Karlsen trial continues with series of confessions, inconsistencies

From the Calaveras Enterprise:


Last week, a Calaveras County jury watched footage of New York investigators interrogating the defendant for roughly eight hours regarding the 2008 death of his son Levi Karlsen.

During that 2012 interview, Karl Karlsen was also questioned about the 1991 house fire death of his former wife Christina Karlsen, as well as five other fire incidents that occurred in his past.

When asked by the defense if investigators gathered information during the interrogation about the other fires to potentially press charges, Seneca County, New York Sheriff’s Office investigator John Cleere responded, “We were focused on Levi at the time, but we saw it as part of the overall pattern.”

Jurors heard the defendant detail his injuries and plethora of medications at many points throughout the footage. In the final hours, he asks repeatedly for his pain medications, though he states that he is aware of his rights and has been treated fairly.

“I arranged for it,” Cleere today testified when asked by the defense if he had made efforts during the interrogation to retrieve Karlsen’s medications. “I still don’t know if it ever existed.”

Over the course of several days watching the footage, jurors also heard two confessions slowly unravel. The first, that Karlsen found his son dead beneath a truck and, shocked, he left for a funeral, only to report his discovery when he returned home. Hours later, under unrelenting pressure from investigators, he states that he accidentally caused the vehicle to crush Levi, opening its door while it balanced precariously on a railroad jack.

“I don’t know, in my head, if it was the medicine. I know I walked away from it,” he says, losing his chatty demeanor for a second time during the interview. Approaching hysterics, he repeats that he did not intentionally kill Levi.

“Take the mask off, buddy. Take off the mask,” Cleere urges.

“I had nothing to do with any of those other things,” Karlsen says, referring to the 1991 Murphys house fire, a car fire, a barn fire, two workplace fires and another fire that burned Levi’s home. “I don’t give a [expletive] how bad it looks.”

In his testimony, Cleere stated that the remaining hour of the interrogation footage not shown to the jury did not include any additional revelations.

The prosecution then presented Karlsen’s certificate of conviction for second degree murder in New York. Cleere summarized the plea that was entered on Nov. 6, 2013:

“At his garage with Levi, he had jacked up the vehicle with a wobbly jack. He knew it was dangerous. He enticed Levi to get under the vehicle and caused the vehicle to fall. He admitted that he was alive when he left and that he knew when he left, it would result in the death of Levi Karlsen.”

In 2014, Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office investigator Mike Whitney and Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone traveled to New York to carry out their own interview with Karlsen.

During that six-hour-long taped conversation, a relatively subdued-sounding Karlsen can be heard saying he “had reasons” for taking the plea deal.

“How could anybody have that bad of luck?” he later asks his interrogators. “And people don’t know the circumstances.”

He insists that he did not profit monetarily from any of the insurance payouts he reaped from the death of his wife, his son, and the fire losses of his barn, his horses and his car.

Describing Christina as a wife to “keep for a billion years,” he states that the $200,000 policy on her life was spent on a new house in his native New York, and that a lawsuit from the owners of the burned home put him in debt.

“Who would want to be a single father? Not me,” Karlsen says, describing Christina at length as an ideal wife and mother. “No threats of divorce (or) anything like that.”

He points out that the children were also insured for $100,000 each.

“If I was in it for the money, I would have walked away and left the kids in the house with the wife,” he says.

Relating his account of the 1991 fire, he states that he attempted to dislodge the board from the bathroom window with a pipe after saving the children, but the smoke quickly overwhelmed him. He says he no longer heard Christina inside, whose last words were to “save the kids.”

“I did what she said,” he repeats when asked why he ultimately left his wife in the burning house to meet first responders at the end of the driveway. “Looking back, I wish I could have done a lot of things differently.”

Karlsen says that he does not know what started the fire and that he was never given an explanation by fire personnel or law enforcement.

However, he describes a home that was rife with fire hazards, from the kerosene spill in the hallway to kerosene heaters, cardboard boxes, candles everywhere and a trouble light he was working with in the attic on the day of the blaze.

In the months before the fire, Karlsen says he and Christina were both in favor of moving back to New York. The owners of the Murphys house had recently told them to stop making improvements in exchange for rent, as they were planning to remodel or rebuild, he says.

For that reason, he and Christina boarded up the bathroom window when it broke sometime around Christmas, instead of replacing it.

A nephew of the homeowners, Dennis Hertz, today testified that he visited the house on Dec. 30, 1990, under the possibility of moving in. At that time, the bathroom window was not boarded up, he confirmed, though his complete answers were impeded by the effects of a stroke.

Gayle Hardy, a close friend of Christina, testified that the window was boarded up and that she could smell kerosene in the house when she visited in the early evening of Dec. 30, 1990, though she was not certain of the exact date.

When she visited Karlsen at the hospital after the fire, he “showed no emotion at all,” she said. “Just sat there and stared straight ahead. I didn’t know what to do.”

Former State Farm Insurance claims adjuster Darin Luttrell today testified that he kept a record of his interactions with Karlsen, who called him twice within three weeks after the fire to ask about the status of his claim on his wife’s life insurance policy.

“You can only mourn for so long before you move on,” Luttrell quoted Karlsen from Jan. 9, 1991.

In his interview with the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office, the defendant says that he “didn’t give a [expletive] about the insurance.”

“You just lost the best thing,” he says, remembering the few days after the fire that he remained in Calaveras County. “It’s such an overwhelming loss. What do you do?”

When his brother and sister-in-law flew out from New York to help him, the defendant says they already had plane tickets for him and the children.

“You’re coming home,” were their words, according to Karlsen.

Both Mike and Jacqueline Karlsen testified that it was the defendant who requested the plane flight home.