Jury to get deadly arson-for-hire case Thursday - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Jury to get deadly arson-for-hire case Thursday

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EL CAJON (CNS) - Jury deliberations will get under way Thursday in the trial of a Ramona gas station owner accused of sending a trusted employee to his death by having him set fire to a Mount Woodson home the defendant didn't want.

James Kurtenbach, 49, is charged with second-degree murder and other counts in the Oct. 31, 2008, death of Joseph Nesheiwat.

In her closing argument Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said Kurtenbach went to the vacant home with the victim days before the fire, spreading gasoline throughout the 3,500-square-foot structure.

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 31, 2008, Kurtenbach sent the 24-year-old Nesheiwat back into the home to ignite the gas vapors, causing a huge explosion that left the victim with second- and third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body.

Nesheiwat's body was found just outside of the Mount Woodson home.

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

Kurtenbach owed more than $39,000 in taxes on the Mount Woodson home and $16,000 in property taxes on his Poway residence at the time of the deadly fire, the prosecutor said.

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

Khalil said the financial burdens were adding up for Kurtenbach when he decided to burn down the Mount Woodson residence.

Kurtenbach came up with a number of staged reasons for the blaze and told others that he wished the Witch Creek wildfire in 2007 would have burned his house down, Khalil said.

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

Kurtenbach told the brothers that the job would be easy, the prosecutor told the jury.

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.

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 testified that Kurtenbach promised him and his brother money and motorcycles if they torched the Mount Woodson home.

The witness said he was supposed to drive his brother to the house, let him out, then drive a short distance away and await his return. He said he expected his sibling to simply light some papers on fire and come running out.

Instead, as he waited in his car, he heard an explosion that shook his Nissan sedan.

The blast damaged a neighboring house and sent debris into the street.

The Kurtenbach house, which had an estimated replacement value of $915,000, was destroyed.

"I thought he was dead," Nesheiwat testified, referring to his brother. "From what I heard and what I saw, there was no way humanly possible that he could survive."

He said he tried in vain to reach his brother by cell phone before driving home and praying over rosary beads in his driveway.

Kurtenbach called later to tell him of his brother's death, he said.

Kurtenbach paid for the funeral and "told me to keep my mouth shut," John Nesheiwat said.

He testified he initially lied to investigators, but got sick of not telling the truth and fingered Kurtenbach. He was given immunity from prosecution for his role in the arson in exchange for his testimony.

Khalil said Kurtenbach paid for the funeral because he felt guilty for causing Joseph Nesheiwat's death.

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst told jurors in his closing argument that John Nesheiwat was a pathological liar.

Pfingst said his client was not behind on house payments, and even paid $1.1 million as a down-payment on his Poway home in 2006. Pfingst said Kurtenbach was prepaying the mortgage on his Poway residence and was not in financial trouble.

The insurance policy increased, he said, because Kurtenbach changed carriers after the Witch Creek Fire, which burned near the property a year earlier, the lawyer said.

Kurtenbach faces 21 years and four months in state prison if convicted of second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit arson and arson, arson causing great bodily injury, concealing an event affecting an insurance claim and vandalism.

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