After four days of testimony, a judge on June 2 ordered Ramona businessman James Kurtenbach to stand trial for second-degree murder, arson and insurance fraud stemming from the death of one of his employees who was killed following a fire at Kurtenbach’s vacant home.
El Cajon Superior Court Judge Louis Hanoian said there was “sufficient cause” to hold Kurtenbach, 47, for trial for murder under the felony murder rule that states a death that occurs because of illegal activity can be considered a murder.
It is alleged that the victim, Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, may have started a fire in Kurtenbach’s vacant home on orders from his boss at the Stars Gas Station. Nesheiwat died quickly from burns and smoke inhalation after the explosion on Oct. 31, 2008, that destroyed the house at 16421 N. Woodson Drive in the early morning hours.
Kurtenbach was ordered to return to court on June 22 to get a trial date set. He remains free on $2 million bond. He has pleaded innocent to all charges.
His attorney, Kerry Steigerwalt, told reporters he disagrees with the judge’s conclusion on the felony murder rule and will seek a dismissal of the murder charge before another judge in two months.
He will have to wait until a transcript of the preliminary hearing is made.Steigerwalt had asked Hanoian to not hold his client to answer on murder and other charges.
Hanoian said there was ample motive shown in testimony to prove that Kurtenbach wanted his vacant house to burn for the insurance proceeds.
“He was present when the gasoline was placed there, maybe six hours earlier, maybe three days,” said the judge.
“Mr. Kurtenbach was an aider and abettor to the arson of that structure,” said Hanoian.
The judge dismissed two arson charges that were filed under different theories. One arson charge stated the house was an inhabited dwelling, which Hanoian said was not true because it was vacant. The other arson charge alleged malice, but was duplicative, and the judge said only one arson charge was needed.
Hanoian dismissed one count of filing a false insurance claim, saying the prosecutor did not enter any insurance claim into evidence.
But Hanoian also ordered Kurtenbach to stand trial on another false insurance claim count, as well as vandalism, tax evasion, misrepresentation in statements for workers’ compensation insurance, and a labor code violation.
Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said Kurtenbach was “the one who planned it” and argued he should stand trial on all counts. She put on more than 20 witnesses in the preliminary hearing that started on May 27.
Sheriff’s Detective Robert Williamson testified about his interview with Kurtenbach’s insurance agent and found that the house had $900,000 in coverage. Kurtenbach added $15,000 in insurance with another agent the day before the fire to the surprise of his regular agent, said Williamson.
Williamson said he talked with Kurtenbach, who told him that “I don’t owe that much on the house” when he was referring to unpaid property taxes. Other witnesses said he was delinquent in paying property taxes for several years.
Dr. Glenn Wagner performed the autopsy and testified he found soot in the victim’s nose, lungs, and stomach. He said death was quick from “terminal burns” and occurred after “he took several breaths...in a smoked-filled area.” Nesheiwat’s clothing was mostly burned off him and his body was found 3 feet to 4 feet from the house.
Neighbors told sheriff’s deputies they heard screaming and cries of what they thought was an injured animal just after the explosion.
Wagner testified “people don’t burn quietly.”