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On New Year’s Day in 1991, the Karlsen family was enjoying a relaxing day at home when a fire broke out that quickly consumed their small, rural California home.
Christina Karlsen—who had been taking a bath—got trapped in the bathroom of the home and died in the blaze, leaving behind her husband Karl and three small children, who had all managed to safely escape the flames.
“I started screaming,” Christina’s mother, Arlene Meltzer, told CNBC's “American Greed” of learning of her daughter’s demise. “I couldn’t even stop.”
But it wouldn’t be the only tragedy to impact the family. More than a decade later, Christina and Karl’s son, Levi, died after being pinned under a pickup truck on his father’s farm.
It appeared at first to be another tragic accident, but investigators would later discover that both deaths had more sinister roots and a member of the Karlsen family was slowly killing off those closest to him for financial gain.
“That was our life growing up,” the couple’s daughter Kati Reynolds recalled in Monday’s season finale of “American Greed.” “One bad incident after another.”
A Promising Start
The romance between Christina and Karl had been filled with promise when it began in the early 1980s. The couple met while Karl was a cadet in the Air Force stationed in North Dakota.
Christina was married at the time to another cadet, but the pair couldn’t deny the electric charge between them and soon began a new life together.
“She was an amazing young lady. Great kid,” Karl’s brother Michael Karlsen told producers. “The sun was always shining in her world.”
The couple had three children together and settled in New York where Karl worked at a local stone quarry, but money was tight.
When Christina’s father, Art Alexander, offered Karl a job at his sheet metal business in in the Sierra Nevada foothills of central California, Karl took him up on the offer and moved the family to Murphys, California in the late 1980s.
Alexander offered to let the young family stay for free in a home he was renting out, but Karl wanted to pave his own way and purchased a run-down home deep in the woods.
“It was pretty much like an old miner’s shack,” Alexander said.
The accommodations may have been rustic, but Christina found a way to make the wooded setting magical for the couple’s three children during long days home alone on the property.
“My mom used to take us on walks all the time and we would collect like leaves or acorns or whatever and press them into little books. We would go to downtown Murphys and go to the candy shop or the ice cream shop,” oldest daughter Erin DeRoche recalled.
Christina’s family was initially impressed with the man who had won Christina’s heart, but after time they started to notice troubling aspects of the couple’s marriage.
“He controlled my sister mentally because he would tell her that, you know, she was chubby,” her sister Colette Bousson told “American Greed.” “He knew that because she was so sensitive about her weight that he could destroy her self-esteem.”
According to Bousson, Karl was also physically abusive, once slamming into her so hard that she flew across the room.
Bousson suggested Christina leave Karl, but Christina wanted her children to grow up with both parents in the home.
She wouldn’t get that wish. On New Year’s Day in 1991, Christina died after getting trapped inside the bathroom—where the only window had been boarded up with plywood days earlier—after the fire broke out inside the home.
Not long before the blaze, DeRoche, who was just 6 years old, remembered her father taking the family’s Christmas tree out onto the gravel driveway and lighting it on fire in front of his three children because he “wanted us to see how quick a house could burn,” she said.
The children went back inside and were taking an afternoon nap when Erin awoke to the sound of her mother screaming and peered outside the bedroom door to find fire. Erin remembered noticing that a dresser that usually had been in the closet of the girls’ room was inexplicably placed in front of the room’s window.
“I tried to push it out of the way, you know, I was too young to make it move but I gave it a go and shortly after that my father actually broke through the window and pushed the dresser out of the way,” she said.
He gathered both girls and placed them in his pickup truck and then went back to rescue Levi. Christina was still trapped inside.
“He was walked up to the house and he was kind of kicking at the concrete foundation, um, and then turned around and came back after you know, a few minutes. He was just kind of standing around watching,” she said.
Christina died in the blaze from smoke inhalation. In the days that followed, her family would note Karl’s odd behavior. Bousson remembered him referring to her slain sister as a “crispy critter”—even though the fire had never actually made it to the bathroom—and the family packed up and moved back to New York less than a week after the fatal blaze.
A fire investigator wanted to speak to Karl about the fire, but the department lacked the money to send the investigator to New York and they eventually ruled it to be an accident. Karl collected $215,000 in insurance money for his wife’s death.
Another Tragic Accident
In the years that would follow, Karl settled down with the family on a farm in Varick, New York, where he raised Belgium draft horses as a hobby.
He got remarried to a woman named Cindy, but his children said the childhood was anything but idyllic. With Christina gone, his children say Karl took out most of his anger on them.
“When my father was going to beat us, he would send us all to our rooms, right, so there really wouldn’t be any witnesses,” DeRoche said, adding that he was careful not to leave any “overt marks” that would be visible to others.
Karl’s son Levi often suffered the worst of the abuse in the family’s barn.
“Levi would get beat with anything that my father had within reach. His fists, pipes, shovels, pitch forks, belts, electric cattle prods. You name it, it was used as a weapon against my brother,” DeRoche said.
While they were growing up, another fire broke out in the horse barn in 2002, claiming the lives of three horses and earning Karl another insurance payout, but it would be Levi’s death that would reward him with the biggest payday.
In 2008, just 17 days after Karl had taken a $700,000 life insurance policy out on his son, he asked Levi—with whom he had a strained relationship—to come to the farm to work on the brakes on one of the farm trucks.
Karl had already jacked the truck up and had arranged for Levi, a young father of two girls of his own, to work on the truck while Karl and Cindy went to a funeral.
When they returned home, Cindy placed a frantic call to 911 reporting that the truck had fallen on her stepson and crushed his chest. He had likely been dead for hours.
Cassie Rood, Levi’s ex-wife and mother of his children, said she was devastated by the loss.
“It sounded like a tragic accident,” she said. “From everything that was explained to me, that jack slipped is what I was told. The jack slipped and the truck fell down on him.”
Lavish Spending Spree
With another family member dead, Karl cashed in on the life insurance policy once again and began a lavish spending spree, buying himself ducks he planned to raise and sell to New York City restaurants, as well as trucks, tractors and other wants.
But the case would take a dramatic turn in 2012, when a relative of Karl’s wife Cindy called the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office to suggest investigators take another look at Levi’s death. The caller told Undersheriff John Cleere that Cindy believed her estranged husband had killed his son.
Cleere quickly got in touch with Cindy, who confirmed the story and agreed to wear a wire during a meeting with Karl.
During the meeting, Karl never admitted killing his son but told Cindy he “took advantage of the opportunity,” Cleere said.
It was enough for investigators to bring Karl in for questioning. Although he initially denied having any involvement in his son’s death, he later admitted to getting into the vehicle while it was on the jack, causing it to fall on top of his son.
“I mean it was an accident and it’s, I blame myself every day just like you said,” he said in the interrogation, according to “American Greed.”
Investigators didn’t buy Karl’s claim that the death had been an accident and arrested him for second-degree murder.
“I didn’t think that it would ever happen so to hear that he had been arrested was a relief and like an accumulation of, you know, 20-plus years worth of emotion,” DeRouche said, adding that the family had never known about the insurance policy Karl had taken out on his son.
During the investigation, authorities would also uncover another disturbing aspect of the case. Karl had also taken out life insurance policies—totaling more than $350,000 a piece—on his two young granddaughters, listing himself as the sole beneficiary of the policies.
“Who the hell puts that kind of life insurance on a 4- and 6-year-old. Why? That’s just, that’s ludicrous, that’s obscene,” Rood said of the chilling discovery.
Fortunately, Karl would never have the opportunity to arrange any more accidents for his family members. In November of 2013, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for his son’s death and received a sentence of 15 years to life.
“He is a person who can kill without emotion. You know, to kill your own son and then not have any remorse that’s not human,” Barry Porsch, the former district attorney for Seneca County told “American Greed.”
The conviction also caused investigators in California to take a fresh look at Christina’s case. With the help of fire investigator Ken Buske—who had kept his files on the case for decades—authorities were able to determine the fire had been deliberately set right outside the bathroom, trapping Christina inside.
In February of 2020, Karl was found guilty of first-degree murder by arson in that case as well and sentenced to life without parole.
His children have been left to deal with the agonizing realization that their father was a cold-blooded killer.
“I had to second-guess my entire life,” Reynolds said of the murder trial for her mother. “Sitting in the stand, it was obvious, he did it.”
To learn more about the chilling case, tune in to "American Greed" on CNBC Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
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