Murder charge dropped against Ramona gas station owner - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Murder charge dropped against Ramona gas station owner

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James Kurtenbach James Kurtenbach

EL CAJON (CNS) - Prosecutors Wednesday dismissed a murder charge against a Ramona gas station owner convicted of orchestrating a fire at his vacant Mount Woodson home that killed a trusted employee.

A jury earlier this month found James Kurtenbach, 49, guilty of conspiracy to commit arson, arson causing great bodily injury, failing to disclose an event affecting an insurance claim and vandalism. Jurors also found true allegations that the defendant used a device to accelerate the fire and committed the arson for monetary gain.

A mistrial was declared on the second-degree murder charge stemming from the death of Joseph Nesheiwat in the Oct. 31, 2008, fire.

Seven jurors voted to convict Kurtenbach, and five voted for acquittal, the jury foreperson told Judge Herbert Exarhos.

Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil told the judge Wednesday that prosecutors will not proceed with a retrial on the murder charge against Kurtenbach.

Separate charges of workers' compensation, insurance and tax fraud also will be dismissed, Khalil said, but the judge can consider those charges at the time of sentencing, set for Dec. 8.

The defendant faces more than 16 years in prison, according to the prosecutor.

Khalil said Kurtenbach sent the victim to the Mount Woodson home to start the fire after they had been there days earlier to douse the place with gasoline.

Early on Oct. 31, 2008, Kurtenbach sent Nesheiwat to set the house on fire, causing an 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 Kurtenbach's financial woes were building when he decided to burn the Mount Woodson house, which he twice tried to sell after getting divorced, remarried and buying another house in Poway.

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

Kurtenbach settled a lawsuit in Nebraska for $200,000 and increased his insurance coverage on the Mount Woodson house just before the fire, Khalil.

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

Kurtenbach recruited Nesheiwat and his brother, John, to burn the house, telling them the job would be easy, Khalil said, adding that he tried get his son, Justin Kurtenbach to do it. The younger Kurtenbach told his father he wouldn't participate, 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 house.

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.

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

Kurtenbach paid for the funeral and "told me to keep my mouth shut," the brother 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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