Karl Karlsen murder trial Day 1

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

When a State Farm fire claim representative broached the subject of whether Karl Karlsen could have done anything, even inadvertently, to cause the Murphys house fire which killed his wife Christina, he banged his hands on the kitchen table, yelled and ran down his hallway.

“He was very angry,” said Heather Gower Small, a former fire claim representative who testified Friday in the Karlsen murder trial. 

“If I had been in it for the money, why not the kids?” She recalled Karlsen saying. “I’d be a rich man, I’d have a million dollars.”

Gower Small and another insurance representative sat across from Karlsen in his family home in Romulus, Seneca County, New York, three months after the fire. They were investigating the the details of the day, Jan. 1, 1991, to follow up on a $200,000 life insurance policy Karl purchased on his wife just weeks before she died of smoke inhalation in the fire. 

“Being the father of three kids, it’s a bitch,” Karlsen told Gower Small. 

Karlsen provided Gower Small with the most complete recitation, in his own words, of the hours leading up to the fire, the condition and characteristics of the home and of his subsequent actions when he heard his wife call his name from the boarded up bathroom.

A diagram drawn in Karlsen’s hand guided her testimony and served as a reference point for the chronology dictated to her by Karlsen in the interview. 

“I had him draw a diagram of the house so we could understand the layout of the house and all the electrical sources, where they were exactly,” said Gower Small, then stationed in Rancho Cordova with State Farm Insurance. 

Karlsen diagramed from memory the house with some assistance from Gower Small: where the kerosene stain from two days before was located, beside it a china cabinet, and further down the hall, a chair he said stood on to access the floorless, poorly lit and messy attic. 

Lining the hallway was 30 boxes of winter clothing, Karlsen said, stacked two the three boxes high. (The Karlsen and Gower Small diagram appeared to reveal one inconsistency in the testimony thus far: she related the bathroom was on the west side of the home, while others have said it was on the east side). 

The interview, first recorded on a Panasonic micro-tape, was transcribed into a document of more than 75 pages, though the original recording was likely destroyed due to a seven-year retention policy by State Farm, she said. 

A man named Mike Hatch began the questioning, focusing on Karlsen’s employment and why he purchased life insurance policies for his family.

Gower Small said she was asked to assist on the investigation because of her expertise in house fires. The life insurance claim was being led by another person in the automobile claims division and it was considered contestable because of the short amount of time between when it was purchased and when the fire occurred.

Karlsen, noting he worked for Christina’s father at Art’s Sheet Metal, said he made between $700 and $1,000 and purchased a policy because he viewed it as an investment in retirement and for his children’s college funds. He also said, because “they were 31” that “it was time” they purchased it, Gower Small testified. 

When Gower Small took over the questioning, he pivoted to a protracted recollection of Jan. 1, 1991. 

Karlsen told her he woke up that morning, New Years Day, between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. and went to work. When he realized it was a holiday and no one was coming in, he returned home by about 9 a.m., Gower Small said. He watched college football on the TV, played with the kids and took down the Christmas tree (a detail corroborated by the testimony of Karlsen’s daughter Erin DeRoche, who said her father burned the tree to show them how fast a house could burn). Christina Karlsen, as the stay-at-home wife, was doing things like the dishes and laundry, Gower Small recalled from the interview.

A day or two before, Christina brought in a five-gallon, blue-green and double-lidded drum of kerosene, mistakenly thinking it was water. Karlsen told Gower Small he believed his Dalmatian and cat knocked it over, spilling one and a half gallons into the carpet, though he admitted he didn’t see it. 

But when she put the kerosene soaked clothing into the dryer at about 11 a.m., it sent clouds of smoke and fumes into the house.

“He said it stunk,” Gower Small said.

Karlsen told her the smoke detectors had gone off and he ran into the house. He removed the clothes from the dryer, put them on a living room couch and opened the windows to ventilate the house. 

Karl had promised to take Christina Karlsen and the kids to Sonora later that day so they could purchase sewing tools (Christina made all the children’s clothes, Gower Small recalled). They all laid down for a nap — Karl Karlsen included — but he said he woke up after about 30 minutes on the couch.

He said he went into the attic to work on a motor for the heater in his daughter’s room and the bathroom, but realizing he needed wires in his detached garage and shop, he went outside to retrieve them. He told Gower Small he did not remember where he left the trouble light, which he claimed to others was the cause of the fire. 

When he heard her yell his first and middle name, Karl Holger, he knew something was wrong and returned to the house to see it in flames.

Gower Small asked him if he heard the smoke detectors this time.

“That’s not something you think about when this is going on,” she recalled him saying. 

Karl said he broke Levi’s window and saved him first. It caused a backdraft which singed his hair and face, he said.

“It blew me right out of the house, like a fireball hitting you in the face,” he said.

Karl then said he threw Levi, then only about five years old, 18 feet across the deck, which bloodied his nose. After pulling out his children Erin and Katie from their room, he left with them in the car to find help.

“He said he left to call 911,” Gower Small said. 

Christina Karlsen was trapped inside the bathroom, behind a boarded up window nailed into the wall. The window was broken because he and Christina had attempted to close it with a plunger and mistakenly broke through it, Gower Small said. 

“You do what you have to do, you get wood and board it up,” Gower Small recalled Karlsen saying.

He told her he nailed it into the wall because the wood was warped. 

When he returned, he walked around the house and felt there was nothing he could do, she said. So he returned to his car at the bottom of their driveway to wait for fire officials. 

Gower Small also toured the property approximately four days following the fire making measurements of what remained and photographing the wreckage. 

“It was pretty badly burned,” she said. “It’s destroyed.” 

Gower Small measured the distance from the ground to the bottom sill of the boarded bathroom window to six feet and one inch. Standing at five feet eleven inches tall, she said she could reach the bottom. An elevated deck extending around the home ended just before the bathroom window and was “arm’s length” or “less than two feet” away, she said.

Gower Small tracked the distance to Karlsen’s neighbors.

She referred to the home of Jim Lyons (previously referred to as Vic Lyons in previous testimony) as 0.1 miles away. The home of Joyce Ingrahm, where Karlsen went to call for help, was .15 miles away anda three minute round-trip drive.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone focused in on some of Karlsen’s inconsistent statements in the interview, specifically related to the family finances. Gower Small said Karlsen told her he was fixing up the house in lieu of paying rent, but when the Lucero family, the owners, failed to refinance the property, he had to begin paying. He was unclear as to whether he began paying eight months or one month ago, and whether the total was $200 or $300, she said. 

Earlier in the day a retired Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputy named Howard Stohlman testified he did not have enough information at the time to determine whether Christina Karlsen’s death was a suicide, homicide or accident. He said he responded to the scene as the shift supervisor, a patrol Sgt., and relieved between one to two deputies on scene to tour the burned house with fire investigators.

Karlsen’s attorney, Richard Esquivel, excoriated Stohlman on his definition of “char,” initiating a prolonged debate on the distinction between what was burned by fire or singed by radiant heat. Stohlman previously testified the fire did not burn inside the bathroom, though portions of the stone wall inside were charred by the heat of the flames.  


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


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