Judge denies bail increase for Kurtenbach

   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.

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