The investigation into the death of Levi Karlsen had gone cold until a phone tip came in.
The caller said look into his father, Karl. He had been implicated in insurance fraud in the death of Levi’s mother, Christina, who died in a 1991 Murphys house fire.
John Cleere, undersheriff of Seneca County, New York, testified Wednesday he met Karlsen at the Golden Buck Restaurant in Ovid — just south of Karl’s hometown of Romulus — and took him to a law enforcement facility for a recorded interview.
That was Nov. 23, 2012, a little more than four years after the Nov. 20, 2008 death of Levi, who was crushed under a truck he was working on.
Cleere did not reveal the results of his investigation for the jury. He said, without specifying, he was bound by a signed document to not reveal certain details of a “previous case.”
Karl Karlsen ultimately admitted to kicking out a jack underneath the truck and received a $700,000 insurance policy on Levi at the time of the death. He pleaded guilty to second degree murder in 2012 and was sentenced to serve 25 years to life in New York.
The jury has not been told those details in the course of the murder trial for Karlsen, who is accused of intentionally setting a fire at his home on the 4060 block of Pennsylvania Gulch Road to kill his wife and collect on a $200,000 insurance policy in her name.
The only other indication of his incarceration in New York came from his daughter, Erin DeRoche, during the first day of testimony on Jan. 14, where she said her father admitted to the killings and smiled like “a Cheshire cat.”
Richard Esquivel, Karlsen’s attorney, initially argued the audio recording was prejudicial, “unduly lengthy” and “not relevant to these proceedings,” but his objections were overruled by Calaveras County Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Smith.
Karlsen’s brother, Mike, testified he was one of seven children in the Karlsen clan and Karl was two years younger than him.
They lived in New York for about six years after Karl married Christina, eight to 10 miles from each other, and before the family moved to Murphys, near Christina’s family.
Following the house fire, Mike Karlsen flew to Sacramento from New York with a family member and went directly to find his brother.
“He was somewhat non-responsive,” Mike Karlsen said.
In the subsequent days, they attended a memorial for Christina and visited the burned out house. Karl Karlsen was “emotionless, numb, very stoic,” Mike Karlsen said. During subsequent conversations, Karl told his brother he believed the fire started because a trouble light fell onto kerosene and the flames were too high to save his wife from the bathroom with a boarded up window.
Mike Karlsen testified he was able to touch the plywood, struck into the sheet rock on the inside with 17 nails, while standing on the grass outside. They did not go inside the house, Mike Karlsen said.
From there, they went to Calaveras Big Trees State Park to see the giant sequoias on Karl Karlsen’s recommendation.
“‘Well, we’re out here, let’s drive up to the Big Trees,’” Mike Karlsen recalled his brother saying.
After they visited with the children, Karl told his brother he wanted to return to New York.
“There was not a stable situation for them here. He had lost everything,” Mike Karlsen said.
Tracy Carpenter testified she knew Christina and her family through school and social events. They often spoke at a bus stop while waiting for their children, Carpenter said.
Carpenter described her as sweet, friendly and “kind of a personality people clung to,” but said when Karl was around, “she was very subdued.”
Carpenter said she visited their Murphys home on the Saturday before the fire and said there was no smell of kerosene or a board over the window.
They made plans for New Years Day, she said crying.
Esquivel asked why she never went to the police, but said she believed Karl when he told her the window had broken and the kerosene spilled after her visit.
“It seemed to be ruled an accident, and I just believed what was said was true,” she said.
Mike Karlsen testified he purchased plane tickets to New York from a local travel agent for Karl, his children and their dog and they returned home on Jan. 5 to settle at the Karlsen family farm. Later, Karlsen moved into a home owned by his brother across the street and later purchased it.
“Their family was somewhat isolated. They didn’t participate in family functions as they did prior” when Christina was living in New York, Mike Karlsen said.
Mike Karlsen also testified to previous incidents regarding fire and insurance with Karl. He said Karl lost a barn in a fire where equipment was lost and three horses died.
He told Esquivel his brother received a payment as a result of the fire, which started after midnight at an unspecified date.
Alan Teets, Christina’s first husband until June 1983, also testified to the nature of Christina’s character.
They had known each other since they were children, Teets said, attending the Calaveras County frog jump , walking in the woods, playing tennis and square dancing. He proposed to her when he joined the Air Force and took her with him while they lived on a base in North Dakota.
Christina Karlsen was familiar with kerosene and often filled barrels herself for use in a heater, he said. While they lived in North Dakota, he described a process using plastic that they used to insulate the house from the cold.
His testimony was a pointed contrast to statements attributed to Karl Karlsen over the course of testimony, specifically that Christina mistook a barrel of kerosene for a barrel of water before she took it in the house (he claimed it was spilled in the hallway outside the bathroom by their pets) and that nailing a board over the window was the only remedy to keep out the cold.
“I wouldn’t advise keeping it open, but I would use a blanket instead of a piece of wood,” Teets said.
Teets worked with Karl Karlsen on Minutemen missile systems and knew him in passing. One night, he said, while at a non-commissioned officer’s club, Christina wanted to dance and he had an injured foot. He called Karl Karlsen over, who danced with Christina.
The court heard depositions recorded during Karlsen’s 2016 preliminary hearing for two witnesses who were unavailable to testify.
Mearl Lucken, the State Farm Insurance agent who sold Karl Karlsen the whole life policy on his family, died before the start of the trial. During Karlsen’s preliminary hearing, he said he had concerns about Karlsen’s ability to pay the more than $400 premiums.
Another deposition from Nic Lucero, the owner of the Murphys home, said he installed the nylon carpet which was ultimately burned in the fire. He retrieved a sample of the carpet from Karl Karlsen’s nearest next door neighbor, Vic Lyons, and provided it to Calaveras County investigators.
This report is from the morning session of the Karl Karlsen murder trial on Wednesday. Read the full story in the Thursday edition of The Union Democrat.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @g_ricapito