More than 25 years after Christina Alexander Karlsen died from smoke inhalation while trapped inside a bathroom of her burning home in Murphys, Karl Karlsen will stand trial in Calaveras County Superior Court on suspicion of deliberately setting fire to the house and killing her for insurance money.
Judge Thomas A. Smith ruled Tuesday afternoon that the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office had met its burden in providing sufficient evidence through a weeklong preliminary hearing that Christina was murdered on Jan. 1, 1991.
Her death had originally been ruled as accidental, until authorities reopened the case in 2012 after Karlsen, now 56, was arrested and charged for the murder of his son in 2008.
“This does not appear to be an accidental fire,” Smith said, citing experts who testified last week that they believed the fire was deliberately set after investigating the scene back in 1991.
Karlsen’s attorney, Calaveras County Chief Public Defender Scott Gross, appealed to Smith during closing arguments that the case should be thrown out due to the lack of physical evidence.
Multiple investigators and first responders to the 1991 house fire on Pennsylvania Gulch Road testified throughout last week that all of the physical evidence collected from the scene was likely destroyed after so many years, leaving only written reports, audio recordings, videos and memories.
“There are no winners in this case, and there never will be,” Gross said.
The family of Christina, however, left the courtroom Tuesday noticeably enthused by the result.
Christina’s mother, Arlene Meltzer, and stepfather, Randy Meltzer, both of Sacramento, sat in the front row behind the prosecution’s table throughout the proceedings that lasted five full days from Monday through Friday last week.
Smith has put a gag order on anyone involved with the case from speaking to the press, so the Meltzers politely declined to make statements. They were joined all of last week by Kati Reynolds, Karlsen’s youngest daughter, Mike Karlsen, his brother, and Mike Karlsen’s wife, Diane Karlsen, who weren’t in attendance Tuesday.
Art Alexander, father of Christina, testified last week but did not attend the rest of the proceedings because he said he wanted to see Karlsen as little as possible.
Christina’s cousin, Janette Starr, sat mostly in the back of the courtroom throughout the week after testifying last Tuesday. She offered one comment on Smith’s ruling.
“Praise God,” she said.
Witnesses testified that people close to the Karlsens as well as investigators have long suspected Karl Karlsen’s involvement in his wife’s death.
Karlsen moved with his three kids, Erin, Levi and Kati, to upstate New York three days after the fire that killed his wife and their mother. He had taken out a $200,000 life-insurance policy on Christina the month before.
Carl Kent, who was the lead investigator on the case for Cal Fire, testified Friday that his agency and the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office both denied him funding to travel to New York for a face-to-face interview with Karlsen in the weeks after the fatal blaze.
In 2008, Karlsen’s 23-year-old son, Levi, died after being pinned underneath a truck he was working on at the family’s New York home.
Karlsen was arrested on suspicion of his son’s murder in 2012 after investigators discovered he had received more than $700,000 from a life-insurance policy he took out on his son 17 days prior to his death.
In 2013, Karlsen pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in his son’s death and was sentenced to serve at least 15 years in prison. He was extradited to Calaveras County from New York’s Lincoln Correctional Facility in March after the DA’s office charged him with premeditated murder for financial gain.
Prosecutors have said Karlsen could face life without the possibility for parole if convicted.
More than a dozen witnesses were called to the stand by the DA’s office, with about 50 items being submitted as evidence, including photographs, audio recordings, documents and videotape.
The preliminary hearing is a legal procedure to determine if there’s enough evidence to force a defendant to stand trial.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook, who is trying the case alongside Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone, said the evidence shows that Karlsen had the “motive, means and opportunity” to set the fire that killed his wife.
“Two-hundred-thousand dollars worth of motive,” Yook said.
Karlsen’s next court appearance will be for an arraignment, a legal proceeding where the defendant enters a plea, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Aug. 26. Although he has already pleaded not guilty, another arraignment is typically held after a preliminary hearing.