Union Democrat staff

A former Calaveras County man being investigated in the 1991 death of his wife in a Murphys house fire made a surprise confession Wednesday to murdering his son for insurance money in upstate New York.

Karl Karlsen, 53, of Romulus, N.Y., pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 2008 death of his son at his family's farm, a crime that netted Karlsen a $707,000 life insurance payout, according to the Seneca County Sheriff's Office.

He was indicted Nov. 23, 2012, on murder- and fraud-related charges.

"Earlier this afternoon, Karl Karlsen appeared in Seneca County Court with his attorney before Seneca County Court Judge Dennis Bender and pled guilty to murder in the second degree, the top count in a Seneca County Grand Jury Indictment," the Sheriff's Office said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

Prosecutors alleged Karlsen killed his son Levi Karlsen, 23, by kicking a jack stand out from under a truck he was working under in a barn.

The death was initially ruled an accident, but the case was reopened in March 2012 when one of Karlsen's relatives became suspicious and called the authorities.

Investigators' suspicions also grew after learning Karlsen had taken out the insurance - payable to himself - 17 days before Levi Karlsen's death. They also discovered he'd received $80,000 on an insurance claim after his Belgian draft horses were killed in a 2002 fire, and he'd collected $200,000 in a life insurance payout when his then-wife, Christina Karlsen, was killed in a 1991 house fire in Murphys.

Calaveras County officials last year reopened an investigation of the latter incident, which happened on the 4600 block of Pennsylvania Gulch Road.

Investigators at least initially ruled the fire an accident, concluding it started after Christina Karlsen mistakenly spilled kerosene in the house, which then caught fire.

Karl Karlsen helped his two daughters and Levi escape the blaze, but said he could not reach his wife who was trapped in the bathroom. She died due to smoke inhalation, Calaveras Sheriff's Sgt. Chris Hewitt said in an earlier interview.

Christina Karlsen's father, Art Alexander, of Murphys, this morning had mixed feelings about Wednesday's development.

While glad to see Karlsen punished, he said he's frustrated by a lack of communication from Calaveras County investigators and an apparent lack of progress in their year-long probe.

He was also frustrated Karlsen hadn't been arrested after the 1991 fire. Since that time, he suspected his daughter's death was not an accident and told investigators as much.

He noted 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, purchased shortly before her death.

"I say if it had been done sooner, my grandson wouldn't be dead today," Alexander said.

Karlsen is scheduled to be sentenced in Seneca County Court Dec. 16.

He faces 15 years to life in prison.