Authorities are re-examining a fatal 1991 house fire in Murphys following the arrest last week of a New York man accused of killing his son four years ago to collect insurance money.
Karl Karlsen, 52, of Romulus, N.Y., was arrested Friday on suspicion of second-degree murder in the death of Levi Karlsen, 23, who died after being pinned under a truck he was working on at the family’s Seneca County farm in 2008.
The Seneca Sheriff’s Office reopened the investigation in March after learning a life insurance policy had been taken out on Levi Karlsen days before his death. Karl Karlsen was named as the beneficiary.
The apparent accident that killed Levi Karlsen was reported to 911 dispatchers the afternoon of Nov. 20, 2008, by his stepmother, Cindy Karlsen. Seneca County sheriff’s deputies and South Seneca Ambulance personnel found him pinned under a vehicle in a barn adjacent to the family home.
Karl Karlsen told deputies his son was working under the vehicle, which was lifted with a jack, when he and his wife left to attend a family event about noon. Seneca County Sheriff Jack Stenberg said the victim didn’t join them because it was a funeral for someone on his stepmother’s side of the family.
Levi Karlsen was pronounced dead at Geneva General Hospital, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“There were no indications of foul play … from all signs this appeared to be a very tragic accident,” Stenberg said.
Authorities in New York are now looking for parallels to the 1991 death of Karl Karlsen’s former wife, Christina Karlsen, who died in a Jan. 1, 1991, house fire on the 4600 block of Pennsylvania Gulch Road in Murphys.
Investigators at the time determined the fire was an accident. They concluded it started after Christina Karlsen accidentally spilled kerosene in the house where she and her family had lived about a year, according to Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Chris Hewitt.
Karl Karlsen reportedly helped his two daughters and Levi escape the blaze, but said he could not reach his wife, who was trapped in the bathroom, Hewitt said.
Karl Karlsen had purchased a life insurance policy on Christina Karlsen shortly before her death, according to her father, Art Alexander, of Murphys.
Seneca County records show Karl Karlsen purchased a Yale Farm Road property in the town of Varick, N.Y., from his father in 2001 for about $65,000, according to ABC News.
That information prompted Seneca Sheriff’s investigators, New York state police officers and insurance fraud investigators to look back at the Murphys fire.
The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday was waiting to act until talking to New York investigators to find out what Karlsen said in his recent interviews.
If the Calaveras Sheriff’s Office reopens its own investigation, it will need to locate all of the reports from the fire, which could be challenging since such reports were not filed digitally at the time, Hewitt said.
Investigators will also see if any physical evidence remains in custody and could be re-examined.
“It’s going to be very difficult at this point, 22 years later,” Hewitt said. “Unfortunately, because it was ruled an accident, some of that stuff may have been disposed of already over the last 22 years.”
Reached by telephone Tuesday, Alexander said he was initially surprised when he heard of Karlsen’s arrest.
Alexander said he’d long been suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death.
Karlsen’s abrupt move to a New York farm after the fire, his failure to show up for a final interview with fire investigators and his struggle to claim proceeds from his wife’s life insurance policy spurred Alexander’s suspicions.
Alexander, ironically, described Karlsen as jovial, easy to get along with and the “life of the party.” He said he preferred Karlsen to his daughter’s previous husband.
“You would think he’s a pretty good guy,” he said.
Karsen was married to Christina Karlsen for seven years.
Karl Karlsen was arraigned before Town Justice Brian Laird in the Town of Seneca Falls Court and committed to Seneca County Jail without bail.
Karlsen has not yet entered a plea and will have a preliminary hearing Thursday.
“I want to get this behind me,” Alexander said. “It’s like it’s starting all over again.”
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