Skip to main content

Karl Karlsen killed his family for the insurance money

Karl Karlsen
Image: Karl Karlsen | The Killer Interview with Piers Morgan

The Killer Interview with Piers Morgan sees the broadcaster and journalist sit down with eight notorious convicted murderers. In a close-quarters, one-hour interview, this is the killer’s chance to give their side of the story.

In an episode, Piers spoke to Karl Karlsen about the crimes that landed him behind bars. The Killer Interview with Piers Morgan is available on demand to Sky and Virgin customers as well as streaming on Crime + Investigation Play.

He murdered his wife, then – years later – his own son. This is the story of Karl Karlsen, whose meticulous targeting of his own family makes him one of the most shocking killers in modern American history.

A death on New Year’s Day

It was on 1st January 1991 that firefighters rushed to a remote, rural property that was ablaze in the community of Murphys, California. The homeowner, a sheet metal worker named Karl Karlsen, told them he’d managed to get his three young kids out of the house, but his wife, Christina, was still trapped in the inferno. She never made it to safety.

Investigators later ascertained that the fire had started just outside the bathroom, while Christina had been taking a bath. Strangely, the bathroom window was boarded up, and firefighters reported smelling the distinctive odour of kerosene. Karlsen explained these facts away by saying the windowpane had been broken for a while, and that he’d accidentally spilled some kerosene on the carpet a few days before while using the fuel to heat the house.

Another red flag was the fact that Karlsen had taken out a life insurance policy on Christina just weeks before the fire, earning him more than $200,000. Days after the tragedy, Karlsen upped and left the area with his children, Levi, Erin and Kati. He was apparently unfazed about missing the funeral of his late wife, whom he casually referred to as a ‘crispy critter’.

Despite the concerns of an investigator for the California Department of Forestry, who felt it may not have been accidental, there was no tangible evidence that Karlsen had been responsible for the blaze. He was free to get on with his life and the following year he was already married to a new woman, Cindy.

A second tragic ‘accident’

The family settled on a farm in Varick, New York, where Levi, Erin and Kati grew up harbouring suspicions about the real cause of the fire, even openly accusing their father of being an arsonist.

The atmosphere in the household was febrile and often violent, with Karlsen lashing out at his children, particularly his son, Levi. Erin later said in a media interview, ‘Levi would get beat with anything that my father had within reach. His fists, pipes, shovels, pitchforks, belts, electric cattle prods. You name it, it was used as a weapon against my brother.’

Then, in 2008, Karlsen asked Levi – now a young man with kids of his own – to come back to the farm to help fix a broken truck. The vehicle was jacked up so that Levi could get underneath and carry out the work while Karlsen and Cindy were away at a funeral.

They returned to a horrible sight. The jack had apparently slipped, causing the truck to collapse onto Levi, crushing him to death. It was another horrendous tragedy for the family, but also another windfall for Karlsen, who had convinced Levi to take out a mammoth $700,000 insurance policy just over a fortnight before his death.

His family later recounted how Karlsen embarked on a spending spree, buying brand new farm equipment and even starting a new business raising ducks for sale to high-end New York restaurants.

The truth emerges

Events finally began to turn against Karlsen in 2012, when his marriage to Cindy was rapidly falling apart and she was growing increasingly suspicious about what happened to Levi. She even started fearing for her own life and hired a private investigator to delve into her estranged husband’s activities.

She was shocked to find there was an insurance policy on her too, and that she ‘would be worth $1.2 million to Karl if [she] was dead’. She confided her concerns to her cousin, saying, ‘I think Karl might have killed Levi. I'm not sure, but maybe he killed Christina. I'm scared, but I can’t go to law enforcement until we get enough evidence.’

Her cousin had no such qualms about contacting the authorities and quickly notified the sheriff’s office. They then spoke to Cindy, persuading her to talk to Karlsen about the deaths while secretly wearing a wire.

Although Karlsen didn’t outright confess, he flippantly admitted to ‘taking advantage of the situation’ – meaning the death of his only son. His behaviour was enough to prompt a formal investigation, but he persisted in claiming Levi’s death was an accident.

Karlsen eventually pleaded guilty to his murder in 2013. The Levi case prompted detectives to re-open the investigation into the fire that claimed Christina’s life, and he was finally found guilty of that crime in 2020.

Disturbing as Karlsen’s activities were, one of the most ominous aspects was uncovered during the investigation into Levi’s death: namely, that he had taken out $350,000 insurance policies on Levi’s young children, naming himself as the sole beneficiary. As their mother said on finding out, ‘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.’

Karlsen’s ability to murder his own wife and child in such a methodical way, simply for insurance money, struck even the most hardened investigators as cold beyond compare. ‘He is a person who can kill without emotion,’ one former district attorney later noted. ‘To kill your own son and then not have any remorse, that’s not human.’