Karl Karlsen murder trial Day 1

Karl Karlsen, center, sits with his defense attorneys Richard Esquivel, left, and Leigh Fleming.

Karl Karlsen called a State Farm Insurance investigator twice in the two weeks following the death of his wife Christina in a Murphys house fire to inquire about the status of a $200,000 life insurance policy he had in her name.

Darrin Luttrell, a former automobile claims adjuster with State Farm insurance called to testify Monday morning in Karl Karlsen’s murder trial, read from a page of notes he said he wrote after Karl Karlsen called him on Jan. 17, 1991.

“He doesn’t want to seem like he only cares about the money,” Luttrell said. “He would like to get everything wrapped up ASAP.”

Luttrell said Karlsen had called him another time, just over a week before on Jan. 9, 1991, to inquire on the status of the investigation. Luttrell said he offered his condolences — Christina Karlsen died of suffocation in the Murphys house fire on Jan. 1 —  and Karl Karlsen told him he could “only grieve for so long” and had to move on.

During the calls, Karl Karlsen told Luttrell living with his parents in Seneca County, New York, was not working out and he needed the means to leave. Luttrell, still reading from his notes, said he was in the process of conducting a routine investigation and needed to acquire Christina Karlsen’s medical records to confirm the information he had was accurate. 

Luttrell said he participated in the investigation of the life insurance claim with members of the Special Investigation Unit Heather Gower Small and Ulises Castellon, former State Farm employees who previously testified.

Luttrell said he visited the fire scene twice, on Jan. 29, 1991, and some time around the “Thursday after Feb. 4.”

He could not recall with certainty who was with him during each visit, though he testified Gower Small, Castellon, fire investigator Kenneth Buske and a forestry firefighter joining him.

Luttrell did not offer any testimony regarding a conclusion or evaluation of the case. Gower Small and Castellon previously testified on Jan. 17 that they recommended Karl Karlsen’s claim be denied. Bolstered by a report from Buske, they said they believed Karl Karlsen intentionally set the fire with kerosene spilled in the hallway of home. The fire started, they said, outside a bathroom with a boarded up window where his wife Christina was bathing. 

Castellon testified their recommendation was not taken and Karlsen was paid $215,438.33 on Jan. 31, 1992. 

Mike Whitney, a Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office investigator, testified that he charted the distance between where the Karlsen residence once stood and the nearest neighboring home belonging to Vic Lyons, at 270 feet along a winding path, and 200 feet as the crow flies. 

A series of photographs taken in 2013 were projected on a courthouse screen to Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook and the jury. 

The photographs advanced incrementally toward a vacant clearing with the address of 4060 Pennsylvania Gulch Road: through a scattering of trees, over a dilapidated and drooping barbed wire fence, onto a path hedged by brush and manzanita, past a water tank and to three red metal bars on the ground attached to an upright wooden panel. 

In some of the pictures Yook stands near Nic Lucero, the owner of the home while the Karlsens lived there and during the fire, to act as landmarks.

“In all of the pictures he stood in, he was explaining to me where the house was,” Whitney said of Lyons.

Whitney used the estimations to set GPS coordinates and tracked the distances between the neighboring homes, as well as the proximity of Karlsen home to Highway 4 and to the Roaring Camp Drive home of the first firefighter responder, Ken Thurston.

Whitney also received carpet samples from the Lyons home — it was previously testified that they were the same in the Karlsen home — and provided it to investigators for analysis.

The prosecution did not resume with the remainder of a video interview between Karlsen and Seneca County law enforcement in 2012 which lasted more than eight hours during testimony the previous week.

John Cleere, undersheriff of the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office, testified he was present during a subsequent court hearing where Karl Karlsen admitted the charge of second degree murder in the 2008 death of his son, Levi.

“He admitted that he caused the vehicle to fall on Levi Karlsen,” Cleere said.

Cleere said he and other investigators knew about the 1991 Murphys house fire because they received reports from the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office.

“We were focused on Levi at the time, but we saw it as a part of an overall pattern,” Cleere said. 

Karlsen attorney Richard Esquivel asked Cleere to explain the concept of a ruse (Cleere described it as “a deception”), or lying to Karl Karlsen during the interrogation to elicit a confession.

“The ultimate purpose of the interview is to gain the truth,” Cleere said. 

Esquivel said Cleere established a false fidelity with Karlsen to establish rapport.

“I exaggerated my relationship with him to be more friendly than I was,” Cleere said. 

Cleere’s testimony also related to the investigations in a barn fire on Karlsen’s property which earned him an insurance payout and how Levi Karlsen sought an insurance policy with his father as the beneficiary. 

Gayle Hardy, who dated Christina’s father Art Alexander for five years before the start of the fire, said she remained friends with Christina after the relationship dissolved.

“She was almost like another daughter to me,” she said.

Hardy had dinner at the Karlsen home on Dec. 30, 1990, and smelled kerosene. On Jan. 1, 1991, she rushed to speak to Karl Karlsen at a San Andreas hospital about what happened. She said she knelt down to him while he was seated on a chair and placed her hand on him.

“He showed no emotion at all. He just sat there, stared straight ahead. I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Aaron Lucero testified that he lived in the house alone after his parents, Nic and Norma Jo Lucero, moved out. He said he left the house in good condition and noted neither he nor his family used kerosene heaters.

The prosecution previously stated their expectation to rest their case on Monday, at which point the defense will be allowed to call witnesses and present evidence. It is unknown whether Karlsen will testify.


Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter @g_ricapito 

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