Karl Karlsen murder trial Day 1

Karl Karlsen is on trial of murdering his wife Christina Karlsen in 1991.

Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook held a photo of the charred and asphyxiated body of Christina Karlsen outstretched for the 12 jurors and four alternates to see on the second day of testimony in the Karl Karlsen murder trial. 

She started at the end of the row and paused at each person down the line, never lowering the photo from eye level.

Many of the jurors were expressionless, but others, clearly skaken, blinked their eyes, swayed in their seats or gulped. The photo was not displayed for the public. 

Calaveras County District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills, a young volunteer firefighter assigned to Engine 251 from Vallecito on Jan. 1, 1991, had just testified to discovering the body, fallen face-forward and charred out of the shower tub at 4060 Pennsylvania Gulch Road residence in Murphys. 

“There are certain things in life that burn into your brain that are as vivid as the day they happened,” Mills said during his testimony. 

Terry Parker, Calaveras County Coroner between 1983 and 2002, testified the cause of death was determined to be inhalation of smoke from a structure fire, while the manner of death was determined to be an accident. 

“It appeared to be an accident with the information at that time,” Parker said. 

Parker later recommended to the current coroner that the manner of death be amended in the report, and though the entire document was received into evidence, through a slew of objections Parker did not reveal what the updated manner of death indicated. 

Richard Baier, a pathologist, did not have any memory of the Christina Karlsen autopsy, but corroborated the cause of death. While referencing a document provided by the prosecution, he said the body was “covered by soot, but was not burned,” soot had entered into her trachea and that she was still breathing at the time of the fire.

No other injuries were observed, he said. 

Karl Karlsen is accused of intentionally setting the house fire to be paid for a $200,000 life insurance policy he took out on Christina less than a month before her death. 

Jen Starr, Christina Karlsen’s cousin, testified she harboured suspicions about Karl Karlsen after she made an unannounced visit to their house. While drinking tea with Christina, Karlsen slammed a chair down on the deck and glared at his wife, she said.

Many of her statements were struck from the official record due to objections by the defense attorneys, but they included Christina saying, through tears, “I’m not allowed to have company,” and an incident involving a black eye. 

On Jan. 5, 1991, Starr went to the house with family members and filmed it on a handheld video camera.

“I had good reason to believe there was foul play, so I wanted to see it for my own eyes,” she said. 

The 21 minute and 48 second video included footage from her son’s birthday party earlier that day, then spliced directly to the carnage of the fire scene. The camera focuses on the gutted, charred interior, on equipment on the front porch and a pick-axe in the grass shown to every emergency official who has testified thus far. The camera focuses on the bathroom window, which is covered on the inside with a single wooden board. The internal walls are burned out around the bathroom and debris fills the tub. From the inside, it appears a curtain is layered on top of the board and another horizontal board is nailed on top of it. A person in the video wedges their fingers under the board and pulls, as if to emphasize it cannot be removed easily. The video ends on another day when the family brings an investigator from Tuolumne County to see the home, Starr said. 

The defense noted Starr had convictions for welfare fraud and marijuana (both from 1981, the prosecution said), as a reason to explain why Karlsen appeared angry. 

The prosecution played a garbled and mostly incomprehensible micro-cassette tape for the jury (who were given laminated yellow transcription notebooks), which they said showed his mounting anxiety with not getting paid quickly for the insurance claim.

“What the hell is going on?” Karlsen said, speaking to Bob Monsen, now a retired firefighter battalion chief in Calaveras County.

“They’re [the insurance company] is waiting on the final fire report.”

Monsen, who testified Wednesday morning, said he intentionally recorded the conversation on April 15, 1991, after Karlsen called him from his new home in New York.

As the conversation drags for approximately 25 minutes — children and torrents of white noise can be often heard in the background, like Karlsen is speaking from the grounds of an airport — Monsen appears to become increasingly annoyed with Karlsen’s repeated inquiries into the status of the reports.

“He’s the man responsible, Karl,” Monsen said, referring to a state fire investigator. “The buck stops there.”

Karlsen tells Monsen, “I’ve got a lot of bills. I mean, how long does it take?” Karlsen said.

Monsen later says to Karlsen the investigation may be held up because Christina Karlsen was found to have a BAC of .07 at the time of her death. (That statement has not been corroborated or repeated in any testimony yet throughout the trial).

“She doesn’t drink,” Karlsen said, appearing surprised.

Jim Roberts, a friend of Christina’s father Art Alexander, said Karl Karlsen appeared “relaxed, calm, no emotion” when they spoke at a San Andreas hospital after the fire. 

Monsen, Mills and Baier were among the four witnesses called Wednesday morning.

Mills initially said the fire was on Sunday because he remembered the Rose Bowl (Judge Thomas Smith confirmed it was on a Tuesday) and said Ken Thurston, the first responding volunteer firefighter, was not there until after his unit.

Monsen also admitted he could not readily remember details of the fire and the investigation and repeatedly was given permission to review the report in front of him.

Karlsen’s attorney, Richard Esquivel, sought to pounce on these inconsistencies and sew doubt about the credibility of the witnesses.

He asked Mills, “are you deliberately trying to obfuscate?” “Are you infallible?”

“No one is infallible,” replied Mills.

Mills testified he walked inside through an eastern entry of the Karlsen home and came into the hallway. One person was behind him and they carried a hose on their shoulders. He noticed “nothing unusual,” though everything was badly burned. He entered into what he thought was a bedroom and noticed a bed and other items. While standing on the bedroom side, he saw the wall to the bathroom was also burned though.

“There was a person face-forward in the bathroom,” Mills testified. 

He followed back his footsteps to report what he found to his supervisor. 

Monsen testified that he and two other investigators found a knocked over “trouble light” attached to an extension cord in the hallway carpet, near a china cabinet and outside the rooms lining the hallways.

The day before, witnesses testified to kerosene, a flammable fuel, being spilled on the carpet days before.

The bulb was broken on the light, Monsen said. Next to it was the plastic drippings of what appeared to be a smoke alarm and, beside it, a nine-volt battery burned along the top.

Under questioning from Karlsen attorney Leigh Fleming, Monsen said he could not remember if there was melted plastic on the battery, but noted he had “never found one that way before.”

Monson also said the burn pattern was centralized at the bathroom and spread out from there. Clothing in the hallway and in boxes nearby were soaked in kerosene, he found from their distinctive odor. 

Roberts testified that Karlsen told him the light started the fire and he was unable to save Christina because it was too hot to enter the home. 

Following the departure of the jury Wednesday afternoon, Yook noted one of the prosecution witnesses, Merle Lucken died in March 2019. Smith said his preliminary hearing testimony would be allowed over defense objections to see a verified death certificate. He also said testimony from Nic Lucero, the owner of the  Karlsen home at the time of the fire, would also be allowed from the preliminary hearing because of a doctor note saying he was ill with cancer. 

The defense suggested an in-person recorded deposition, which the judge said would also be accommodated if both parties could arrange it. 


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


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