Karlsen trial: Investigators weigh in on cause, origin of house fire

From the Calaveras Enterprise:


Day 3 of New York native Karl Karlsen’s trial for the alleged murder of his former wife presented two investigators’ testimonies and some lingering questions.

Retired forensic electrical engineer Kenneth Buske testified for hours in a Calaveras County courtroom, reviewing the report he compiled in 1991 after he was hired by State Farm Insurance to determine the cause of the New Year’s Day fire at the Karlsen household.

After examining all appliances and electrical units in the home, Buske concluded that the fire began in the hallway outside of the bathroom, where the victim, Christina Karlsen, was trapped. Burn patterns indicated that the flames were fueled by two kerosene spills on the carpet: the first, no less than one day prior to ignition, and the second, just moments before.

While at a restaurant with State Farm employees after the inspection, Buske drew a diagram on a napkin to illustrate the “rather unique burn patterns.” He was asked by Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook to highlight a copy of the diagram in different colors, indicating the orientation of the layered kerosene spills.

The first spill was widespread and oval-shaped. Buske said that he had been made aware of the reported kerosene spill prior to the fire, and that the first burn pattern was consistent with that claim and subsequent tests he performed on carpet samples.

“There’s a big difference between a minute and a day in terms of wicking,” he stated.

The second spill, which he estimated to have occurred “minutes ahead” of the fire, was in a horseshoe-shaped pattern outside the bathroom door. The top of the horseshoe faced the bedrooms, while the open end was oriented toward the hallway’s exit.

Buske also concluded in his investigation that the fire was ignited by an open flame from an unknown source. After examining the shattered trouble light that was found on the hallway floor, he determined that the bulb had been plugged in but switched off when the blaze began.

“The trouble light did not cause the fire,” Buske said.

Howard Stohlman, a former fire investigator for the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, testified that the defendant had told him during two consecutive interviews that he had been using the trouble light to work on a faulty fan in the attic on the day of the blaze and left it on a cabinet when he went to retrieve supplies.

Refreshing his memory from his initial report, Stohlman recounted Karlsen’s narrative that Christina had accidentally brought in a bucket filled with over a gallon of kerosene the day before the fire, mistaking it for water. Later that day, the dog knocked it over in the hallway and the couple mopped up the spill with clothes.

When Karlsen heard his wife’s screams to “get the kids,” he was in the workshop outside.

Stohlman said it was also Christina who broke the bathroom window on Dec. 29, 1991, according to Karlsen. It was stuck and she tried to wedge it open with a toilet plunger. The defendant boarded it up with plywood because “his wife preferred to be warm.”

The story Karlsen told Stohlman during both interviews was the same, he said. The first occurred on the day of the incident, and the second took place two days later, the night before the defendant left for New York.

The January 1991 video footage shot by Jan Starr and Ellie Nesler was revisited during today’s testimonies, with Karlsen’s defense attorney Richard Esquivel questioning any conclusions reached from a “contaminated” crime scene.

The two video segments, which Starr testified were shot within a 24 hour period, showed pronounced differences—particularly in the bathroom, where debris had seemingly been cleaned out of the bathtub and a dryer moved to the porch.

Buske testified that the bathtub was clean when he visited the scene with State Farm approximately one month after the blaze. Additionally, he stated that the bathroom walls were intact and that the dryer was located inside the home.

In both segments of the footage, a bathroom wall appeared to be missing.

When asked by Esquivel if the video evidence altered his conclusions, Buske answered it did not.

“I saw what I saw, and there was a wall in the bathroom,” he said. “The date could be wrong.”

When asked if he had any original photographs from his investigation to compare, Buske said that State Farm told him to get rid of the evidence.

Stohlman also testified that the wall was “in place” when he performed a walk-through of the scene on the day of the fire.

The trial will continue tomorrow morning with the defense’s cross-examination of Stohlman.