Karl Karlsen on 20/20: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Karl Karlsen

Calaveras County Sheriff\'s Office Karl Karlsen

Karl Karlsen was convicted of murdering both his wife, Christina Karlsen, and his son, Levi Karlsen, 17 years apart for insurance money. Both murders were initially ruled accidental.

Karlsen had careers transporting nuclear weapons for the U.S. Air Force and had a gourmet duck farming business, according to the Calaveras Enterprise.

He will spend his life behind bars. Karlsen, 60, was convicted earlier this year of killing his wife in a house fire in Calaveras County, California in 1991. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Karlsen was also convicted for killing his son, Levi Karlsen, in 2008 in Varick, New York, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

The tragic story is being examined on ABC 20/20 in an episode airing Friday, June 5, 2020, at 9 p.m. EST. The show includes exclusive interviews with his daughters and ex-wife, Cindy Best. Read more about his ex-wife here.

Here’s what you need to know:


1. Karl Karlsen Transported Nuclear Weapons, Owned a Gourmet Duck Farming Business & Belgian Draft Horses

Karl Karlsen did unique work, including transporting nuclear weapons for the U.S. Air Force and owning a gourmet duck farming business. He talked extensively about his life during police interviews, according to Calaveras Enterprise.

In Grand Forks, North Dakota, he was pulling a trailer with a missile that caught fire, he said in his testimony.

“The most serious problem you can have in the U.S. is a fire with a nuke,” Karlsen said in the interview played at his trial. “They let us move the nuke from one trailer to another, (which has) never been done before.”

He also shared he had back surgery and took medication, and bragged about his Belgian draft horses. He grew up on a family farm, and raised, showed and sold the draft horses.

“I had some of the tallest horses in the world and the biggest mare in the world,” he said.

However, the mare went severely lame. The horse died in a barn fire, along with two other young horses. He told police he had a $200,000 policy on the mare.

He went on to tell police that his life was hard.

“I’ve been through Hell in every freakin’ way,” he said.


2. Karl Karlsen Convinced His Son, Levi, to Buy an Insurance Policy 17 Days Before His Death & Made $700,000

Seventeen days before Levi Karlsen died, his dad, Karl Karlsen, introduced him to an insurance agent and convinced him to buy an insurance policy for himself to support his daughters.

The investigation into Levi Karlson’s death began when one of Levi’s cousins contacted the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office investigator John Cleere, according to Calaveras Enterprise.

“You might want to look into it. Something’s not right with it,” Cleere recalled the cousin saying, according to his trial testimony.

Levi Karlsen was working on a truck on the Karlsen family farm when he was crushed to death in November, 2008 in rural Varick, New York.

During his interview with police, which was played at trial, Karlsen admitted he and his ex-wife, Cindy Best, spent most of the insurance money that was intended for Levi Karlsen’s daughters. Best, then Cindy Karlsen, hired a private investigator to find out how her husband was spending the insurance payout, which eventually spurred the murder case. Read more about her here.

“It’s the girls’ money, but it was given to me to give to them if they need braces (or) if they need glasses,” Karlsen told investigators.

He claimed he would give his granddaughters the money when he sold his house and farm.


3. Karl Karlsen Took Out an Insurance Policy on His Wife, Christina Karlsen, 19 Days Before She Died & Made $200,000

Karl Karlsen had taken out an insurance policy on Christina Karlsen just 19 days before she died in a fire. He collected more than $200,000 in life insurance money, according to ABC News. Just a few days after his wife’s death, he moved back to his home state of New York with his three kids, Erin Karlsen, Levi Karlsen and Kati Karlsen. Officials initially ruled the fire accidental.

Christina Karlsen’s sister-in-law, Jackie Karlsen, suspected he may have killed his wife after Levi Karlsen died, she said at his trial, according to The Union Democrat.

She said there was “discrepancy on how the fire started” and said, “Looking back on the events, it struck me very odd.”

Jackie Karlsen also remembered a phone call with Christina Karlsen when she said “she was afraid to die in a fire.”


4. Karl Karlsen & Christina Karlsen’s Young Children Were Inside the House When the Fatal Fire Was Set

Karl Karlsen and Christina Karlsen’s kids, Erin, Kati and Levi were in the house when the fire started that killed their mother. Although they were young children, his oldest daughter testified at her father’s trial, saying there were some moments she never forgot. Karlsen rescued his children from the inferno, but left his wife to die in the bathroom.

Erin DeRoche was just 6 years old when her mother died. She flew in from out of state to testify against her father, according to Calaveras Enterprise. DeRoche was the oldest daughter. It was New Years Day, 1991. She remembered earlier in the day, Karl Karlsen took his kids outside to watch him burn the Christmas tree.

“He wanted us to see how quickly a house could go,” DeRoche testified. “He doused the tree in flammable liquid and lit a match. It was gone in a few moments.”

About two days before the fire, she remembers her mom noticing a kerosene spill outside the bathroom door.

She and her siblings were taking a nap when the fire started. She recalled waking up and seeing flames through the bedroom door. She recalled her mother screaming, “Karl, get the kids!”

After rescuing the children, she said her father made no real effort to save his wife. She said he did not seem emotional or urgent.

He told them their “Mommy had gone to Heaven,” she said.


5. Karl Karlsen’s Children Erin & Levi Suspected Their Mother’s Death Was Not an Accident & Erin Said He Abused Levi

Erin DeRoche, Karl Karlsen’s oldest daughter, testified at his trial saying her dad admitted to killing her brother, Levi Karlsen. He said he’d kicked the jacks out from under the truck his son was working on, according to Calaveras Enterprise

“I told him I knew that he had killed my brother and mother,” DeRoche said. “He grinned like a Cheshire Cat and told me, ‘It has been 20 years, and they haven’t got me yet. They’re not going to.'”

She said she and Levi also suspected their dad murdered their mom.

“He broke a multi-inch cutting board over Levi’s backside. … My father basically abused my brother on multiple occasions,” DeRoche testified, saying he would beat the boy with pipes, shovels, pitchforks and cattle prods. “If there was an item close by, it was used.”

Although Erin Karlsen had longterm suspicions about her father, her younger sister, Kati Reynolds, has conflicted feelings about her father, she told ABC News. Kati Karlsen was just 4 years old when her mother died.

“I struggle personally because … he committed [these crimes] and also [I have] the lost connection of having a dad … and part of me still wants a relationship. I don’t know what will happen long term. We’re not talking right now, but you know, I don’t know long term what my plan is,” she said.

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