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'He grinned like a Cheshire Cat'

First day of Karlsen trial hears daughter, first responders testify

From the Calaveras Enterprise 01/14/20. Article and photo by Dakota Morlan.

“After 30 years. … That’s about all I can say.”

Arlene Meltzer attempted to articulate the long, tragic road that led her to a Calaveras County courtroom—from her daughter’s death in a 1991 house fire to her grandson’s gruesome murder in 2008, to this morning, a beginning to an end, with just minutes until her former son-in-law, Karl Karlsen, would be tried for her daughter’s alleged murder.

“But I’ve been strong,” she said. “God’s been with me.”

Supported by loved ones, Meltzer heard the testimonies of her granddaughter and five first responders through sound-amplifying headphones, occasionally dabbing her eyes and murmuring words of affirmation.

The defendant’s eldest daughter, Erin DeRoche, flew in from out of state to be the first to testify against her father.

DeRoche was just shy of 7 years old when Karlsen pulled her and her two younger siblings out of the house fire on Pennsylvania Gulch Road. Her mother, reportedly trapped in the bathroom by a boarded window, did not escape the inferno.

Some details are fuzzy, she said, “but there are some things you don’t forget.”

DeRoche vividly recounted the everyday realities of life in the Karlsen household.

She described an otherwise idyllic childhood in Murphys when her mother, Christina Karlsen, was still alive. The family frequented the ice cream shop on Main Street, she said, and her mother taught her how to sew and make grilled cheese. The 30-year-old mother often took her children on walks through their rural community to collect leaves, which they would press into albums.

But her father, DeRoche said, was a more “tense” presence in her life.

“We were walking on eggshells,” she said. “My father’s mood predicated how the day would go.”

On one occasion, DeRoche recalled Karlsen kicking a plastic egg carton through the front door, leaving a hole. However, her father’s primary target was her younger brother, Levi, she said.

“He broke a multi-inch cutting board over Levi’s backside. … My father basically abused my brother on multiple occasions,” DeRoche said, recalling beatings with pipes, shovels, pitchforks and cattle prods. “If there was an item close by, it was used.”

The abuse continued for years, she said, after her father relocated the family to his native New York shortly after Christina Karlsen’s death, and until Levi ultimately left home.

When asked why she didn’t report the abuse, she said that Karl Karlsen threatened to kill his children if they did.

“He said that, should we try to report it, call the police and call an ambulance because we would be dead by the time they got there,” she said.

Also seared into DeRoche’s memory is that fateful New Year’s Day in 1991. But it was only after years of growing up, she said, that she began to “realize the significance” of some of the details she witnessed that day.

The first memory she recounted was her father taking her and her siblings outside to burn the Christmas tree.

“He wanted us to see how quickly a house could go,” DeRoche said. “He doused the tree in flammable liquid and lit a match. It was gone in a few moments.”

After that, the children took a nap, she said, as their mother was planning to go shopping later on. She recalled a kerosene spill on the carpet outside of the bathroom about two days prior.

“I just remember waking up,” DeRoche testified, though she couldn’t remember what woke her. It was hot, and she saw flames through her ajar bedroom door.

“I heard my mother screaming, ‘Karl, get the kids!’” she said.

DeRoche said she woke up her sister, who shared her room, and tried in vain to push a dresser away from a window it was blocking. She said she didn’t know how the dresser came to be in front of the window, as it usually remained in the girls’ closet.

As the room grew smoky, DeRoche said her father broke through the window from outside and moved the dresser before pulling both girls to safety.

She said Karlsen then took them to the truck a few hundred feet away from the home, where the family’s Dalmatian was already waiting. Shortly after, he left and reappeared with Levi.

“He told the kids to stay down in the truck, but I was 6 and curious,” DeRoche said.

She testified that she witnessed her father repeatedly kick the concrete at the base of the house below the small bathroom window, which was higher up.

“He was giving it a few good kicks,” DeRoche said. “It didn’t really seem logical if he was actually trying to get her out.”

DeRoche said she didn’t remember seeing any board on the window at that time.

“As far as I know, the window was perfectly operational,” she said. After kicking at the concrete, her father came back to stand beside the truck.

“He wasn’t emotional, but he also kind of seemed to be out of it. He didn’t seem to be moving with any expediency,” she said.

DeRoche said it was her own suggestion to call for help. The remaining members of the family piled into the truck and passed the nearest home, with Karlsen at the wheel opting to drive further down the street to another neighbor’s house, where a 911 call was placed, she said.

Shortly after, the family returned to the driveway of the burning house, where first responders were beginning to arrive.

“(The house) was almost entirely engulfed in flames, and my mother wasn’t screaming,” DeRoche said.

She recalled her father telling her, “Mommy had gone to Heaven,” just before the family filed into an ambulance to be checked by emergency medical personnel. Inside the ambulance, Karlsen laid on a gurney with a gash on his forehead.

“He might have been crying,” she said.

In the days following the fire, DeRoche recalled staying at a family friend’s home and being awoken by her father to talk with an investigator. Her uncle flew out to help the family move to New York, where they would be closer to Karlsen’s family, she said. As the years passed, DeRoche began to question the events surrounding her mother’s death. She confided only in her brother Levi.

“We knew our father had murdered our mother,” DeRoche said.

The family’s secrets came to a head, she said, when Levi confronted Karlsen in front of her and their step-mother. DeRoche said her father asked his children what the community would think if they knew they had accused him.

“He was concerned about his image,” said DeRoche, who remembered the altercation ending in a fist fight between Karlsen and his son.

Sometime later in 2012, DeRoche said she went to visit her father in the Seneca County Jail, prior to his conviction in Levi’s 2008 murder, in which he admitted to kicking the jacks from beneath a truck his son was working on, crushing him to death.

“I visited him hoping he would tell me something to help me understand what he’d done,” DeRoche said. “I was looking for some closure.”

Instead, Karlsen insulted her deceased brother and boasted of his superiority in jail.

“I told him I knew that he had killed my brother and mother,” DeRoche said. “He grinned like a Cheshire Cat and told me, 'It has been 20 years, and they haven’t got me yet. They’re not going to.'”

DeRoche reported the conversation to the lead investigator in Levi’s case. That report with the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office was presented as evidence by the prosecution. It did not detail Karlsen’s alleged grin, but stated he was “arrogant and boastful.”

When asked by Public Defender Richard Esquivel why she had not also reported the incident to law enforcement in Calaveras County, DeRoche responded that there was no investigation regarding her mother's death at that time.

DeRoche remained articulate under a battery of questions from the defense, breaking into tears only when shown a picture of her deceased mother.

When asked about her feelings toward her father, she replied, “I think that’s pretty hard to describe. … Ultimately, he is my father. We don’t have a relationship. It’s complicated.”

Later, she added, “I’m pretty impartial towards him as a whole. I don’t hate him. … Based on what I know of the evidence in this case, I think that there is enough to prove that he’s done this.”

Esquivel asked DeRoche why, at one point, she wrote a letter thanking her father for saving her from the fire.

“I am grateful he saved me,” she said. “He had an option that day.”

The first responders

Five firefighters and emergency medical personnel who responded to the scene of the 1991 house fire at Pennsylvania Gulch Road testified on the first day of the trial.

Longtime county resident Kendall Thurston, now 84, was the first to arrive after a call was made detailing an ongoing fire and a possible fatality, he said.

A volunteer firefighter with the Vallecito Fire Department at the time, Thurston said he rolled up to the smoking house in his Ford 250 pickup truck, which was outfitted with a water tank.

At the end of the driveway, he encountered the defendant parked with children in the car, he said. The two “chatted” for a few minutes before Thurston continued up to the house to address the situation.

“I didn’t get the feeling or the sense that Mr. Karlsen was saddened,” Thurston testified.

Thurston recalled the defendant volunteering details about the origin of the ongoing blaze, stating that he had recently boarded up the bathroom window with “17 nails” after it broke and that the fire ignited when a lamp ignited a cleaning agent he was using.

Following the conversation, Thurston said he approached the house and found the boarded bathroom window, on which he knocked and called for Christina Karlsen, whom he knew from church. He heard no reply and called in a probable deceased victim, he said. There was not enough water in his tank to douse the flames that were spreading through the home.

“It was a really going fire at that time,” he said.

The night after the incident, Thurston couldn’t sleep.

“Why would something be permanently nailed if the window was to be replaced?” he asked.

In his cross-examination, Esquivel inquired if Thurston had obtained the information about the 17 nails from the case’s preliminary hearing. The witness replied that he did not recall hearing any testimony including that detail.

Esquivel then asked Thurston, as he did all of the first responder witnesses, if they had written any notes after the 1991 incident. All witnesses answered that they were relying on memory in their testimonies. Several said they remembered this case particularly well due to its “traumatic” nature.

Another volunteer firefighter, Richard Winn, who was also the owner of the Peppermint Stick ice cream parlor in Murphys, said that he tried to make entrance into the home upon arrival, but at that time smoke was billowing through the windows and the flames were “just too hot.”

“The order was given to surround it and drown it,” he said, a process which took about 15 minutes.

Days after the fire, he said, the defendant showed up in his ice cream shop to ask Winn for help in obtaining his wife’s life insurance payout, which had reportedly been stalled “because an investigator thought he had started the fire.”

“He said it was very rough for the kids with their mother dying,” Winn said. “He showed no emotion, no sorrow, no remorse. Just matter of fact.”

Winn said he referred Karlsen to his fire chief. He never reported it to the police or took notes, he added, discussing the incident only with his fellow firefighters.

“None of us could figure out what happened,” he said.

However, he and several other firefighters stated that they believed the defendant should have been able to rescue Christina Karlsen from the fire.

“If it was my wife, I would have put my life on the line to get her out,” Winn said.

A repeated inquiry brought up by the prosecution was whether a tool found at the scene belonged to any of the fire personnel.

All witnesses testified that they did not believe the tool, which was described as a pick ax with duct tape around it, could have been brought to the scene by firefighters.

Another discrepancy in today’s testimonies involved the placement of the board on the bathroom window. One witness remembered it nailed to the outside of the window, while another stated it was inside, nailed to the drywall, and others said they did not recall seeing any board.

In his opening statement, Esquivel told the jury that the board had been nailed into the drywall from inside the house.

“Anyone who knows about drywall knows what that means. If it’s not nailed into studs, it could be easily removed,” said Esquivel, who added that the narrative provided by the prosecution is “misleading.”

“The evidence is painting a picture that doesn’t add up to what (the prosecution) wants you to believe,” he said.

In the coming weeks, dozens more witnesses and evidence promised by the prosecution, including a video tape of the scene, may shed light on the lingering questions from day one.

According to District Attorney Barbara Yook, evidence showing insurance policies purchased on the defendant’s wife and his children’s lives will provide a motive for the alleged murder.


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