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Man convicted of arson for having employee torch home; jury hangs on murder charge

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EL CAJON (CNS) - A Ramona gas station owner was convicted Tuesday of arson and other charges for having an employee set fire to a Mount Woodson home, but jurors could not reach a verdict on a second-degree murder charge stemming from the worker's death in the blaze.

James Kurtenbach, 49, was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson, arson causing great bodily injury, failing to disclose an event affecting an insurance claim and vandalism. But a mistrial was declared on the second-degree murder charge stemming from the death of Joseph Nesheiwat in the Oct. 31, 2008, fire.

Prosecutors are expected to decide next week whether they will retry him on the murder count.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 20, with sentencing tentatively set for Dec. 8. Kurtenbach faces up to 12 years and eight months in prison for the counts he was convicted of today.

Kurtenbach, who had been free on $2 million bail, was taken into custody after the jury's verdicts were read.

In her closing argument last Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said Kurtenbach went to the vacant home with the 24-year-old 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 Nesheiwat back into the home to ignite the gas vapors, causing a huge explosion that left him with second- and third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body, Khalil said.

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

Khalil said the financial burdens were adding up for Kurtenbach when he decided to burn down the Mount Woodson residence, which he had twice tried to sell after getting divorced, remarried and buying another house in Poway.

He 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.

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, telling them the job would be easy.

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

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 brother 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.

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst said in his closing argument that Joseph Nesheiwat committed the arson out of misguided loyalty to Kurtenbach and caused his own death, and that his brother was a pathological liar.

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

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






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