Lacey Peterson
The Union Democrat

Timeline

Jan. 17, 1960 — Karl Karlsen born in New York

June 19, 1960 — Christina Ann Alexander born in Oklahoma

1983 — Christina Alexander marries Karl Karlsen in Grand Forks, North Dakota

Late 1980s — Karlsens move to Calaveras County where Karl gets a job with Christina’s dad at a sheet metal shop in Douglas Flat

1988 — Karlsens move to the 4600 block of Pennsylvania Gulch Road

Nov.-Dec. 1990 — Karl Karlsen takes out $200,000 life insurance policy on Christina Karlsen.

Jan. 1, 1991 — Christina Karlsen killed in a house fire at their Murphys home shortly after 1 p.m.

Jan. 4, 1991 — Karl Karlsen moves family Erin, 6, Levi, 5, and Kati, 4, to New York

1992 — Cindy Best meets Karl Karlsen

1993 — Cindy and Karl get married

2001 — Karl Karlsen buys farm from his father in Varick, New York for about $65,000

2002 — Barn fire kills Belgian Draft horses and Karlsen collects $80,000 insurance claim

Nov. 3 2008 — Karl Karlsen takes out life insurance policy on son Levi naming Karl as beneficiary.

Nov. 20, 2008 — Levi Karlsen dies in family barn on Karlsen Farm near Varick, New York, when truck falls on him.

March 20, 2009 — New York Life pays Karl $707,000 for Levi’s death.

Late summer 2011 — Cindy Karlsen begins to suspect Karl of killing Levi

Oct. 2011 — Cindy Karlsen contacts private investigator Steve Brown to investigate Karl Karlsen. Brown discovers Karl took out a $1.2 million life insurance policy on Cindy and $700,000 policy on Levi’s two daughters.

Jan. 2012 — Cindy leaves Karl.

March 2012 — Seneca County officially re-opens Levi’s death case that was initially ruled an accident

Nov. 23, 2012 — Seneca County Sheriff’s investigators interrogate Karl Karlsen who ultimately says he knocked the truck on his son and didn’t help him out.

Nov. 24, 2012 — Seneca County authorities charge Karl Karlsen with murdering Levi.

Dec. 3, 2012 — Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office re-opens 1991 fire investigation.

Nov. 6, 2013 — Karl Karlsen pleads guilty to killing his son.

Dec. 16, 2013 — Karl Karlsen sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Aug. 29, 2014 — Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office files murder charges against Karl for the death of Christina.

March 5, 2016 — Karl Karlsen booked into Calaveras County Jail on murder charges for Christina’s death.

It was nearly three years after her stepson’s death that Cindy Karlsen started to suspect her husband, Karl, of murder.

But looking back, the red flags were there from the day her 23-year-old stepson Levi Karlsen died.

At that point, the couple had been married 18 years, and the things she started noticing were things only a wife would know.

Every time Karl would talk about the day Levi died, the story would change a little bit, she recalled this week.

“I would have these panic attacks and thoughts would come to my head. I would just be in a panic and think he did it. Then I would think, ‘Cindy you are crazy,’ ” said Cindy Karlsen, who is now divorced and goes by her maiden name, Best.

The Union Democrat reached out to Best Thursday after Karlsen was booked on a murder charge last week in Calaveras County stemming from the death of his first wife. Best spoke from her RV in Florida, where she is spending the winter.

“Time would go by and something else would happen,” and Karl’s story would change a little bit again, she said.

Demeanor changes

It was in August 2011 that Best really noticed a change in Karl’s demeanor. He had started a duck-raising operation on their upstate New York farm where he raised rare ducks to sell to gourmet restaurants. Their farm was featured on the Food Network Canada with chef Lynn Crawford, who cooked a three-course meal using ducks from their farm.

“He thought he would be rich and famous. He really started to show his concern for money and was lying to me about everything,” Best said.

Karl started taking out a lot of money from his son’s life insurance account, which originally totaled more than $700,000. Best said Karl was signing her name on the withdrawals and buying ducks and using the money to build the duck business.

Best, sober for 16 years, started drinking again to calm her mind. How could her husband of 18 years be a killer?

Her thoughts soon drifted to Karl’s first wife, Christina, who died in a 1991 house fire in Murphys.

“I knew that Christina’s family had accused him of killing Christina or letting her die. What I took that to mean, that it was their grief talking. That’s what I truly believed, it was their grief,” Best said.

In the back of her mind, she thought to herself, “Maybe he did (kill Christina).”

“I honestly thought I was going crazy,” Best said.

Her best friend definitely thought Cindy was crazy. She suggested Cindy hire a private investigator to put her mind at ease and prove that Karl really was the nice guy everyone thought him to be.

It was “to calm my mind and so I could go on with my life, but it didn’t happen that way,” Best said.

PI hired

So in October 2011, Cindy found longtime private investigator Steve Brown on the Internet. He was from Maryland but had an office in New York. Up to that point, he was mainly into insurance fraud investigations.

“I could see the fear was manifesting as she was talking. That’s how I knew she was experiencing something that wasn’t made up in her mind,” Brown said in a Tuesday phone interview.

“She was obviously very credible. I could see the raw honesty and reality and truth that she was presenting to me. She had legitimate concerns. She was concerned not just about her well-being, but about her son and her granddaughters,” Brown said. “She was taking on the role of the protector. That was the forefront of what was propelling her.”

Brown started observing Karlsen and noticed odd behavioral tics like pacing around late at night, going out to the barn.

“Like his mind was so busy with what his plan was,” Brown said.

Brown’s gut feeling that something was amiss started to gnaw at him.

“It’s overpowering,” he said.

Brown and Best decided Brown would have to actually spend time with Karlsen versus asking about him around town like in normal investigations. The tiny town the couple lived in was filled with Karlsen’s friends and family, and people would have known something was up if some stranger started poking around. So Brown posed as a marketing guru who was going to help Karlsen launch and promote his duck business.

A new insurance policy

At some point in Brown’s investigation, he discovered that Karlsen had used some of his son’s life insurance payout to buy a policy on Cindy worth $1.2 million and a policy on Levi’s young daughters, worth more than $700,000.

Brown spent many hours with Karlsen in person, over the phone and through text and email from October 2011 to March 2012. Their interactions started winding down because, according to Brown, the duck business took a back burner in Karlsen’s mind as he was trying to come up with a way to finance it further. He wanted to build a meat processing plant on the property, which would have been extremely expensive, Brown said.

“He didn’t have the money, and she (Cindy) realized she or her son or the granddaughters were the money to finance it,” Brown said.

On the surface, Karl Karlsen was clean cut, personable and friendly. He liked to boast about his successes and where he wanted to be.

“He had a lot of dreams, and his dreams required a lot of capital,” Brown said.

It wasn’t until the end of their relationship in early 2012 that Brown said he saw the “very sick, sinister side” of Karlsen.

They were at an animal butchering/processing plant, doing a site visit, discussing how to humanely kill a duck or chickens.

All of a sudden, Karlsen grabbed Brown from behind and mimed slitting his throat.

Brown looked at Karlsen behind him and “he just had that smile on his face that he really enjoyed death,” Brown said.

“That was who he was. When he was around blood and guts, it was his happy place,” Brown said.

The nicest guy

It was a far cry from the persona Karl intimated for others.

In an August 2011 Finger Lakes Times story on the Food Network Canada visit to the Karlsen farm, television Director Meagan McAteer told the reporter, “He’s a great guy. He’s funny. He’s interesting. The way he describes the ducks. The way he cares about the ducks. He calls them his kids, like he really honestly does care about what’s going on here.”

After Brown discovered the life insurance policies on Cindy and the granddaughters, she stopped allowing them to come over. She also started to think Karl knew she suspected him of something sinister.

She would call Brown in the middle of the night, terrified over Karl’s behavior, and tell Brown she thought he was going to kill her.

“She thought tonight was the night,” he said.

He seemed unstable and started doing strange things, Best recalled.

One night, right before Best left Karl in January 2012, she woke up smelling smoke.

She went downstairs, and Karl was outside at 10 p.m. burning papers in a barrel.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” she said.

Karlsen told his wife he had cleaned out his truck and didn’t want garbage all over the place.

“He didn’t care about garbage at all. I knew he was hiding something. I was worried he knew I was catching on,” Best said.

Looking back today, Best realizes some gut feelings she had the day Levi died were not crazy thoughts.

A young man dies

On Nov. 20, 2008, Karl and Cindy left their farm for a funeral around noon. Levi was in the barn fixing up an old truck.

He was recently divorced and had just gotten his own place. He was trying to be responsible and get his life turned around, Best said.

When the couple pulled back onto the property, Best heard loud country music playing in the barn.

“He hated country music. He liked heavy metal. I said to Karl, ‘Levi must be really changing if he’s listening to country music.’ It was the first red flag,” Best said.

Karl discovered Levi’s lifeless body in the barn. Cindy came in right after and called 911.

“It was devastating. I can’t even explain it. You feel like you’re in a dream,” Best said.

Karl, who later admitted in court that he left Levi crushed under the truck to die while they went to a funeral, acted upset at the discovery. But something nagged at Cindy.

“He almost seemed overly upset to me, but then I felt bad that I felt like that,” she said. “He was throwing himself against the wall and pounding things. It seemed to the extreme. Then I said to myself, ‘Cindy this is his flesh and blood, and why are you thinking he didn’t seem genuine?’ ”

In January 2012, Cindy left Karl and moved into a rental.

In February 2012, her cousin, to whom Cindy had confided her fears, called the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office and told them what Cindy thought — that Karl had killed Levi and possibly his first wife, Christina.

Case reopened

In March, Seneca County officials reopened Levi’s death case, which had been ruled an accident. The next month, in April, Best got what she felt was a threatening text message from Karl. He said he had heard she was asking questions about his first wife and warned her to watch out.

Best decided she had to hide from him and take their son, Alex. They stayed in hotels until she ran out of money, then she sent Alex to stay with her sister while she went back to her rental. They were “on the lam” until September, when Cindy had to send Alex back to school.

Later that year, Cindy decided she would have to get Karl to confess to her. She said he was initially suspicious of her talking to him, but she told him she wanted to reconcile.

She said he confessed to her in November 2012 that he caused Levi’s death, but the recording wasn’t clear. Seneca County Sheriff’s Department wired her, and she went back to try again. This time, it gave investigators enough to bring Karl in for questioning.

On Nov. 23, 2012, Seneca County Sheriff’s investigators interrogated Karl Karlsen, who finally said he knocked the truck on top of his son and left him to die. The next day he was charged with murder. A week later, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office reopened its records on the fire that killed Christina Karlsen.

When Karl was arrested, everyone in their town thought Cindy had gone “off the deep end,” and was making it up.

Confession

It wasn’t until nearly a year later that Karl Karlsen admitted in court that he’d killed his son.

“I was relieved that he admitted it finally and that I could possibly finally feel safe again,” Best said.

It had been a hard time for the children when Karl was arrested, tried and sentenced in New York. Best said, while she fell out of love with Karl a few years before they divorced, they had many happy times, and she did love him when they married and would have never thought he was a murderer.

These days, Best is spending her winter in Florida healing at the beach and will return to New York in the spring. She’s 53 now, has a part-time waitressing job in New York and says she is proud of the man her son Alex has grown to be, despite the troubles he’s been through.

“I do think about this every single day. I wonder if I’m going to get past this. I am a work in progress,” Best said.

She said she’s trying to work on not being bitter and trying to find forgiveness in her heart for all that’s happened. She hopes to get involved with a support group for victims who have been revictimized. She also wants to empower other women to come forward to voice their concerns and not worry about retaliation.

Best said she saw Karlsen’s booking photo from the Calaveras County Jail online.

“We were shocked by that photo of him. It shows the craziness. I wonder why I didn’t see it before,” Best said.

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