After less than four hours of testimony from two witnesses, defense attorneys opted against calling Karl Karlsen, a former Murphys resident accused of killing his wife Christina in a 1991 house fire, to the stand on Wednesday. 

Defense attorney Richard Esquivel leaned backward in his chair and looked behind Karlsen toward his defense partner, Leigh Fleming. He pointed at Karlsen’s back and they both pursed their lips and shook their heads.

He looked up toward Judge Thomas A. Smith and said, “I think we’re done.” 

After 11 days, an eight-hour video-recorded interrogation, a four-hour audio interview, approximately 50 pieces of evidence and 36 witnesses, testimony was completed in Karlsen’s murder trial at the Calaveras County Superior Court. 

Smith dismissed the jury at approximately 10:10 a.m., notifying them that on Thursday morning closing arguments would begin before they retreated to the jury room for deliberations. 

The trial began on Jan. 8. After three days of jury selection, the prosecution began calling witnesses on Jan. 14. They called 35 witnesses, including Karlsen’s eldest daughter Erin De Roche; Christina Karlsen’s sister Collette Bousson; fire investigators from State Farm Insurance; fire cause investigator Kenneth Buske, former firefighter and current Calaveras County District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills and a myriad of public officials and acquaintances of the Karlsen family.

Katie Karlsen, Karlsen’s youngest daughter, often attended the hearings and sat behind her mother Arlene Meltzer, but did not testify. 

The defense called John Miller, a fire origin and cause investigator, and recalled Buske over Tuesday and Wednesday.

Miller testified to potential shortcomings of Buske’s report, but did not offer any substantive analysis of evidence acquired at the fire scene. 

Buske determined in 1991 Karlsen intentionally ignited the fire on carpet doused with freshly poured kerosene and wicked with kerosene from an earlier pour. His report was forwarded to State Farm Insurance officials who recommended Karlsen be denied a life insurance claim he took out on Christina weeks before the fire, but he was paid over $215,000 in 1992. 

In opposition to Buse, Miller offered his opinion on various items said to be in the home which could be the cause of fires generally: a washer or dryer, electrical wiring, open fire propane water heater, smoking materials, a kerosene heater and wood stove.

“If I couldn’t rule it out, I would take it as evidence, especially in a case as delicate as this,” Miller said. 

Miller argued Buske was remiss in not locating where a trouble light found on scene was plugged in or determining where the cord attached to the light was at the time of the fire. Buske said he received the light and the cord (which melted into a strip of carpet), but did not locate any markings on the wire which indicated a fire ignited from an electrical issue.  

Miller’s testimony was also used by Esquivel to suggest that Karlsen’s version of the events could be scientifically corroborated. 

Miller speculated that fumes in the dryer could be ignited by an electrical issue within the appliance and spread to the initial source of the fumes. He also cited a 2001 study on candle fires and said out of 79 tests, remnants of candles were only found in nine of them.

The defense has suggested throughout the trial, based on statements Karlsen made to investigators, that Christina Karlsen used candles in the house for pleasure and to disguise the smell of the kerosene spill. Buske said he did not find any evidence of a candle being the ignition source of the fire. 

Miller also noted that “superheated gasses being vented” by Karlsen opening his son Levi’s window could have caused him to be blown back by a fireball as he told investigators. 

Miller said with fumes, the ignition source may not be observable by an investigator. 

Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook identified the disparity between Buske and Miller’s credentials, noting Miller was not an engineer who admitted he could not personally reproduce the tests Buske did. 

Miller said he was retained by the defense nine days ago, which would be approximately halfway through the trial. The defense noted during the beginning of the trial that another expert was ill and they planned to retain another. 

Buske waited outside the courtroom during Miller’s testimony and entered a room with Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office officials during a mid-morning break. When the jury returned, Yook said she was satisfied and would not present any rebuttal witnesses. 

Smith reviewed the evidence submitted and noted Karlsen’s United States Air Force records and a partial deposition he made in a civil case following the fire were allowed into the record. There was some dispute about what was received into evidence regarding a 2012 Seneca County law enforcement interrogation of Karlsen (either the eight hours shown to the jury or the nine-hour total interview) and a 2014 interview with Calaveras County investigators (over four hours in segmented clips or the total six-and-a-half-hours). Smith said if the items were requested, he would make a determination about how they would be presented. 

He also denied a 2017 due process motion submitted by one of Karlsen’s former attorneys, which alleged the delay between the fire and the prosecution prejudiced the defendant against a fair trial. 


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


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