Editor’s Note: This interview with Seneca County District Attorney Barry Porsch focuses on the Karl Karlsen case. The Varick man recently pleaded guilty to killing his 23-year-old son, Levi, in 2008 and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Porsch was previously the subject of “A Conversation With ...” article in November 2009.
FLT: When did you first become involved in the case?
PORSCH: That would have been early 2012. I got a call from Lt. John Cleere, an investigator with the Seneca County Sheriff’s Department, who had gotten a phone call from somebody out of state.
That person heard from someone else saying Levi’s death was kind of suspicious and we should look into it. Because it did involve a death and a large insurance payout, John just didn’t dismiss it and looked into it. He kind of gave me a heads-up ... but it was kind of like double or triple hearsay.
You can’t convict somebody on hearsay unless it’s a defendant’s statement. So when I heard that I said “good luck, John,” or something like that. I didn’t think it was ever going to go anywhere.
We get those “tips” all the time. Years later people say this guy was murdered. There’s always a lot of that stuff floating around when someone dies and there’s usually not evidence to support it, so I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere.
But slowly, John continued to work on it and slowly he would find out things, like Karl actually got $700,000 (after Levi died) ... and John found out Karl’s first wife died 20 years earlier and he got money for that. Then he found out a barn burned down (with horses inside) and he got $100,000 for that.
John called me all the time as he learned these new facts, and after a couple of months I said “I think John is onto something here.” We also heard Karl burned his car up [for insurance] and some other things that didn’t come out during this case. We couldn’t tie him to some other fires ... but when you see a pattern where somebody collects insurance over a lifetime, it’s suspicious.
I can’t tell you at what point I believed he actually killed his son, but I knew for sure once I heard the Abigails recording (set up by police and Karl’s estranged wife, Cindy). I knew he was guilty because he made admissions there that he caused the truck to fall [on Levi]. I still remember the quote from Karl, “I took advantage of the situation.” He had just gotten the insurance policy before Levi died.
Then the police did the nine-and-a-half-hour interview at the jail where Karlsen confessed. I think that convinced everybody.
FLT: How much time did you spend on the case?
PORSCH: I was committed to doing a good job. When I do something I always go 110 percent, and this was the biggest case in this county in years.
The last three or four weeks before the trial was supposed to start, I was up every night working on this case until probably 2 a.m. I don’t remember ever going to bed before then. I would always leave the office between two and four in the morning, go home, get some sleep then get up at 8 o’clock to come in.
There was just so much to prepare for. I had up to 30 witnesses I was going to call, in addition to opening and closing statements. Jury selection was massive in this case — we had five days of jury selection. I think they called 800 people for the jury pool.
I devoted a lot of hours to this case, and it’s always a concern when you kind of let your health go and don’t get enough sleep, and I had other cases to work on at the same time. Crime didn’t stop in Seneca County.
I didn’t take one day of vacation in 2012. It kind of wore me down a little bit and now I’m trying to play catch-up with all the other cases.
FLT: Have you taken any time off since the Karlsen case?
PORSCH: I took Christmas Day off and I took New Year’s Day off. I worked the day before and the day after both those holidays.
I do hope to take a couple of weeks of vacation this year.
FLT: Did you have difficulty not dwelling on the emotional and human elements of what Karlsen did?
PORSCH: Emotions didn’t play a part in my prosecution of this case, but the one time I was kind of touched was the first time I heard the 911 recording ... of Cindy Karlsen calling (after they found Levi dead). It was almost like you were there.
You just think about a parent finding a child crushed under a truck, and you could hear that in her voice. I intended to play that to the jury, and I think it would have had the same effect on the jury as it did on me.
FLT: What did you think of Karlsen’s attorney, Lawrence Kasperek?
PORSCH: Larry Kasperek is a very experienced trial lawyer — one of the best in Rochester. He’s won cases at trial and he’s won cases on appeal, including one just before our trial was to start.
I knew I was in the fight of my life with him — that’s why I was working 20 hours a day. I wasn’t going to let him beat me and I was preparing to go toe-to-toe with him in court.
I was very well prepared, and I think if he thought he could have beat me or my office, I think he would have taken a stab at it. He knew what my evidence was ... and I think if he thought he could have beat us, he would have told his client that.
FLT: Were you surprised when Karlsen pleaded guilty?
PORSCH: I was shocked. We had talked about it informally a couple of times ... and at one point Judge Bender called in all the attorneys on both the criminal and civil matters, since Karl and Cindy were going through a divorce.
At that meeting, I mentioned to Larry about taking a plea to the top count — one count of murder ... and before I even finished my sentence he kind of waved his hand and laughed at me in front of everybody to let me know there was not going to be any guilty plea. It was very dismissive.
I never intended to offer any reduction in this case. About a month before the trial was supposed to start ... Larry stopped in my office and proposed a plea to manslaughter second degree, and I said no. He said manslaughter first. I said no. I knew at that point, though, they were interested (in a plea).
The day before the trial was to start, I was working on my opening statement at home and wearing what I would call “civilian clothes.” I went into the office to pick something up ... and I got a phone call from Judge Bender’s secretary. She said “the judge wants to see you right now.”
If there’s one rule they teach you on the first day of law school, it’s you never go in front of a judge without a jacket and tie on ... so I told his secretary I’m not dressed properly to see a judge, and she said “it doesn’t matter, he wants you up here NOW.”
FLT: Did you think then Karlsen was going to plead guilty?
PORSCH: I had no idea what it was about. Once I got there ... Larry Kasperek was in the judge’s waiting room. Then I knew something was up.
FLT: You prepared for this case for a long time. Were you relieved Karlsen pleaded guilty or disappointed you couldn’t prove your case at trial?
PORSCH: Kind of both. I was looking forward to this trial. I think the press was looking forward to it. I think the police officers who worked on this case wanted to see the case go forward. I know Karl’s relatives were going to attend the trial.
The California relatives had plane tickets to come out. They really wanted to see it because they feel Karl murdered his first wife, Christina, by arson 20 years ago. So there were a lot of people who wanted to see the trial and wanted to see justice done.
On the other hand, though, I was kind of relieved. When you prepare for trial you never have enough time. I was telling Mark Sinkiewicz, my first assistant DA, that I wished I had another week to prepare.
I also thought that with no trial, maybe I could go home and eat dinner at 6 o’clock and go to bed at 10 o’clock for a change. I thought that was going to be nice.
FLT: Have you talked to Kasperek since the guilty plea and sentence?
PORSCH: The last time I talked to Larry was on the day of sentencing. Afterward he came down to my office with a notice of appeal ... and we talked for maybe five minutes.
He thanked me for being professional. He’s dealt with a lot of prosecutors, especially in Monroe County where things tend to get nasty when you battle on cases.
We did get testy a few times on this case. I wasn’t going to back down to him. I don’t know if he respected me at first, but I believe he respects me now. We treated each other professionally.
FLT: What are your personal feelings about Karlsen?
PORSCH: The police did a tremendous job going through his background over the last 25 years. All the information they gave, I went through every bit of it.
I believe he is a sociopath and I’m convinced he killed his first wife and intentionally burned down all those other things, like his barn and killed his three horses for insurance money. When you look at those cases, he took stuff out before he torched those things.
And for somebody to cause a truck to fall on their son and just walk away — that is not human. That doesn’t happen unless you are a sociopath. That is somebody without emotion, without feelings and without sympathy for other people.
Karl killed his son and there was no guilt at all. He went with his wife to a funeral in Penn Yan afterward, and after the funeral everybody went to a dinner at the Moose Club. He sat at a table with people and talked and joked like he always had. How is that possible after you kill somebody?
I have no personal hatred toward Karl Karlsen, but I don’t like him as a person. I’m happy he’s going to be in state prison — hopefully for the rest of his life.
FLT: Given the number of murders in this country, were you surprised by the national media attention in this case?
PORSCH: I was very surprised. I never had a case before that garnered any attention except locally.
When one spouse kills another spouse, that is not necessarily unusual in this country, but a father killing his son is unusual — and it was done for insurance money, which made it even worse.
Then you have the other aspect, with his first wife dying in the California fire.
FLT: Do you think Karlsen will ever be charged for that?
PORSCH: A lot of people would like to see him charged for that and a lot of people are putting heat on the police and prosecutors out there. I’ve never criticized the prosecutor out there and I won’t, because I’m a prosecutor and we have to prove someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This is my personal opinion, because I don’t have all the facts and haven’t reviewed all the evidence out there — I think it will be extremely tough to get a conviction in California. Arson cases are extremely hard to prove.
There’s no physical evidence out there any more. I think it would be nice to get a conviction out there, but it will be hard this late in the game.
FLT: Was this the case of a lifetime for you, and have you thought about if the case had gone to trial and you lost?
PORSCH: Case of a lifetime? I would say yes just from the national media attention. This was a bizarre case and a huge case. I can’t imagine something like this is going to happen again anytime soon [laughs].
We currently have three murder investigations we are working on, and I think you are going to see some movement on at least two of them in the next month. It would be nice to have the third one too, but I can’t make any promises there.
Yes, it would have been a terrible blow if I would have lost (at trial). I had my whole career staked on winning this case.