Dramatic testimony on first day of Karlsen preliminary hearing

Karl Karlsen

A preliminary hearing of the evidence against Karl Karlsen in a 25-year-old murder case opened Monday with dramatic testimony from his daughter Erin DeRoche, who said that on several occasions her father admitted killing her mother.

“He smiled like a Cheshire cat and said, ‘It’s been 20 years. They haven’t caught me yet,’” she said of a conversation she had with her father when he was in jail in New York in December 2012 awaiting trial for the murder of his son, Levi Karlsen.

Karlsen was convicted of killing Levi for insurance money by allowing a pickup to fall off of jacks while his son was working underneath it. Prosecution of the case in Seneca County in New York prompted Calaveras County authorities to look again at the Jan. 1, 1991, death of Christina Karlsen.

Karlsen was extradited from prison in New York State to face charges of killing Christina.

She was taking a shower when fire started inside the family home on Pennsylvania Gulch Road outside of Murphy. Karl Karlsen had reportedly boarded up the bathroom window with plywood not long before.

DeRoche, the first witness called on Monday by Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook, would turn 7 years old several weeks after the fire. She said it was a memorable morning that began when her father took her and her brother and sister outside to douse a Christmas tree with kerosene and light it on fire.

“He wanted to show us how quickly a home could burn,” DeRoche said of why her father burned the Christmas tree.

Later, she and her siblings were told to take naps. After the nap, DeRoche said she was still in her bedroom with her sister Kati when she heard her mother shouting. “I remember hearing my mother scream, “Karl, get the kids.’”

DeRoche said she then went to the door of the room, which was slightly ajar. She said she could see flames through the crack and that the door was hot. She said that a dresser, which was normally kept in the closet, blocked the bedroom window. She said her father broke through the bedroom window and moved the dresser to help the girls escape. She said her father also went to another bedroom to rescue her brother, Levi.

She said her father put them in a family car and drove to find neighbors to ask to telephone for help. Then they returned to the burning house. “I’m pretty sure that I remember him saying that mommy had gone to heaven.”

Yook questioned DeRoche on the character of Karlsen family life and asked if DeRoche had witnessed violence, which prompted multiple objections from Karlsen’s attorney, Public Defender Scott Gross.

Yook argued that she was establishing evidence of domestic violence in the family and, for the most part, Judge Thomas A. Smith allowed the questions and the answers.

Of Christina Karlsen, DeRoche said, “My mother was wonderful. She would take us on hikes. She taught us to make grilled cheese sandwiches.”

Her memories of her father were not so rosy. “We would walk on eggshells,” she said of times when her father was in the house.

DeRoche said her father had punched her in the head, thrown her against walls and beaten her and her siblings. Upon cross examination by Gross, DeRoche admitted she had never reported the violence to relatives, police or teachers.

Yook asked DeRoche why she failed to report the violence.

“My father threatened to kill all of us,” DeRoche said.

She said that Karl Karlsen said that if any of them ever called police, then they should also call ambulances because “we would all be dead” before police arrived.

DeRoche also testified that on the day of the fire she and her siblings played on a pile of blankets and clothing that was being used to absorb kerosene that had spilled in the carpet in the hallway outside the bathroom where Christina Karlsen would later die.

The second witness Yook called, former Calaveras County Sheriff Sgt. Howard Stohlman, went into some detail about the kerosene and what he saw at the site of the fire. Before becoming a sheriff deputy, Stohlman had been a captain for the Ebbetts Pass Fire Protection District and had training in fire investigation. Later, he served as the director of information technology for Calaveras County before retiring earlier this year.

Yook asked Stohlman to describe what he saw in a diagram of the home that he drew back in January 1991. “I noticed the fire seemed to have been burning more in the center of the house,” Stohlman said.

The area outside the bathroom drew his attention in particular, he said. “That’s where I observed what I thought was a combustible fuel on the floor.”

Yook asked: “How do you know that?”

Stohlman’s answer: “There was a container with kerosene right near where the ‘K’ is” in the diagram.

The preliminary hearing is expected to last at least until Wednesday and possibly all week. Once it is over, Thomas will decide whether there is enough evidence to justify holding Karlsen for trial on charges he murdered his wife to collect an insurance payment.

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