Evidence mounts in arson, murder
A Ramona businessman testified Monday he saw James Kurtenbach filling up six 5-gallon fuel cans with gasoline in the bed of his truck on the same day that Kurtenbach’s vacant home in Ramona was torched and one of his employees was killed.
Stephen Norman, who owns the Ramona Automotive business on Main Street, testified in Kurtenbach’s preliminary hearing, which began May 27 and was to conclude this week in El Cajon Superior Court.
Kurtenbach, 47, is accused of arson, insurance fraud and murder stemming from the Oct. 31, 2008, death of employee Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, who died of what a doctor described as “terminal burns” over 85 percent of his body. Nesheiwat may have been thrown from the home during an explosion that destroyed the house at 16421 N. Woodson Drive.
Norman told Judge Louis Hanoian he was walking to an auto parts store to find something for a customer when he walked by the Stars Gas Station and saw Kurtenbach, the station’s owner, with six 5-gallon fuel containers.
“He was filling up with gasoline in the bed of his truck,” said Norman.
Norman said he recalled making a quip to Kurtenbach, whom he said replied that he had so many of these fuel containers that he had to get rid of them. Norman said he didn’t think anything of it until a month after the fire, and wondered if it was related.
“It’s not my place to judge,” said Norman, but added “I have to tell somebody” about what he saw.
“There were rumors and speculation. Ramona’s still a small town,” said Norman.
Norman said he remembered seeing the victim at the station that day and they exchanged quips.
“The way he (Kurtenbach) runs his business was not ordinary,” said Norman, who was not asked to explain what he meant.
Justin Kurtenbach, the defendant’s son, was called as a witness by the prosecutor and asked if he knew of any plans of his father to burn down the vacant house. Justin Kurtenbach said he heard his father mention burning down the house, but thought he was joking. He said he never took the comment seriously.
Lynn Hinton testified Monday she talked to Justin Kurtenbach, and he told her his father asked him to torch the house. Hinton told the prosecutor the son told her he refused to do it.
Terri Kurtenbach, who was married to the defendant for 24 years before they divorced in 2005, was asked by the prosecutor if she heard that her son was asked to burn the house down. She said she recalled Justin mentioning the comment, but that it was only a joke.
Kurtenbach is also charged with tax evasion, making false statements regarding his employees for workers compensation insurance, a labor code violation that says he failed to pay the proper amount of workers compensation insurance, and not paying the proper amount for unemployment insurance.
Among the three insurance fraud charges are accusations that he made fraudulent claims.
Jason Wallace, an auditor for the state’s Employment Development Department, testified May 28 he completed an audit of the service station’s records in January and concluded that Kurtenbach had “unreported workers” who were apparently paid cash and not listed in records. Wallace said it would be fraud to pay workers in cash to avoid paying disability or workers compensation insurance.
Wallace read a list of 10 names of workers whose names were not listed in the business’ records. On cross examination, Kurtenbach’s attorney, Kerry Steigerwalt, asked Wallace if he knew whether any of those workers were employees whom Kurtenbach had fired. Wallace said he didn’t know if they were terminated, but said any income above $100 must be reported.
Wallace read the name of Mark Curry as someone who worked for Kurtenbach. This was verified by Steigerwalt after a reporter asked him if he was the same man who was convicted of a drug charge. Steigerwalt said Curry, 23, was fired by Kurtenbach for some type of involvement with drugs.
Curry pleaded guilty to possession of heroin for sale, and was sentenced Feb. 11 to 10 days of public service under terms of three years probation. Curry entered a residential drug treatment program and made progress in his drug problem, according to a letter written to an El Cajon Superior Court judge.
David Baker, who works for the county treasurer’s office, testified Monday that Kurtenbach owed back property taxes on both his Poway home and the one that burned. He said Kurtenbach’s balance owed on Oct. 31 was $15,914.75 for the Ramona house and $16,396.65 for the Poway house.
Dr. Glenn Wagner, the county’s chief medical examiner who performed the victim’s autopsy, testified he found soot in Nesheiwat’s nose, lungs, and stomach.
“He took several breaths before he died in a smoked-filled area,” said Wagner.
Wagner testified scald injuries to Nesheiwat indicated that flaming liquid drops of gasoline struck him in a blast-type injury.
“All his clothing had burned away,” said Wagner, adding that only a collar, one sock and one shoe remained on the body.
Neighbors reported hearing brief screaming, with several telling sheriff’s deputies it resembled an animal.
“People don’t burn quietly,” said Wagner.
The doctor said the victim also received blunt force injury to his liver, and was found 3 feet to 4 feet from the house.
A woman believed to be the victim’s mother wept upon hearing the description of his death. Another relative ran outside the courtroom and vomited into a trash container in the hallway.
Two neighbors thought the explosion was an earthquake, and some neighbors’ windows were broken in what was believed to be an explosion with gasoline products.
Sheriff’s Detective Robert Williamson said the blast left “a very large debris field.”
“The entire interior of the house collapsed,” said Williamson.
Wagner said the manner of death was determined to be accidental.
He said he could not say if Nesheiwat could have exploded a device or set fire to the house. But he added: “I’d have to assume he was present in front of the fire.”
He said Nesheiwat received “second and third degree terminal burns.”
Williamson testified he interviewed Kurtenbach’s insurance agent and found the house had $900,000 in coverage. Williamson also said Kurtenbach contacted another insurance agent the day before the fire and added $15,000 in insurance coverage.
Edward Mayer, one of Kurtenbach’s current employees, testified Monday he relieved Joe Nesheiwat from his shift at 11 p.m. on Oct. 31. He said there was a young man with Nesheiwat that night, but he didn’t know who he was. He recalled seeing Nesheiwat wearing black gloves that night.
Mayer testified he was on duty in the early morning hours and encountered a frantic deputy sheriff who asked him how to contact Kurtenbach because of something that occurred at his house that night.
Kurtenbach was arrested shortly before Christmas. He posted $2 million bond on Jan. 31, and he remains free. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and has no prior record.
- Testimony begins in arson murder case
- Kurtenbach pleads not guilty to second-degree murder in house explosion
- Arson suspected in house explosion
- New charge filed against Kurtenbach
- Arson investigation leads to arrest of Stars gas station owner
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