EL CAJON (CNS) - A Ramona gas station owner should be convicted of murder for sending a trusted employee to his death by having him set fire to a Mount Woodson home the defendant wanted to get rid of, a prosecutor told a jury Wednesday.
In her closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said James 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 24-year-old Joseph 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, 49, tried twice to sell the house -- in 2006 and 2007 -- after getting divorced and remarried and buying another house in Poway.
"Mr. Kurtenbach, the defendant, cannot get rid of that house," the prosecutor said. "He's stuck with it."
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 burned-down 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.
After the deadly fire, Kurtenbach told the mother of Nesheiwat's baby that "I didn't do it for the money," according to Khalil.
"The defendant absolutely did it for the money," the prosecutor told the jury.
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.
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 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.
"He's the one who masterminded this," the prosecutor said of the defendant.
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.
"Where is the (financial) distress?" Pfingst asked.
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.
Jury deliberations will begin on Thursday.
A separate trial on charges of workers' compensation fraud and tax fraud will be held later, according to the prosecutor.