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Probe into 1991 fatal house fire reopened

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office is formally re-examining a Murphys house fire that killed a 30-year-old woman in 1991, according to Sgt. Chris Hewitt. 

The Sheriff’s Office began reviewing relevant Cal Fire reports Monday, and detectives have been formulating a game plan of how to handle the investigation, Hewitt said.


The fire was initially determined to be an accident. However, the recent arrest of a New York man accused of killing his son for insurance money brought it back into question.

Karl Karlsen, 52, of Romulus, N.Y., was arrested Nov. 23 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 death was thought to be an accident, but the Seneca County Sheriff’s Department 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. 

Authorities in New York are also looking for parallels to the 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 the woman accidentally spilled kerosene in the house where she and her family had lived about a year, according to Hewitt.

Karl Karlsen reportedly helped his two daughters and Levi escape the blaze, but said he could not reach his wife of seven years, who was trapped in the bathroom, Hewitt said.

An autopsy conducted before Christina Karlsen’s cremation showed she died of smoke inhalation, Hewitt said.

Karl Karlsen had purchased a life insurance policy on her 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.

Seneca County Sheriff Jack Stenberg said Thursday that Levi Karlsen’s death was still under investigation and declined to release details. 

“We’re going to be giving info to (the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office) that may help their investigation,” he said.

Hewitt said the Calaveras County investigation will include reviewing reports from the fire, interviewing witnesses, and seeing if any physical evidence remains in custody and could be re-examined.

Alexander said he was told that a deputy will be interviewing him about his daughter’s death. He has been making notes of why he has long been suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death.

Karl 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 the suspicions, Alexander said.

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