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Jury is out in Karlsen trial

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Karl Karlsen, 59, and his attorney Leigh Fleming face the jury as they enter the courtroom on Jan. 30.

Closing arguments for the trial of accused serial killer Karl Karlsen drew a crowd at the Calaveras County Superior Court Thursday, with the prosecution’s rebuttal extending into Friday morning. At approximately 10 a.m., the jury was released for deliberation.

Karlsen, convicted in 2013 of murdering his son Levi in Seneca County, New York, is charged with the alleged 1991 murder of his wife Christina Karlsen in a Murphys house fire.

Family members of Karlsen and Christina, some of whom testified against the defendant, heard prosecution and the defense plead their cases for roughly eight hours in the conclusion of the 13-day-long trial.

Key witness for the prosecution Kenneth Buske, a forensic electrical engineer who testified that the house fire on Pennsylvania Gulch Road was intentionally ignited, was also present in the courtroom.

In her closing argument, Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook suggested that the defendant not only murdered his wife for insurance, but also intended to do the same to his three young children.

Yook pointed to family friend James Roberts’ testimony that Karlsen had told him shortly after the fire that 5-year-old Levi appeared next to him as he was rescuing his two daughters, contradicting his narrative in interviews that he broke a window to save his son, getting thrown back by a fireball in the process.

Former volunteer firefighter Dennis Mills testified that he had to break a front window to vent the house when he arrived at the scene, which would discredit the defendant’s claim, Yook stated.

“When Levi got out, he didn’t really have a choice. He had to get the girls out,” she said.

According to Yook, Levi’s eventual demise 17 years later, crushed beneath a jacked-up truck that his father lured him under, fit firmly into Karlsen’s pattern of behavior.

The prosecution presented proof of over $1 million in insurance payouts during the defendant’s lifetime.

Those checks were reaped from a car that allegedly wasn’t working just before it burned on Karlsen’s driveway, the smoke-inhalation death of Christina in a bathroom with a boarded up window, a barn fire that killed three of the defendant’s prized draft horses – one of which had reportedly gone lame, and the death of Levi.

“This is a world where money is more important than life. Where family members are used for financial gain. That is the defendant’s world,” Yook told the jury. “You are the only ones who can right this wrong. Life is more important than money. Family members are not a means to an end. The defendant is not going to get away with murdering Christina any longer.”

In closing, the defense took aim at the Calaveras District Attorney’s Office’s decision to not pursue the case 29 years ago.

“The same evidence that they rejected in 1991 is what they presented to you today,” Public Defender Richard Esquivel said. “It wasn’t good enough then. It definitely isn’t good enough now.”

Esquivel stated that some may be “repulsed” by the defendant’s admission in Levi’s murder, but that fact alone should not determine Karlsen’s guilt.

“Does Karl Karlsen deserve a fair trial?” he asked the jury. “Are we a country governed by laws or emotion?”

Several times throughout his argument, Esquivel referred to the prosecution’s case as “schizophrenic,” pointing out discrepensies in witness’ testimonies almost 30 years after the alleged murder at hand.

In their rebuttal, the defense played a video clip of Karlsen denying his involvement in Levi’s death to New York investigators.

After stating that someone would have to be “sick in the head” to do what he has been accused of, Karlsen says, “If you’re gonna do it once, you’re gonna do it again.”


Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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