where there were lesser levels of the gas.

He also said that younger, healthier people have a better chance at surviving such a situation than older people or those with heart or cardiovascular problems.

“I don’t take (Camille’s doubts) personally,” Kurtzman said. “I feel horrible for this woman. She just lost her husband and son.

“Lightning is an act of God. Carbon monoxide is not.”

Camille acknowledged that the carbon monoxide diagnosis greatly upsets her.

“I feel that tarnishes Jeff’s image,” she said. “He always puts his kids first.”

Two deputies who inspected both tents the Beards used found only “one small hole in the rain fly of one tent. The hole was the size of a cigarette burn,” according to a sheriff’s report.

After realizing that no one retrieved the stove from the campsite, another deputy and a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen hiked 5.3 miles back into the Maroon Bells Wilderness two days after the deaths to get it, another sheriff’s report states.

They found Jetboil stove and two fuel containers “neatly organized in the area in which the Beard family was camping,” the report notes. Neither fuel container was damaged, though the “burner and cup both showed significant burn marks on the outside.”

– Jason Auslander

CAMERON BEARD WAS SUPPOSED TO LIVE TO SEE HIS 14th BIRTHDAY.

He was supposed to return home to Colorado Springs the night of July 15 from a backpacking trip near Aspen with his father, his older sister and his younger brother. If he had, he would have been the guest of honor at a Hobbit-themed surprise party complete with battle re-enactments, water fights and, most importantly, lots of food.

“He loved to eat,” said his mom, Camille Beard, during a visit to the family’s home in Colorado Springs. “And he loved the Hobbit.”

But it wasn’t to be.

Cameron died July 15 — the day before his 14th birthday — in a tent in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. His father, Jeffrey Beard, 41, also died that day. His younger brother and older sister, who were sleeping in the same tent, lived.

The coroner says Cameron and Jeffrey died of carbon monoxide poisoning — the result of Jeffrey using a camp stove inside the tent to heat water for warmth. Camille Beard believes the coroner is wrong, and insists her husband and son died from a lightning strike (see “Was it Lightning or Carbon Monoxide?”, page 30).

“Jeff was over-cautious and careful,” she said. “He never makes mistakes (like) the camp stove and stuff like that. He was cautious. There’s no way Jeff would have left a stove on.”

Either way, a large and close-knit family — which also includes two younger children — has been wounded, heartbroken and forever changed by what happened that night in the cold, wet and unforgiving Colorado wilderness.

FAMILY TIES

Camille, 40, and Jeff, both from large Mormon families, grew up 2 miles apart in Idaho Falls, Idaho. They went to the same high school — Jeff was a year older — but didn’t know each other until they met at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.

Jeff was intelligent, strong and energetic. Camille said he was also handy and could fix things, which led him to study electrical engineering.

“He had a 4.0 (grade point average),” she said. “He was really smart. When we started dating, his GPA dropped a bit, but it made me happy because he put me first. He always put his family first.”

Jeff was also a good-natured guy.

“He always brought fun to everything,” Camille said. “He walked in the room and it became more fun.”

Elise, born in 1999, was their first child. Now nearly grown up with long red hair, a quick smile and a kind, genuine face, she was the one who had to keep her head on straight that tragic night, take care of her little brother and figure out what to do next.

Elise turned 16 almost exactly a month after the death of her father and brother. Her family threw her the surprise party meant for Cameron, though they ditched the Hobbit theme in favor of a DJ, 60 kids and snacks.

“Everybody needed a party,” Camille said.

Cameron came along just 23 months after his sister, but was born with two heart defects and later had a pacemaker installed. When he was 9 years old, he underwent heart surgery that was supposed to last only a few hours. Instead it stretched into a 17-hour “horrible” ordeal, Camille said.

“The cardiologist said he was the toughest kid he knew,” Camille said.

Cameron took medicine for his heart condition and had to be cautious. He also struggled to learn to read and write, though he was a whiz at math. Still, in the numerous pictures that line the walls of the Beard home in Colorado Springs, a glasses-wearing Cameron is almost always smiling.

“Cameron was happy,” Camille said.

Elise and Cameron were close in age and best friends. They loved playing board games, hanging out and watching movies, Elise said.

Brandon was born about seven years later. Seemingly a bit more serious than his older siblings, he is a quiet 7 year old with red hair as intense as his brown eyes. He was the youngest member of the family on the ill-fated backpacking trip and, except for the first time he saw his mother after the ordeal, he didn’t say a word for two days.

The fourth child in the Beard family is Corbin, a lively 3-year-old who introduced himself as “George” to a reporter who visited recently.

“Cameron called him ‘George,’” his mother explained. “And he called Cameron ‘Fred.’”

The last member of the family is Sarah, 2, who shyly buried her head in her grandmother’s shoulder when a reporter asked her name during the same visit.

INTO THE WILD

Jeff Beard started backpacking at a young age and had lots of experience in the backcountry, Camille said. He wanted to pass his love of backpacking on to his children.

Elise said her dad first took her backpacking when she was 8.

“I didn’t like it at first,” she said. “I didn’t like being alone in the woods. But last October we went to Chicago Basin (near Durango) and I loved it.”

Elise said the July backpacking trip to the Maroon Bells Wilderness was in the works for two years.

“We had to squeeze things and move them around,” she said. “(My father) wanted to get three backpacking trips in this year. But this one was going to happen no matter what.”

The plan was for Elise, Cameron, Brandon and Jeff to tackle the Four Pass Loop, a 28-mile roundtrip “ambitious backpacking trip” in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness, according to the U.S. Forest Service website. The route goes over West Maroon Pass (12,500 feet), Frigid Air Pass (12,415 feet), Trail Rider Pass (12,420 feet) and Buckskin Pass (12,500 feet), and is rated “difficult” by the website.

They’d been in the backcountry three days and were climbing up the third pass about noon on July 14 when they noticed storm clouds gathering. Elise said they decided to get up and over the pass as quickly as possible. Brandon and Elise hiked up the pass together while Jeff and Cameron made slower progress behind them.

“Cameron was having a hard time,” she said.

When they got to the top of the pass, storm clouds were all around them, Elise said. They descended into the 2-mile-wide valley, then skipped lunch in favor of a quick snack in order to try and keep ahead of the storm.

But the clouds kept coming, Elise said. Lightning and thunder began as they started up the fourth pass. When they saw lightning hit a large rock higher up the hill, she said her father began looking around for shelter. However, the only thing around was a large rock, which wasn’t much shelter at all, she said.

The family put on raincoats, covered their backpacks with ponchos as best they could and hunkered down next to the rock hoping the storm would pass.

“The rain kept getting worse and worse,” Elise said. “We saw lightning strike the mountain. Then another struck about 30 yards away. We decided to get up the pass and try and find shelter.”

Jeff left the kids at the rock and took all of their packs halfway up the pass, then came back for them, Elise said.

“We had to get over the pass,” she said. “I was in charge of Brandon. We sang songs to distract us.”

Though it was a struggle, they made it over the fourth pass and the thunder and lightning abated as they descended into the next valley.

“That was really good,” Elise said. “But it kept pouring. The trail was like a river. We couldn’t see more than a quarter of a mile because of the mist.”

Jeff decided they needed to camp as soon as possible, and Cameron was able to find a campsite near a rock in the middle of a meadow that wasn’t ideal but they took it anyway, she said.

“I just remember being really cold and wet,” Elise said. “I couldn’t grab anything with my fingers because they were so cold.”

Somehow her father and brother put up two tents, she said. They threw all their wet clothes and gear in one tent and the family all piled in the other. They had only two dry sleeping pads, though their sleeping bags were mostly dry. Elise and Jeff were laying on one pad, while Brandon and Cameron were on the other.

Elise said she was shivering badly so her father put his arms around her to keep her warm. Cameron was in charge of doing the same with Brandon. Jeff then fired up their backpacking stove inside the tent and began heating water. He heated enough to fill a water bottle for each of the three children, Elise said.

“I got one and it warmed me up pretty good,” she said. “I kind of zonked out after that.”

THE LONGEST NIGHT

At some point during the night, Elise woke up and tried to rouse her father, but he was unresponsive. At the same time, Brandon was unsuccessfully trying to wake up Cameron.

“(My father) wasn’t moving,” she said. “I knew he was dead.”

Camille did not want Elise and Brandon to have to talk about that night in depth. However, Elise said that at some point she brought Brandon next to her — she had been between her father and Cameron — and tried to comfort him and keep herself warm.

“(The night) felt like forever,” Elise said. “All night I kept thinking what I would do if they really were gone.”

At daybreak, Elise put her dad’s car keys, his wallet, their cell phones, the first aid kit and some food and water into one of the packs. As she was doing so, she said she noticed the stove, which was black and charred. She said she figured that was the reason she’d been smelling gas all night. Still, she didn’t know what happened.

“We thought hypothermia had killed them,” she said.

Wearing wet clothes and shoes, Elise and Brandon then walked down the trail about a mile until they came upon a man filling up water bottles from a stream.

“I asked if he knew where a ranger was,” Elise said. “He asked if we were with someone and I said, ‘Yes.’ He asked if they needed help and I said, ‘No, they’re dead.’”

The man was camping with his wife and two sons. His wife took Elise and Brandon into their tent, took off their wet clothes and put them inside dry sleeping bags.

“I shivered for an hour,” Elise said. “We both shivered for an hour.”

The woman brought them hot chocolate and oatmeal, and they stayed in the tent for about two hours while a group of nearby campers walked up the trail and checked on Jeff and Cameron.

“I’ve never tasted better oatmeal,” Elise said.

Later, two brothers from Maryland who were camping with their four sons gave Elise and Brandon dry clothes and walked them out of the wilderness to the trailhead.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Elise told the story of that night calmly and evenly. Camille said she wishes she could take the experience away from her daughter, but knows she cannot.

“It’s more than any 15 year old should go through,” Camille said.

She said she takes comfort in knowing that Jeff and Cameron died together. And she’s grateful Elise and Brandon survived the experience.

“(Their survival) is miraculous,” Camille said. “The only way to make it through this is that God has a plan. The plan really sucks, but Elise and Brandon are here and I’m so thankful for that.”

Brandon, who sat through his sister’s recitation of the painful events without saying a word, then looked up at his mother.

“What if we all died and didn’t come back?” the 7-year-old asked.

His mom looked at him for a moment then said, “I would be even more heartbroken than I am.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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