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Prosecutor: Man sent employee to his death by having him set fire to home

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EL CAJON (CNS) - A Ramona gas station owner sent a trusted employee to his death by having the victim set fire to his Mount Woodson home for insurance purposes, a prosecutor said Wednesday, but a defense attorney said his client had no motive to burn down the house.

James Kurtenbach, 49, is charged with second-degree murder and other charges in the Oct. 31, 2008, fire and explosion that killed 24-year-old Joseph Nesheiwat.

The victim died of smoke inhalation and second- and third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body, Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said in her opening statement. The victim's body was found just outside the back of the 3,500-square-foot home, which had an estimated replacement value of $915,000, she said.

"He (Nesheiwat) was sent there by this defendant, James Kurtenbach," the prosecutor told the jury. "He (Kurtenbach) caused the death of Joseph Nesheiwat."

Khalil said Kurtenbach tried twice to sell the Mount Woodson home after getting divorced and remarried and buying another house in Poway.

She told jurors that the defendant was "stuck with a house he didn't want." Kurtenbach owed more than $39,000 on the Mount Woodson home and $16,000 on his Poway residence at the time of the deadly fire, the prosecutor said.

She said the defendant settled a lawsuit for $200,000 and increased his insurance coverage on the burned-down residence just before the fire.

Khalil said Kurtenbach not only recruited Joseph Nesheiwat, but also his brother, John Nesheiwat, to drive the victim to the scene the night of the blaze.

"The defendant told the brothers it would be easy," the prosecutor told the jury.

Investigators combing through the rubble of the burned home found the "unmistakable" smell of gasoline in the carpet padding and in the debris, Khalil said.

The prosecutor said Kurtenbach frequently loaned Joseph Nesheiwat money and had recently fronted him more than $10,000 to help the victim get custody of his child.

Khalil said the victim had worked at Kurtenbach's gas station since graduating from high school and was the defendant's "go-to guy" when something needed to get done.

Kurtenbach had previously asked his son and the victim to burn down the Mount Woodson home, but Justin Kurtenbach told his father he wouldn't be a part of such a plan, Khalil told the jury.

John Nesheiwat will testify under a grant of immunity that he initially lied to investigators about what happened, but ultimately said he was recruited by the defendant to drive his brother to the home that was burned, Khalil told the jury.

The prosecutor said the defendant told John Nesheiwat to "keep his mouth shut" after the blaze.

Before the fatal fire, witnesses saw Kurtenbach filling a number of five-gallon containers with gas, the prosecutor said. When questioned, the defendant said he was preparing the home to be rented, according to Khalil.

Two days after the blaze, Kurtenbach gave John Nesheiwat $2,000 and later gave him a $20,000 check for burial expenses and $5,000 for utilities, Khalil said.

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst, in his opening statement, said John Nesheiwat's testimony was not to be believed.

"No one was murdered in this case," Pfingst told the jury. "There was no murder. Nobody took any steps to kill anyone."

Pfingst said there was animosity among Kurtenbach's family members after his divorce and new marriage and Justin Kurtenbach even said he hated his father.

The attorney said John Nesheiwat changed his story a number of times in order to save himself.

"Nothing John said can be believed," Pfingst told the jury.

John Nesheiwat told a number of stories before telling detectives that Kurtenbach and his brother spread gas around the Mount Woodson home about a week before the fire, Pfingst told the jury.

John Nesheiwat said Kurtenbach promised to give him $25,000 and a motorcycle for his participation in the arson plot, Pfingst said.

Even though John Nesheiwat confessed to being paid to commit arson, prosecutors rewarded him by granting his immunity for his testimony, the defense attorney said.

"My client wasn't even there," Pfingst said.

He said Kurtenbach was not "upside down" on the Mount Woodson home, but conceded his client hadn't paid his property taxes.

Kurtenbach switched insurance companies and raised the amount of insurance on the house when his former company wouldn't insure the home after the devastating 2007 Witch Creek wildfire, Pfingst said.

"By burning down the house, my client lost money," the defense attorney said. "The motive doesn't make any sense. There never was a motive to burn down the house."

Kurtenbach's trial is expected to take at least four weeks in the courtroom of El Cajon Judge Herbert Exarhos.

Kurtenbach faces 15 years to life if convicted of murder and an additional six years and four months in prison if found guilty of arson, conspiracy to commit arson, presenting a false insurance claim, concealing an event regarding a claim and vandalism, Khalil said.

A separate trial on charges of workers' compensation fraud and tax fraud will be held later, according to the prosecutor.

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