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Fire, family and a life cut short

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Posted: Friday, November 22, 2013 6:00 am | Updated: 11:01 am, Tue Nov 26, 2013.

On Nov. 6, former Murphys resident Karl Karlsen, 52, pleaded guilty to the murder of his son in a Seneca County, N.Y., courtroom. As Karlsen told the court, he caused the 2008 accident in which a 5,000-pound truck fell off its jack and crushed his son Levi, 23, who was working beneath the vehicle. The motive for the crime, according to Karlsen, was profit. Just days before he murdered Levi, Karlsen had taken out a life insurance policy on his son worth more than $700,000.

While Karlsen’s guilty plea brought a measure of closure to Levi’s death, it reignited long-simmering emotions among his former in-laws in Calaveras County. These emotions can be traced back to a tragic incident more than 20 years ago that bares eerie parallels to Levi’s murder.

On New Year’s Day, 1991, an intense, fast-moving fire ripped through the Murphys home Karl Karlsen shared with his wife Christina, 30, and their three children. In interviews Karlsen gave to California Department of Forestry investigators after the blaze, he said that he attempted to rescue his wife from the home’s bathroom, but was unable to reach her because the doorway was engulfed in flames.

Although he wasn’t able to save his wife, Karlsen was able to pull his three small children out a window to safety. Neither Karlsen nor his children were injured in the inferno, but Christina perished in the blaze.

For Christina’s father, Art Alexander, the devastation he experienced at the loss of his daughter was compounded by his disbelief about the events that followed the tragedy. Within days of Christina’s death, Karl Karlsen collected more than $200,000 from his wife’s life insurance policy. Soon thereafter, Karlsen moved back to his hometown in New York with his children. Prior to this turn of events, Karlsen’s in-laws were unaware that Christina’s life insurance policy existed 

“I had no knowledge of the insurance policy until after the fire,” Alexander said.

While Alexander was incredulous about the insurance policy, Christina’s sister, Colette Bousson, saw it as one more link in a chain of exploitation and abuse that had defined Karl and Christina’s relationship. Even after investigators ruled the 1991 fire accidental, Bousson maintained a steadfast belief that her former brother-in-law had murdered her sister.

A vibrant young woman

Born in 1960 on an Air Force base in Oklahoma, Christina was the older of two daughters. Her little sister, Colette, remembers Christina as a shy, self-conscious girl who was a talented dancer, an excellent singer and a supremely gifted seamstress.

While growing up in Murphys, Christina put her sewing skills to work and created numerous beautiful outfits for both herself and Colette.

“There weren’t many places for girls to get clothes in Murphys back then,” Colette said. “As a result, Christina became a phenomenal seamstress.”

Ultimately, Christina’s talents were recognized by a broader audience. After winning a sewing competition at the Calaveras County Fair while in high school, she went on to win the best in show award for tailoring at the California State Fair with her creation of a full suit with perfectly matched seams on all sides.

After graduating from Calaveras High School in 1978, Christina moved to the Bay Area, where she trained to become a licensed cosmetologist. When her high school sweetheart proposed to her, however, Christina was swept off her feet and accepted. Soon thereafter, the couple wed and Christina moved to Grand Forks Air Force base in North Dakota with her new husband in the spring of 1981.

In the summer of 1982, Colette traveled to North Dakota to visit her big sister. When she arrived, Christina told Colette that there was a man she wanted her to meet. Christina explained that the man’s name was Karl Karlsen and that he worked with her husband loading missiles into silos on the base.

Colette was not enthusiastic about her sister’s proposed introduction.

“I came here to see you, not meet men,” Colette told Christina at the time. Not long afterward, Colette returned to Modesto, where she lived at the time.

Although their relationship started off blissfully, Christina’s marriage to her first husband soon went south. By 1983, she had parted amicably from her first husband and had begun dating Karlsen. The couple was married in the coming months, and in January 1984, their first child, Erin, was born.

Over the next two years, Christina and Karl had two more children: Levi, in February 1985, and Kati, in October 1986. While his success at producing children was impressive, Karl did not impress his superiors at Grand Forks Air Force base.

“Karl left the Air Force because he couldn’t maintain weight standards,” Colette said.

After briefly returning to his hometown in New York with his young family, Karl soon moved Christina and the children to Calaveras County, where Christina and Colette had grown up.

“My dad found a great house for them in Avery,” recalled Colette. “Christina loved that house. It was the first really beautiful house she’d lived in with Karl.”

In addition to finding a home for his son-in-law’s family, Alexander also helped Karl out professionally.

“I made him a 10 percent partner in my business,” explained Alexander, who owns a metal shop in Murphys.

Though Karl’s prospects were looking better in Calaveras County, he was dissatisfied with his family’s living situation in Avery. He soon made the decision to move his family into a dilapidated mining shack in a rural area outside Murphys near the end of Pennsylvania Gulch Road. Karl’s plan was to save money, but the move had a negative impact on the family.

“You couldn’t drink the water out of the tap and the kids couldn’t walk across the front porch of that place without getting huge splinters in their feet,” remembered Colette when thinking about the mining shack where Karl and Christina lived with their children. “The house was very remote and it had an isolating effect on Christina.”

Colette soon recognized Christina’s isolation at the shack as part of a larger theme in her relationship with Karlsen.

“Karl controlled everything (Christina) did,” said Colette. “Karl did all the grocery shopping, he wouldn’t put my sister’s name on their checks and he stranded her at that house.”

Even more disturbing than the isolation, however, was Karl’s aggression toward Christina.

“Karl was authoritarian,” explained Colette. “If Chris tried to question his decisions, she would be punished. I quickly learned that Karl was taking things out on Chris.”

A tortured relationship

Alexander never saw any signs of abuse in his daughter’s relationship with Karl Karlsen.

“My daughter wouldn’t tell me about any problems,” he said.

While Christina didn’t complain to her father about her relationship, she was very open with sister, Colette.

“Chris and I talked about everything,” said Colette, who served 23 years in the Air Force and now works as the chief labor and employee relations officer at the V.A. Hospital in San Francisco.

As their life in the mining shack wore on, Christina’s relationship with Karl became more abusive, according to her sister.

“She told me that (Karl) knocked her across the room, but that she got up and dusted herself off because she didn’t want to upset the kids,” Colette said, remembering a conversation with her sister. “Everything she did was for the kids.”

Colette herself witnessed Karlsen’s wrath firsthand.

“One time, my son was in his high chair when he did something to upset Karl,” said Colette. “Karl came by, picked my son up and dropped him on his head.”

Though her son wasn’t injured, Colette vowed that she would not allow her children to spend any more time around Karlsen.

In addition to the incident with her son, Colette also described witnessing Karl criticizing Christina, calling her fat and otherwise seeking to destroy her self-esteem. In 1990, Karl’s verbal abuse reached a crescendo.

“My sister and I went to have our pictures taken in Chico,” Colette said. “When we got home, Karl turned to Chris and said ‘You look like a whore with that makeup on.’”

Colette’s husband, who was then employed as a deputy sheriff for the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office, also witnessed this statement by Karl. According to Colette, he told her that Karl’s abuse was escalating and that Christina and the children should move up to Red Bluff to live with them. Though Christina refused the offer, she made her feelings known to her sister.

“Before Christina died, she told me that she wanted to leave him,” said Colette. “I think she was scared.”

A few months later, while she was at home in Red Bluff with her own children, Colette received a distraught call from her father.

“There was a house fire at Chris’s,” Art Alexander told his youngest daughter on New Year’s Day, 1991. “Everyone got out but Christina.”

Shortly after Christina’s death, Karl collected on her insurance policy and moved to Upstate New York with his children. Within three months of Christina’s passing, according to Colette, Karl had started dating another woman whom he later married.

Although Karl left California, his bad luck with fires and his good fortune with insurance seemed to have followed him to the Empire State. In 2002, a fire broke out in Karl’s Seneca County barn, killing his Belgian draft horses. In the wake of this incident, Karl collected an insurance settlement worth $80,000.

Ongoing investigation

Following Levi Karlsen’s death in November 2008, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by investigators in New York. Detectives in Calaveras County soon reopened their inquiry into Christina’s death at the mining shack, and in the summer of 2013, the case was transferred to the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office.

“The focus of the Sheriff’s Office in reopening the case and of my office in adopting the case is to determine the current state of the evidence, despite any decisions that may have been made by our predecessors 22 years ago,” said Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook.

The Calaveras DA’s Office also said that its decision to charge Karlsen with a crime will be predicated on evidence, not his status in New York.

“I am pleased that he pleaded guilty and understand that he is to be sentenced to 15 years to life,” Yook said. “However, his plea and sentence in New York will have no impact on our decision here.”

Although the DA’s Office continues to dig into the 1991 fire that claimed Christina’s life, proving arson in a case this old could prove to be a daunting task.

“Arson science hasn’t changed much on the prosecution side,” said Dr. Gerald Hurst. “It’s hard to get good evidence out of a black hole, particularly in a case this old.”

Hurst is one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of cold case arson investigations. After receiving his doctorate in chemistry from Cambridge University, Hurst became the chief scientist for Atlas Powder Co., one of the largest manufacturers of explosive materials in the U.S. Later, he began consulting on legal cases involving fires.

Hurst offered a bleak outlook of arson assessment as it existed in 1991.

“Fire investigation was dominated by people who had no scientific training back then and they relied on old wives’ tales,” Hurst said. “As a result, it would’ve been more likely to get a false-positive conviction for arson then than it is now.”

He went on to say that the National Fire Protection Association didn’t release national standards for arson investigators until 1992. NFPA 921 now prescribes specific criteria that arson investigators should look for when analyzing fire and explosion incidents.

“Fire investigations weren’t very good back in 1991,” Hurst said. “They weren’t always accurate in fire pattern identification.”

Despite his pessimism about fire investigations in 1991, Hurst said the fire that killed Christina Karlsen may very well have been accidental.

“If there was a nugget (of evidence), it probably would’ve been apparent to someone back then,” he said.

Other fire experts agree that the fire that killed Christina Karlsen could have been caused by kerosene that was spilled in the mining shack.

“My experience with flammable liquids is that they produce volatile vapors when they are spilled,” said a 28-year veteran firefighter who serves as chief of a fire department in the Sacramento area and requested that his name not be used in this story. “The vapors end up filling a room very quickly, so that if there’s a spark ... it doesn’t take a lot of flammable vapor to do a lot of damage.”

This description seems compatible with the scenario Karlsen laid out for the California Department of Forestry investigators in 1991, but other questions about the mining shack fire continue to linger. For instance, Christina’s large life insurance policy was taken out by her husband shortly before her death. This bares a strong parallel to what Karlsen did shortly before his son Levi’s death. In addition, there was no running water in the mining shack’s bathroom at the time of the 1991 fire and the bathroom window had been boarded shut, which prevented Christina’s escape from the burning home.

Commenting on Karl Karl-sen’s recent conviction in New York and the probability that he’d be convicted in Calaveras County, Hurst offers a caustic assessment.

“The likelihood of (the Calaveras County DA’s Office) proving arson is small,” he said, “but the likelihood of getting a conviction by demonizing his character is good.”

Longing for closure

Karlsen is scheduled to be sentenced for Levi’s murder on Dec. 16. He faces a sentence of 15 years to life in a New York prison.

While Christina’s family is glad that Karlsen is facing a lengthy prison term, they were crestfallen by a decision from Seneca County Judge Dennis Bender, who will hand down Karl’s sentence. Bender decided that only one of Levi’s family members would be allowed to speak at the sentencing. According to a letter Colette received from the court, she was told that Levi’s ex-wife has been selected as the spokesperson for the sentencing, because she will be able to speak for Levi’s two young daughters.

When asked what she would tell the judge if she was allowed to speak at the sentencing, Colette said, “I would ask the judge to impose life. Every time Karl Karlsen needs money, people die and animals die. If Karl is released into society again, I would hold the judge liable for who’s killed next.”

As Karlsen prepares to be sentenced in New York, the Calaveras County D.A.’s Office continues to evaluate the evidence in the 1991 mining shack fire. And it appears that time is on the side of the D.A.’s office.

“There is no statute of limitations on murder,” Yook said.

At the same time, Christina Karlsen’s loved ones yearn for closure. When she speaks of her love for her sister, Colette’s voice takes on a tender tone that is not present when she talks about the many tragedies in her life.

Speaking of what Christina meant to her, Colette said, “Chris was my best friend. We were each other’s protectors. No one can ever replace your sister.”

© 2015 Calaveras Enterprise. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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