Christina Karlsen

This report is from the Thursday morning session. To read about the full day of testimony see the Union Democrat on Friday.


A fire investigator hired by State Farm Insurance company in 1991 testified Thursday in the murder trial of Karl Karlsen that kerosene was poured on the already kerosene-sodden carpet outside of the bathroom in his Murphys home just minutes before Karlsen’s wife died of smoke inhalation inside. 

“It was ignited by a person making a deliberate attempt to light a fire,” said Kenneth Buske, a retired forensic electrical engineer and investigator testifying on behalf of the prosecution at the Calaveras County Superior Court.

Buske’s testimony was not in line with statements Karlsen had made to many witnesses in the aftermath of the fire that a fallen trouble light ignited flames while his wife was bathing and he was outside working in his tool shop.

District Attorney Barbara Yook projected the handmade diagrams Buske made at the scene: the heaviest burn patterns and the deepest burns matched what Buske said was the recent application of the kerosene, in a horseshoe shape in front of the bathroom, across the hall and in front of the laundry room.

Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is a combustible liquid derived from petroleum.

The deepest burns went through the carpet, carpet pad, linoleum and even the floor beneath it. The burn patterns spreading from there showed less intensity, but still made significant marks on the hallway floor. 

“There’s a big difference between a minute and a day because of wicking,” he said.

The discovery of the fresh kerosene pour came as a surprise to the investigators, who were only aware of the original spill. 

“That was unusual looking at this fire,” Buske said. “But this was something new, what appeared to be a very recent pour just ahead of the fire.”

Karlsen, dressed in a tan shirt unbuttoned at the top, sat facing forward with his arms crossed. At times, he squinted at the screen without glasses and later put them on to see. His attorney, Richard Esquivel, is expected to cross examine Buske, the only prosecution witness thus-far today, in the afternoon. 

Buske said the ignition source — he guessed a match or cigarette lighter but ruled out a candle — was unknown. 

Buske testified he visited the house in February 1991. He began by walking the perimeter of the house. 

“The way the fire had gotten in the roof area indicated the fire started on the inside of the structure,” Buske said. 

He saw the fire was most intense in the central hallway and spread out from there, though the bathroom, two bedrooms at the north end of the home and the living room had relatively light damage comparatively.

He examined the heaters and appliances arranged around the house. The furnace, which had a broken gas line, had a separate fire from the origin. The washer and dryer showed a heat source and smoke patterns pointing to an external fire. An electric heater in the bathroom was not plugged in at the time of the fire, he noted, pointing to condensed soot on the metal spades of the plug. A kerosene heater found outside the house was 60 percent filled and also did show signs of causing fire, such as melted plastic and paint. The TV, exposed wires in the attic and all of the outlets were also ruled out, Buske said. Fumes aerated through the house from the previous spill, or in a further hypothetical, by the drying of kerosene soaked clothes, could not have caused the fire because there were no indications of heavy origin flames on the ceiling or walls. 

The bathroom was damaged more by smoke than fire, he noted. But the plywood board over the window, set with 17 alternating nails into drywall, was what drew his attention.

“It was unusual to have plywood nailed over a bathroom window,” he said, noting it would prevent the occupant from escaping a fire outside the door. 

A diagram of the nail composition was flashed on the projector: one along the top, four on the bottom, five on the right, three on the left and six to the “north,” or alternated beside the left row (the total nails in the diagram accounted for overlap of the north and right rows with the bottom). 

Buske dug his hand into the upper right hand corner and pulled the board from the wall, noting about 20 pounds of pressure moved it. He left it in place, he said.

Buske also said the appearance of the smoke detector: on the ground, the battery dislodged and the cover beside it: indicated it was removed prior to the start of the fire. 

Prior to his home evaluation, Buske said he examined the trouble light which Karlsen blamed for starting the fire. 

Buske noted the top portion of the glass bulb was missing and soot covered the intact filament.

“This filament was clearly not being energized at the time the bulb broke,” he said, adding it would have separated in two or three pieces if it had ignited. 

Buske did determine the light was plugged in however, noting the poly-vinyl chloride insulation around the cord melted into the carpet it was laying on. 

“When they cool off together, they’re stuck together,” he said.

He intended to reinforce his conclusion, he said. Using a new trouble light and the same speciality bulbs: he performed a controlled test: he lit it and laid it onto a kerosene soaked carpet patch for 70 minutes. It scorched, but did not ignite into flames.

“I concluded the trouble light did not and could not cause the fire,” he said. 

Buske said he took a sample of carpet from underneath the sofa, the most unadulterated from fire and general wear, to test both his theories and the Karlsen claim.


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


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