WATERLOO, N.Y. (AP) — The more Cindy Karlsen learned about her husband, Karl, the more suspicious she became.
There was the $700,000 life insurance payout he received after the 2008 death of his grown son, who was crushed when the pickup truck he was working under suddenly slipped off its jack. There was the $200,000 life insurance payout he received when his first wife died in a house fire nearly two decades earlier. And finally for Cindy Karlsen, there was the $1.2 million policy that her husband had now taken out on her life.
That's what prompted her to work with police, leading to second-degree murder and insurance fraud charges against Karl Karlsen in the death of his 23-year-old son, Levi. And New York and California authorities are now taking a new look at the circumstances of the 1991 death of his former wife, Christina Karlsen.
Cindy Karlsen's cooperation evolved from an unnerving revelation a year before she came forward. She learned Karlsen had invested some of the insurance money from his son's death into a life insurance policy on her.
"I would be worth $1.2 million dead to Karl," she testified during a pretrial proceeding.
After speaking to sheriff's investigators last year, she agreed to wear a wire and sit down with her husband in a crowded restaurant in New York's picturesque Finger Lakes region in hopes of getting him to confirm her suspicions about the death of his son.
"I led him to believe our marriage had a chance if he came clean," Cindy Karlsen said in a recent hearing, the husband she is now in the process of divorcing sitting in prison orange just a few feet away. "I told him he could trust me."
The wire picked up Karl Karlsen telling Cindy how he'd removed his truck's front tires and raised it on a single jack before asking Levi to repair the brake and transmission lines.
"It was so wobbly," Karlsen said, according to a recording of the conversation, heard against the backdrop of restaurant noise, played recently in court.
Tell the truth, Cindy Karlsen implored.
"It was never meant to be," he said. "It was never planned from Day One to ever go that way."
A week later, Karlsen would spend 9 1/2 hours being interrogated by police. Seventy-five times Karlsen denied killing his son, his lawyer, Lawrence Kasperek, said. Eventually, he signed a statement acknowledging he had knocked the truck off its jack and walked away.
In the videotaped interview, Karlsen explained he would never intentionally have caused the truck to fall. After years of taking pain medication for various ailments, his mind was fuzzy, he told detectives. "In some ways, it's a blank."
Karlsen was immediately charged. The 52-year-old has pleaded not guilty to the second-degree murder charge in advance of his trial scheduled for next month. If convicted, he could get up to life behind bars.
Karlsen's attorney is fighting to keep the statement and the restaurant conversation with Cindy Karlsen out of trial. District Attorney Barry Porsch calls them crucial to the case.
In an interview with The Post-Standard of Syracuse a month after his arrest, Karlsen said his ex-wife's death, his son's death and even a 2002 fire at his Seneca County farm that killed his Belgian draft horses, for which he collected $80,000 in insurance money, were all just coincidences.
But Art Alexander, Christina Karlsen's father, told The Associated Press from his Murphys, Calif., home that he didn't think bad luck had anything to do with it.
"I think it's a very greedy man with a very cold heart," said Alexander, who has long suspected that his son-in-law and former business partner was responsible for his 30-year-old daughter's death.
Christina, Alexander was told, was trapped in the bathroom after spilled kerosene was ignited by a faulty electric light. Although Karl Karlsen is credited with getting Levi and their other two children out safely, Christina was unable to escape through the bathroom window because Karlsen had boarded it up from the outside days before, saying it was broken.
"Seventeen nails were in that board," Alexander, 73, recalls.
The insurance policy, he said, had been taken out just before Christmas. The fire happened New Year's Day. Karlsen's abrupt move to New York and away from scrutiny further stoked the father's suspicions.
Even so, Alexander was surprised to hear of Karlsen's arrest in his son's death, and relieved to learn the 1991 fire was getting a second look.
"I thought they would never catch up with him."