During a press conference last year, some members of Karl Karlsen’s family called on California authorities to take a fresh look at the 1991 death of his first wife, Christina.
Those calls were answered Friday, when Karlsen — now in prison for killing his son — was charged with first-degree murder in the fire that killed Christina in Calaveras County, Calif.
Karlsen has been charged with killing Christina (Alexander) Karlsen on New Year’s Day in 1991 for financial gain. Under California law, that qualifies Karlsen for the death penalty if convicted.
The charge comes about eight months after Karlsen was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the 2008 death of his 23-year-old son, Levi, at Karlsen’s Yale Farm Road home in the Seneca County town of Varick. Karlsen pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in that case.
Karlsen, 54, is serving that sentence at Clinton Correctional Facility. He isn’t eligible for parole until 2027.
Karlsen admitted causing a pickup truck on a wobbly jack to fall on Levi and leaving him there to die. He collected on a $700,000 life insurance policy taken out on Levi just weeks before his death.
Following Christina’s death, Karlsen collected $200,000 on a life insurance policy he had bought just weeks before she died. Karlsen saved his three young children, including Levi, from the house but told police he could not save his wife, who was 30 at the time.
Police officially listed Christina’s death as accidental, but her family members — as well as Karlsen’s — always suspected Karlsen killed her. After Karlsen was charged with killing Levi, California investigators re-opened the case.
Karlsen told investigators in 1991 that his wife had gone to take a bath on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, and he later heard her screaming for help as the fire raged in the hallway just outside the bathroom. Christina died of smoke inhalation, and authorities said Karlsen had just days before boarded up the only escape route, a small window.
“It’s kind of mixed bag of emotions for us. We’re embarrassed, ashamed and relieved all in one,” Karlsen’s brother, Mike, said Saturday afternoon. “We’re sort of disappointed the family name is once again being put in a negative light. This will open some old wounds that we don’t want to relive, but that’s where we are.”
“We are somewhat ashamed and angered to think my brother possibly might be involved in another mysterious death of a family member,” he added. “At the same time, the Alexanders deserve some answers.”
Authorities have said Karl Karlsen was involved in several more incidents involving insurance money. One of them occurred in 2002 at his Varick home, when he received about $115,000 after three Arabian horses he was breeding died in a barn fire.
Seneca County District Attorney Barry Porsch credited Calaveras County DA Barbara Yook and her staff for their work.
“DA Yook followed our case in Seneca County very closely and we communicated frequently. We will continue to assist her in the California case in any way possible,” Porsch said. “This current charge will be very challenging due to the long length of time since the fire (23 years) and the lack of any physical evidence from the scene, but I know DA Yook is committed to seeking justice for the victim and will work hard on the prosecution of the case.”
Porsch added that last month, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Rochester granted Karlsen’s application for poor person status and assignment of counsel for an appeal, although he waived his right to appeal when he pleaded guilty.
The court appointed Appellate Division staff attorney Patrick Chamberlain, formerly a Yates County assistant district attorney, to represent Karlsen.
“A defendant, by pleading guilty, forfeits the right to challenge the underlying conviction and loses many privileges and protections granted defendants,” Porsch said. “Because Karl Karlsen pleaded guilty, he forfeited certain rights and thus there are limited issues that he can argue on appeal. I suspect the main issue will be the county court’s denial of his motion to suppress his statements to the police and his wife. I look forward to arguing this case at the Appellate Division and Court of Appeals.”
Seneca County authorities arrested Karlsen for Levi’s death on information provided by his second wife, Cindy, who secretly recorded several conversations between the two. Those tapes apparently contained confessions that Karlsen killed Levi.
Mike Karlsen said he and his family plan to follow the proceedings in California, which could lead to his brother being executed.
“I guess I don’t even want to think about that, and not to take anything away from his involvement if he’s found guilty or found not to have anything to do with it. The system will unfold as it unfolds,” he said. “I don’t think anybody [in our family] is overjoyed with that fact that the death penalty is on the table ... but in many ways, we’re relieved we are finally going to talk about California and hopefully get some details and understanding of what happened out there.”
“At this point, the court system will deal with it. It will not be pleasant for any of us, over the next year or two, that we will watch this play out,” he added. “But by the end we will learn something — whether Karl was involved or not.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.