A judge on Aug. 19 turned down a prosecutor’s request to increase the current $2 million bail bond for Ramona businessman James Kurtenbach, who remains free while he awaits a January 2010 trial for murder, arson and insurance fraud stemming from the death of an employee.
El Cajon Superior Court Judge Herbert Exarhos said there was little change in circumstances since a previous judge set bail at $2 million and Kurtenbach has made all of his court appearances. Exarhos did order Kurtenbach to stay 100 yards away from four people who testified against him last week, and he also allowed the businessman to be searched without a warrant.
Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil presented testimony on Aug. 18 from two Ramona couples who said they felt threatened when Kurtenbach tried to collect money they owe him. But Kurtenbach’s attorney, Kerry Steigerwalt, argued that the debt collection and some of the supposed statements by Kurtenbach occurred before the Oct. 31, 2008, fire that killed Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, in Kurtenbach’s vacant home.
Kurtenbach, 48, has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, arson, insurance fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion and other felonies.
Nesheiwat was burned over 85 percent of his body and died quickly following a powerful explosion that destroyed Kurtenbach’s vacant home at 16421 N. Woodson Drive.
Kurtenbach has been monitored with a GPS device on his ankle since a bail bond agency posted bail for him on Jan. 31, according to court records. The GPS device is monitored by the bail bond agency and his whereabouts are known at all times. He is required to remain in San Diego County.
“It was unnecessary,” said Steigerwalt afterward about the bail hearing. “There was no urgency of the necessity of the hearing.”
He added that he thought the judge’s ruling was “a breath of fresh air.”
Steigerwalt told the judge that Kurtenbach has now retained a collection agency to get money owed by 80 people in Ramona who had accounts with his Stars Gas Station, which is one of nine service stations in Ramona. Steigerwalt said the delinquent amount owed by the 80 people comes to $180,000.
“Jim has an incredible, generous heart. He affords them credit on their gasoline accounts,” said Steigerwalt. “He tried informally to collect it.”
Steigerwalt said the collection agency would take 30 percent of the amount recovered as its commission. He said Kurtenbach has already won 42 small claims suits.
Steigerwalt said approximately 2,500 cars come into Kurtenbach’s service station daily.
Khalil didn’t specify how much she thought the bail should be increased, but she argued in court papers the increase was needed “to ensure the safety of the public.” She wrote that Kurtenbach’s “behavior is astounding in its blatant disregard for safety,” particularly regarding how Kurtenbach drove a vehicle and allegedly followed people.
Khalil used testimony from Bob and Denise Woodward, who own a fencing business in Ramona, to document how Kurtenbach was trying to collect money they owe him.
Woodward won a permanent restraining order from El Cajon Superior Court Judge Allan Preckel on Aug. 6 after saying Kurtenbach was at his house at 6:45 a.m. pounding on the door and demanding money.
Woodward testified Kurtenbach was following him.
“He was calling me non-stop...(with) angry messages. He would fill up my phone,” said Bob Woodward, adding that Kurtenbach had sometimes called him a dozen times a day.
“He was driving angrily...on Main Street. He was raising his voice and was very angry,” said Bob Woodward, who added that Kurtenbach once threatened to seize his vehicle.
Bob Woodward testified he was at the Valero gas station when he was confronted by Kurtenbach, who told him, “why are you buying gas elsewhere when you owe me money?”
Woodward testified Kurtenbach drove next to him on a road and “ordered me to get out of my car.”
He said he refused.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do—ram his truck into me, or start a fight,” he said.
Denise Woodward testified Kurtenbach came “very early in the morning” to her home and “pounds on the front porch door.” She said he came to her home three times in July. Aaron Brown testified he was with Bob Woodward when Kurtenbach followed him down state Route 67 and used profanity.
Kurtenbach has sued Bob Woodward in small claims court. Attorneys are not allowed to make presentations in small claims court, so Kurtenbach will represent himself. Although he is barred from being in the presence of the Woodwards, an exception is made for court appearances.
Sandra Green testified Kurtenbach showed up at her door “the day after he made bail” and demanded money. She said Kurtenbach pounded on her door “20 minutes nonstop.”
“I was just scared. He seems volatile,” said Green, who added that Kurtenbach once shook the door handles to see if her door was locked.
Her husband Kenneth testified that Kurtenbach once told him this: “I’m gonna slit your throat. I’m gonna come out and beat the crap out of you.” Kenneth Green said the remark was made in 2008 before the fire.
Kenneth Green testified he settled his financial dispute with Kurtenbach for $7,000. “I was tired of hearing from him,” he said.
John Smith, an employee with the California Board of Equalization, testified that Kurtenbach must pay $5,000 every Friday to his agency. He said a lien was placed on his gas station in February, but Kurtenbach later got current in payments and the lien was removed.
According to the prosecutor’s records, Kurtenbach’s monthly mortgage at his service station was $11,826. Before the fire, Kurtenbach had to pay $4,000 monthly on the Ramona house. He also had to pay $7,637 monthly on his Poway home. Kurtenbach also had to pay $10,000 monthly to his ex-wife, and he had to make payments on an $80,000 loan she made to him.
The prosecutor also used information from a 2006 civil suit filed against Kurtenbach by a Nevada woman. Steigerwalt said the suit was filed by someone who was “disgruntled” and was critical of the prosecutor for citing something that he said was out of date.
According to papers filed by Steigerwalt, Nesheiwat started the fire that ended with his own death. “The victim’s injuries...were self-inflicted,” wrote Steigerwalt.
Last week, Kurtenbach’s priest, the pastor at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Poway, accompanied him at the hearing, and sent a favorable letter to the judge about how Kurtenbach led a team of 20 adults to clear excessive brush around the church.
“I personally feel safe around Mr. Kurtenbach and do not believe he poses any threat to members of our community,” wrote Father Michael Froidurot.