Appeals court drops 8 months from Kurtenbach prison sentence
By Neal Putnam
An appeals court affirmed the arson and insurance fraud convictions for former Ramona businessman James Kurtenbach on April 12, but the three-judge panel ruled his 15-year, eight-month prison sentence should be reduced to 15 years because of a sentencing error.
Kurtenbach, 50, was convicted in 2010 for arson in the Oct. 31, 2008, blaze that destroyed his vacant house in Ramona and killed his employee, Joseph Nesheiwat, 24. The jury deadlocked on a murder charge and it was later dismissed.
Kurtenbach has been serving his sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. The 4th District Court of Appeal voted 3-0 to uphold his convictions, but instructed the trial judge to reduce the sentence without having Kurtenbach appear in court again.
El Cajon Superior Court Judge Herbert Exarhos imposed eight months consecutively for vandalism because the next door neighbor’s house was damaged in the same explosion that destroyed Kurtenbach’s house. Windows were blown out, and the damage exceeded $100,000.
The appeals court ruled that Kurtenbach was being punished twice for the same explosion. The judges cited a penal code section that “bars multiple punishment” for the same act, which in this case involved two charges, arson and vandalism.
They directed Exarhos to modify the sentence and send a certified copy of it to the prison so his term could be reduced by eight months. The opinion was written by Justice Joan Irion, and Justices Alex McDonald and Judith Haller concurred.
Kurtenbach’s trial lawyer, Paul Pfingst, persuaded some jurors that Kurtenbach was not guilty of murder because it was the victim who poured gasoline all over the house. Nesheiwat apparently lit a match and was killed almost instantly.
His body was found dead 3 to 4 feet from the burning house and most of his clothing was burned off. Neighbors testified they heard what sounded like either a scream or a wild animal.
Kurtenbach paid for his employee’s funeral. Nesheiwat had worked at the Stars gasoline station for many years. His brother testified with a grant of immunity and said he was waiting for his brother to call him after the place was set on fire so he could get a ride home, but his brother never called.
A deputy sheriff alerted Kurtenbach, who lived in Poway, about the fire, and the prosecutor showed a text that Kurtenbach sent to Nesheiwat a few minutes after learning of the fire.
The appeals court rejected the defense arguments to lower the sentence further and overturn some of the convictions.
The opinion quoted Exarhos as saying Kurtenbach “had somebody do his dirty work. I’m absolutely convinced that he was the brains of the operation.”
- Kurtenbach to return to court on June 29
- Kurtenbach preliminary hearing set for March 12
- Judge delays Kurtenbach trial
- Murder suspect gets public defender after lawyer drops case
- New charge filed against Kurtenbach
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