James Anthony Kurtenbach increased the insurance on his Ramona house by $220,000 in February and added another $15,000 in coverage the day before an explosion destroyed his vacant house and killed an employee who worked at his gas station, a prosecutor told a judge on Monday.
Kurtenbach, 47, the owner of Stars, a service station in Ramona where Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, worked, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, arson, insurance fraud, and eight other charges in El Cajon Superior Court. He is accused of committing arson for financial gain in the Oct. 31 fire that killed Nesheiwat at 16421 N. Woodson Drive.
Bail was set at $2 million for Kurtenbach, of Poway, by Judge Lantz Lewis, who ordered that he return to court on Dec. 30 for a bail review. Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil originally asked that no bail be set for Kurtenbach, but, when the judge said he was entitled to bail, she recommended bail be set at $3.5 million.
The prosecutor said Kurtenbach was informed of the fire at 3:40 a.m. and told there was a body on the premises before the victim had been identified. Khalil told the judge Kurtenbach made two suspicious text messages to Nesheiwat 12 to 15 minutes later.
“R U There,” was the second text message sent to Nesheiwat, said Khalil.
“It’s extremely unusual for the defendant to be contacting the victim at that time of day,” said the prosecutor. “It has been determined the fire was set with gasoline products.”
Khalil said the house had been insured for $680,000, and Kurtenbach increased coverage to $900,000 in February. That was “a significant jump,” she said. Kurtenbach got a new insurance agent within the same firm the day before the fire and added $15,000 worth of coverage, she said.
“The investigation reveals that the defendant had a plan set for quite a significant period of time,” said Khalil.
Kurtenbach’s attorney, Earll Pott, asked that bail be set at $300,000, and said his client has no prior record. He said, “$3.5 million bail is completely out of line.”
“He has substantial ties to this community, a family, and is a pillar to the business community in Ramona,” said Pott. “He has hundreds of customers, many of whom count as his friends.”
“He has eight employees who depend on him,” said Pott. “There is significant concern that that gas station will suffer and perhaps even fail if Mr. Kurtenbach is not permitted an opportunity for reasonable bail.”
“At best, it was a terrible accident. At worst case, it’s an arson that went wrong without Mr. Kurtenbach being involved,” Pott told the judge.
Pott said Kurtenbach loved the victim “like his own son.”
Kurtenbach’s wife stood up in the audience after Pott asked her to stand to show her support. Pott said she is seven months pregnant.
Pott offered the judge Kurtenbach’s passport.
The prosecutor told the judge she feared Kurtenbach was “liquidating his assets” so he could flee if be posted bond. “He can leave the country because his wife is a Canadian citizen,” said Khalil. “He does pose a flight risk.”
Lewis set bail at $2 million, citing the “seriousness of the charges.”
If convicted, Kurtenbach faces a maximum sentence of 31-years-to-life in state prison, according to the prosecutor.
Kurtenbach is also charged with two counts of failing to withhold payroll taxes from his employees, and one misdemeanor charge of failure to obtain workers’ compensation for his employees.
The family of Nesheiwat, of Ramona, attended the hearing.
A preliminary hearing date was not set because of uncertainty whether Pott will be retained to defend him. Pott told the judge he was making a special appearance for the arraignment. Lewis said the Dec. 30 hearing will also be a status conference about who his attorney will be.
Kurtenbach remains in the George Bailey Detention Facility.