‘I’ve been through Hell’: Karlsen bares all in 2012 interrogation

From the Calaveras Enterprise:


Day six of the Karl Karlsen trial was a deep dive into the life of the defendant, as the jury heard from family and friends, and viewed several hours of video footage from Karlsen’s 2012 interrogation regarding the death of his son in Seneca County, New York.

Karlsen is on trial for the alleged murder of his wife in a 1991 house fire in Calaveras County.

After several ungranted objections from the defense, the jury was permitted to view the footage, presented during former Seneca County Sheriff’s Office investigator John Cleere’s testimony.

In the footage, Cleere can be seen with other investigators questioning Karlsen about the 2008 death of his 23-year-old son Levi, who was crushed under a truck he was working on at the Karlsen property.

Seneca County authorities had recently begun investigating the case, which was initially ruled an accident, after a cousin of Levi contacted Cleere saying, “You might want to look into it. Something’s not right with it,” he testified.

Some of the suspicious circumstances imparted on Cleere were a recent life insurance policy taken out on Levi and a previous death in California, he said.

As shown in the footage, when Karlsen is invited into an interrogation room on Nov. 23, 2012, investigators make it clear from the beginning that recorded statements made to his now ex-wife Cindy Best would be enough to prove his culpability in his son’s death.

Karlsen, who remains energetic and conversational throughout the interview, repeatedly denies any involvement.

“I’ve never been in a position like this. So, right now, I don’t know what to think,” he says. “I want a lawyer or something, I guess. … Am I being arrested?”

However, Karlsen changes his mind soon after and agrees to continue talking with the investigators.

For hours, Karlsen narrates a multitude of life events at great length, from his back surgery and medications, to his gourmet duck farming business and his previous career transporting nuclear missiles for the United States Air Force.

He recalls an incident in Grand Forks, N.D., when a trailer he was pulling with a missile caught fire.

“The most serious problem you can have in the U.S. is a fire with a nuke,” Karlsen says. “They let us move the nuke from one trailer to another, (which has) never been done before.”

He also boasts of his prized Belgian draft horses, which he has been raising, showing and selling since childhood on his family farm.

“I had some of the tallest horses in the world and the biggest mare in the world,” he says.

That mare, he continues, went severely lame. When asked by an investigator what someone does with a horse in that condition, Karlsen replies, “You shoot it.”

He didn’t shoot the mare, however, because she died in a barn fire, along with two other young horses.

“Luckily, everything was OK with her,” Karlsen says. “I had $20,000 on her because she’s one of a kind.”

When questioned further, the defendant reveals that his first wife, Christina Karlsen, also died in a fire.

“She didn’t burn much. I didn’t see the pictures. I didn’t want to see the pictures,” he says.

He insists that Christina didn’t drink alcohol, despite toxicology results that showed a high blood alcohol level at the time of her death.

Karlsen states that the fire was fueled by a kerosene spill that occurred in the home’s hallway three or four weeks prior. The bathroom window, he says, was boarded up eight months prior.

“They shouldn’t have rented it out,” he says of the aging home. He complains about the “Groundhog Day” weather in California, the forest fires and the earthquakes. “(Christina) wanted to move back to New York.”

After being alerted to the fire by his wife’s screams, Karlsen pulled Levi out of the inferno by his hair and “chucked him out” of the house. He had his eyes burnt shut by a fireball in the process, he says.

He was also able to save his two daughters, but the flames were too fierce to reach Christina in the bathroom. Even without the board, he says, the bathroom window was too small for an adult to fit through.

The investigators ask if Christina had life insurance, and he confirms that she and his young children were all insured as a means for retirement and college funding. After a brief pause, Karlsen states that the policies were taken out three or four months prior to the fire.

“And I went through the gauntlet for that,” he says of his decision to take out the policies. “You know how some people go through life, and everything that can go wrong goes wrong?”

Regarding his son Levi’s second life insurance policy, from which Karlsen received $700,000, he states that the money was intended for Levi’s daughters.

“It’s the girls’ money, but it was given to me to give to them if they need braces (or) if they need glasses,” he says.

So far, he continues, the majority of that money has been spent by him and Best. However, his granddaughters’ money will be returned when he sells his property and home.

Throughout his interrogation, Karlsen often stands up or squats down, complaining of the pain in his back.

“I’ve been through Hell in every freakin’ way,” he says.

He mentions his belief in God and his weekly church visits: “When I walk in the door, I feel like the pressure’s off.”

The remainder of the interrogation video will be shown during Thursday’s proceedings.

“A different personality”

Karlsen’s brother, Mike Karlsen, today testified that his relationship with the defendant and his children changed after he helped them resettle on the family farm in Romulus, New York, following the Murphys house fire.

“We were typical boys in a large family. Five boys, two girls. It was a typical roughhouse family,” Mike Karlsen described his childhood.

Prior to Karl and Christina Karlsen’s move to Murphys, the next generation of Karlsens played together on the farm, where uncles, aunts and cousins lived within a few miles’ radius.

When Mike Karlsen heard news of the fire, he traveled to Murphys two days after to conduct “reconnaissance,” he said.

“What do we need to do?” he remembered asking his brother when he located him at Christina’s father’s house in Calaveras County. “He was emotionless. Numb. Very stoic.”

The days that followed included a memorial for Christina, a visit to the burnt house and a trip to Big Trees State Park. Towards the end, the defendant told him that he wanted to “go home” to New York.

The entire family, including the dog, returned with Karlsen to New York on Jan. 5, 1991. But life on the farm didn’t resume as usual.

“Their family was somewhat isolated. They didn’t participate in family functions as they did prior,” Karlsen said. “The children weren’t allowed to visit their cousins.”

Friend of the Karlsen family in Calaveras County Tracy Carpenter testified that Christina’s demeanor often changed around her husband.

“(Christina) was one of the most sweetest people I know. … Friendly and honest and just that kind of personality people cling to,” she said. “When her husband was around, she was very subdued. You could see that he had a control over her."

Carpenter recalled a party during which she had asked Christina if she wanted a glass of wine, and Karl Karlsen answered for her that she would have a soda.

The families were planning to get together on New Year’s Day, 1991, but that never happened, Carpenter said before breaking into tears.

She remembered seeing Karlsen the day after the fire when he brought his children to stay at her home. She saw a small scratch on his forehead, but no other visible injuries.

“He told me that (Christina) had had some wine and went to take a bath while the kids were napping,” she said.

In his testimony, Christina’s first husband Allen Teets recounted their relationship, which began at Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp and drew to an end at an Air Force base in North Dakota, where the two met Karl Karlsen.

“I got to like him. I thought he was a very nice guy,” Teets said of Karlsen.

He remembered a night at an officers’ club when he told Karlsen to dance with his wife.

“Christina had a great night. She loved dancing,” he said.

Other testimonies from today included the posthumous interview of deceased State Farm Insurance agent, Mearl Lucken, who reinforced previous testimonies that Karlsen changed his story regarding his own life insurance policy when applying for policies on his wife and children.

“There was a question in my mind, obviously, as to whether the defendant could pay for the amount of insurance he wanted,” Lucken stated in his transcribed deposition.