A Ramona businessman accused of arranging for his house to be burned down by an employee, who died in an explosion at the residence, pleaded not guilty today to second-degree murder and other charges.
James A. Kurtenbach, 48, is accused of sending 24-year-old Joseph Nesheiwat with gasoline to burn down his nearly 3,500-square-foot home on Mount Woodson Drive so he could collect more than $900,000 in insurance proceeds.
Kurtenbach, who owned a gas station in Ramona, is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 12 at the El Cajon Courthouse. A status conference is scheduled for Sept. 17.
He faces 15 years to life in prison if convicted on the murder charge, and could face another 18 years behind bars if found guilty of conspiracy to commit arson with the intent to defraud, vandalism, tax evasion, failure to withhold payroll taxes and failure to obtain workers' compensation insurance.
Nesheiwat, who worked for Kurtenbach at the gas station, was found just outside the Mount Woodson home last Oct. 31, dead of burns over 85 percent of his body and blast injuries.
His brother testified that he saw the defendant, who lives in Poway with his second wife, put about $150 worth of gasoline into five-gallon tanks two days before the blaze destroyed the home.
Witnesses testified the force of the blast that destroyed the home was so powerful that debris was found in a nearby street. The house was gutted by the flames, leaving only some outside walls standing.
The prosecution contends Kurtenbach had the house burned down because he was in financial trouble. Witnesses testified at a hearing a month ago that the defendant made occasional comments about burning down the residence.
During the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, which burned part of Mount Woodson, Kurtenbach said it would be nice if flames would destroy the home, which he rented to tenants, according to testimony.
David Baker, the assistant manager of the Financial Division of the San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector's Office, testified that Kurtenbach was overdue on $39,543.21 in property taxes dating back to 2006. A bill due Dec. 10 would have added another $6,240, he said.
Kurtenbach was also more than $16,000 in arrears on property taxes on his primary residence in Poway, and faced an upcoming bill of another $16,000, Baker said.
The Mount Woodson home was listed for sale twice, once in 2006 and another time in 2007, but failed to sell either time.
The defendant also owed around $3 million in unpaid sales taxes generated by the gas station, according to the state Board of Equalization.
Kurtenbach, who is free on bond, has been described as close to the victim, who was in the wedding of the defendant's son Justin.
Adam Shacknai is on the stand Monday, as testimony continues in the wrongful death lawsuit of Rebecca Zahau.
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