Almost exactly 29 years ago to date, young mother Christina Karlsen died on New Year’s Day, trapped in the bathroom while her home burned around her. For many years, the incident was ruled an accident. But very soon, a jury will decide if a former Murphys resident set his own home ablaze and left his wife to perish inside.
Tomorrow morning, jury selection will begin for the trial of Karl Karlsen, 59, who stands accused of murdering 30-year-old Christina Karlsen, the mother of his three children, in that 1991 house fire.
The home the couple once shared on Pennsylvania Gulch Road is long gone, and one of the 47 witnesses to be called by the prosecution, the deceased Mearl Lucken, will testify posthumously. Other key players have also died during the long and twisted road leading up to the trial, including the famed Ellie Nesler, best known for the 1993 Tuolumne County courtroom shooting of her son’s alleged molester, who reportedly surveyed the scene of the Karlsen house shortly after it burned.
The defendant has stated that he believes the heavily-publicized upcoming trial, which will be filmed by broadcast media outlets Dateline and 20/20, is in many ways a retrial of his previous murder conviction in Seneca County, New York.
In 2013, Karlsen was sentenced to 15-years-to-life in prison after he admitted to crushing his 23-year-old son Levi Karlsen to death by removing the jacks from a truck while he was working beneath it. Karl Karlsen collected a $700,000 insurance policy on his son’s life shortly after.
His conviction renewed interest in Christina Karlsen’s death and its eerily similar circumstances, which included the collection of a $200,000 life insurance policy. The case was reopened, and Karl Karlsen was extradited to Calaveras County 25 years after the house fire and his hasty retreat to New York. He has been awaiting trial since March of 2016.
During that wait, the trial has been set and rescheduled several times. In October of 2018, Karlsen’s former defense attorney declared a conflict of interest and was dismissed from the case just one day before the trial was set to begin.
At today’s trial confirmation conference, visiting El Dorado Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Smith asked both parties if they were ready to proceed: “We have a number of potential jurors coming in tomorrow morning. Any chance the case will dissolve before now and then?”
The prosecution and the defense confirmed that they were ready to move ahead. The defendant, in shackles and a yellow prison uniform, listened attentively and conferred with his defense team, Public Defenders Richard Esquivel and Leigh Fleming.
Tomorrow morning, the selection process will begin for a jury of 12, and opening statements will be delivered early next week. The trial is expected to span until the end of the month, with the prosecution, led by Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook, hoping to rest their case on Jan. 27.
Witnesses called by the prosecution, who include fire personnel, insurance investigators and family members, will be traveling from as far as New York to testify.
During Karlsen’s 2016 preliminary hearing, Yook painted a picture of an abusive marriage and a husband who doused the carpet in kerosene and set fire to his home, leaving his wife to die.
The defense, who will call no more than two witnesses, told the Enterprise that they believe the prosecution’s case relies too heavily on the defendant’s prior conviction and other unrelated fire incidents from his past, including a barn fire that killed his own prized horses.
“It’s not my case to prove. It’s theirs,” Esquivel said.
It has not yet been determined if Karlsen will take the stand. However, Judge Smith ruled that the defendant must wear civilian clothing and remain unshackled during the trial.