NBC’s ‘Dateline’ episode: Is Karl Karlsen a killer or a grieving father?
Some people have the worst of luck. It seems like life just pummels them with tragedy after tragedy. By the time Karl Karlsen is featured on Dateline NBC, he could easily be considered one of those people. His first wife dies in a horrific fire. His prize horses die in another terrible fire. Finally, a catastrophic accident kills his son.
How could one person possibly endure so much? If only there was something that could help with poor Karl’s overwhelming grief. Thankfully, Karl takes much comfort in insurance payouts. Let’s dive in with Andrea Canning of Dateline NBC to hear Karl’s story on “The House on the Hill”.
Karl’s first wife, Christina Karlsen
As Dateline NBC reports, Karl and Christina met in North Dakota, where he was stationed in the Air Force. Christina’s previous marriage to another airman had recently ended, and not long after Karl and Christina met, she became pregnant with his child. The two got married.
About 4 years later, Karl left the Airforce and moved his family to Seneca, NY. At the time the couple had two children, Erin and Levi. They settled in near Karl’s family and had a third child, Katie.
Feeling limited by his career options in upstate New York, Karl moved his family to California, where Christina’s father offered Karl a job with his air conditioning and heating business. They settled into a home that Christina lovingly decorated, putting her talent as a seamstress to the test.
Christina’s sister, Colette, told Dateline NBC that Christina had just finished the bedrooms when the fire started.
On New Year’s Day, 1991, a fire broke out in Christina and Karl’s home. Karl was able to escape and save the three children, but Christina didn’t make it. She died of smoke inhalation in the bathtub, naked, and with only a washcloth over her mouth for protection from the fire.
Karl speculated to investigators that the fire, which started in a hallway, was ignited by a troublesome light he had been using. He said kerosene had been spilled on the hall carpet the previous week. The fire trapped his wife in a bathroom off the hallway, where Karl had recently nailed plywood over its window.
Fire investigator Carl Kent examined the scene and found it suspicious, but without solid evidence, the DA ruled the fire an accident. Christina’s family never felt comfortable with that conclusion.
Karl Karlsen’s new wife, Cindy
After the fire, Karl moved his three children back to New York. Thankfully, he had taken out a life insurance policy on Christina only 19 days prior to her death that left him $200,000 richer.
It was in New York that Karl met Cindy a year after Christina’s death. The two were married in 1993 and had a son, Alex. Alex easily fit in with his half-siblings, especially enthralled with his older half brother, Levi.
Levi and Karl had a tumultuous relationship
Karl’s brother Mike told Dateline NBC that Levi’s tendency to buck the system didn’t make his life with Karl easy. Levi dropped out of school at the age of 17. A fire on Cindy and Karl’s farm in the fall of 2002 only made Levi and Karl’s relationship worse.
Waking in the middle of the night to a fire in their barn, Karl ran out to save fight the blaze while Cindy called 911. Karl and his brothers fought the fire alongside firefighters, to no avail. Tragically the family’s prized Belgium horses all died in the fire, trapped inside the barn.
Karl’s brother Mike told Dateline NBC that the barn’s remains were cleared and the horses buried within days of the fire. A short investigation led the local fire chief to rule the fire an accident.
Family members, Levi in particular, were all suspicious of Karl’s involvement in the fire, especially after the fire that killed Christina. Levi and Karl got into a violent fight over Levi’s accusations.
Over the next six years, Levi got his GED, got married, had two kids, then he and his wife divorced. After the divorce Levi would bring his daughters to his father’s farm almost every other weekend. The two overcame their fraught past and seemed to come to a peaceful agreement.
Levi took a job working with his father’s company and flourished there. In 2008 Levi went to go work on a pickup in his father’s barn while Karl and Cindy went to a funeral. The jack for the truck that Levi was working on slipped, trapping him underneath the vehicle, and killing Levi at only 23 years old.
Cindy’s uneasy feeling
For the next three years, Cindy slowly became unable to shake the feeling that Karl was involved in Levi’s death. Her suspicions ate away at her, making her physically ill until she finally approached a private investigator to find out the truth of Levi’s death.
Amongst the red flags that triggered Cindy were Karl’s last-minute visit to the barn where Levi was working right before the couple left that day, and the $700,000 in insurance money Karl received from Levi’s death.
Cindy’s private investigator began to ingratiate himself with Karl, but before they were able to go to the police, the police came to him. Detective John Clear received a tip and reached out to Cindy about investigating Levi’s death.
Karl’s unlucky life story had suspiciously earned him about a million dollars in insurance payouts, with $200,000 paid to Karl for Christina’s death, $115,000 paid for the barn fire, and another $700,000 from Levi’s death.
Cindy moved herself and son Alex out from their home with Karl, and then began recording her conversations with Karl, opening the doors for investigators to bring Karl in for questioning.
Karl Karlsen cracks
Investigators tell Dateline NBC that they worked through multiple approaches in their interrogation of Karl Karlsen, playing to his ego as their conversation continued for hours. Finally, Karl admits that he caused Levi’s death. Still claiming the death to be accidental, he took responsibility for his son’s death, earning him 15 years to life in jail.
Although his family still believes that Levi’s death was intentional and that Karl’s punishment wasn’t nearly harsh enough for killing his son, Karl’s guilty plea opened the door to investigating his past.
New York investigator Jeff Arnold contacted California police and now-retired fire investigator Carl Kent to have Christina Karlsen’s case reopened. Carl Kent had never shaken his feelings on Christina’s death, so he saved his evidence on the case when he retired. Kent’s forethought was the lynchpin in Karl’s extradition from New York to California.
Three decades after Christina’s death, Karl went to trial in Northern California for her murder. The jury found Karl Karlsen guilty, convicting him for Christina Karlsen’s murder on February 3rd, 2020.
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