Jurors were visibly affected as Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook showed each of them a photo of the deceased Christina Karlsen in a charred bathroom.
Mother of the victim, Arlene Meltzer, sniffled as witnesses described the scene they encountered on New Year’s Day in 1991: a body slumped over the side of the bathtub, with a wash rag pressed against the face.
Former Calaveras County Coroner Terry Parker testified today that the body was relatively unburnt in comparison to the destroyed bathroom. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation.
Video footage dated Jan. 5, 1991, taken by Christina’s cousins Jan Starr and the deceased Ellie Nesler, showed the gutted remains of a home—the region of the house near the bathroom little more than a blackened skeleton of wood framing.
In the muted VHS footage, the domicile is strewn with items that survived the fire. Obscured by soot, what appears to be a wheelbarrow, a pair of rubber work gloves, a ladder and stacks of boxes inhabit the interior. On the porch, a charcoal barbeque, a kerosene heater and a metal unit resembling a wood stove.
Beside the porch is a duct-taped pick ax-type tool, and in the bathroom, behind the melted blinds, is a plywood board covering a missing window. A hand can be seen reaching out to test the strength of the board, which appears to be firmly nailed from the inside.
The footage then jumps to another day. No more than 24 hours later, Starr estimated during her testimony, the sisters employed the help of a friend in law enforcement. The group can be seen, with children in tow, surveying the scene once more.
Some items had been moved or cleared since their last visit, Starr confirmed, including the pick ax. She said she did not know who touched them.
When asked why she chose to visit the scene where her younger cousin had died just days prior, Starr replied, “Because I had good reason to believe there was foul play, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”
Starr, who flew in from Texas to testify, recalled an unsettling interaction she witnessed when she dropped into the Karlsen household for an unannounced visit shortly before the fire.
Starr, Christina and her daughters were drinking tea in the kitchen when young Levi Karlsen ran through the door “as if he’s being chased by a bear,” Starr recounted.
“When he looks at his mommy, Christina’s eyes immediately teared up. She said, ‘I’m not supposed to have company,” Starr stated. Shortly after, the defendant, Karl Karlsen, entered the room.
“Karl leaned up at the door, slamming a chair down and staring at Christina. … I know I was escalating something she was afraid of,” she testified. “I was very uncomfortable being there.”
Starr said it was the last time she visited her cousin before her death.
Earlier in today’s proceedings, Calaveras County District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills testified that he was the first to locate Christina’s body.
While working as a volunteer firefighter, Mills responded to the scene of the house fire on Pennsylvania Gulch Road and assisted in dousing the flames.
He recalled warming his hands on a kerosene heater on the porch and spotting a pick ax nearby. Mills reiterated previous witness’ testimonies that the tool did not belong to any fire personnel.
When he was able to make entry through a door, Mills said he could see into the bathroom through a charred wall. He identified the body and notified the incident commander.
When shown a photo of the scene, Mills’ voice faltered as he confirmed it accurately depicted what he saw that day.
“It’s as though an individual fell out of the bathtub and onto the floor,” he described.
In cross examination, Karlsen’s defense attorney Richard Esquivel questioned Mills about discrepancies between details in his current testimony and that given during a preliminary hearing in 2016.
Details included the day of the week on which the incident occurred, the progress of the fire when Mills’ unit arrived and whether or not fellow firefighter Kendall Thurston was the first to arrive at the scene.
“What I remember is what I remember,” Mills said. “There are some things that happen in life that you remember better than others.”
Additional testimonies presented during the second day of the trial alluded to official investigative efforts in the wake of the fire.
Murphys native Robert Monsen was a county deputy warden for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection when he performed a preliminary walk-through of the house with the fire investigator assigned to the case, Carl Kent.
Referring to his initial report, Monsen recalled a strong smell of kerosene in the hallway outside the bathroom, where he believes the fire started. There were cardboard boxes filled with clothes “saturated” with kerosene and additional soaked clothes on the floor.
Also on the hallway floor was a shattered trouble light, which he believes could have been the source of ignition. A few feet away was a smoke detector lid and battery.
The battery, Monsen said, was only burned on one side, which caused him to believe that it had been on the floor prior to the fire.
During his testimony, the prosecution played a recorded phone call that Monsen received at his office from the defendant.
In the muffled recording, dated April 15, 1991, Karlsen can be heard asking Monsen about the investigation into the house fire, which was stalling his wife’s life insurance payout.
Karlsen mentions his move to New York and his rent payments. In the background, what sounds like a TV and children can be heard.
“I don’t give a [expletive] if they don’t pay me in 10 years or 20 years. I just want to know,” Karlsen said. “I want to know what the hell happened. I mean, I don’t want to. But I do. … Life goes on, unfortunately.”
When Monsen mentions that Christina’s blood alcohol level was determined to be .07 at the time of her death, the defendant sounds befuddled.
“That’s just unbelievable to me,” he says, repeating numerous times that Christina did not drink alcohol.
In the final testimony of the day, James Roberts, longtime friend of Christina and her family, recounted an interaction he had with Karlsen at the hospital following the fire.
According to Roberts, Karlsen relayed his account of what happened earlier that day, when his wife perished in their burning home.
“The dog spilled over a kerosene heater the day before. He and (Christina) spent a length of time cleaning it up,” Roberts said. “That morning, the pipes had froze, and he ended up working in the attic, and he had a drop light that must have fallen and started the fire.”
When asked about the defendant’s demeanor, Roberts responded, “He was relaxed. Calm. No emotion.”
The trial continues tomorrow and is expected to span three weeks.