Testimony begins in arson murder case

A Ramona man who was killed in an fiery explosion of a house belonging to his boss, James Kurtenbach, died very quickly after receiving what a doctor described as “terminal burns” over 85 percent of his body, according to court testimony this week.

The body of Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, was found prone outside the vacant home at 16421 N. Woodson Drive on Oct. 31, 2008. Nesheiwat worked for Kurtenbach, 48, at his Stars Gas Station in Ramona. Kurtenbach is charged with murder, arson, insurance fraud and tax evasion in a 12-count complaint.

Dr. Glenn Wagner, the county’s chief medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Nesheiwat, told El Cajon Superior Court Judge Louis Hanoian he found soot in the victim’s nose, lungs and stomach.

“He took several breaths before he died in a smoked filled area,” said Wagner.

Wagner testified scald injuries to Nesheiwat’s indicated that flaming liquid drops of gasoline struck him in a blast type injury.

“All his clothing had burned away,” said Wagner, adding that only a collar, one sock and one shoe remained on the body.

Neighbors reported hearing brief screaming, with several telling sheriff’s deputies it resembled an animal.

“People don’t burn quietly,” said Wagner.

The doctor said the victim also received blunt force injury to his liver and was found 3 to 4 feet from the house.

A woman believed to be the victim’s mother wept upon hearing the description of his death. Another relative ran outside the courtroom and threw up in a trash container in the hallway during the preliminary hearing, which is expected to end Tuesday, June 2.

Two neighbors thought the explosion was an earthquake, and some neighbors’ windows were broken in what was believed to be an explosion with gasoline products. Sheriff’s Detective Robert Williamson said the blast left “a very large debris field.”

“The entire interior of the house collapsed,” said Williamson.

Wagner said the manner of death was determined to be accidental.

He said he could not say if Nesheiwat could have exploded a device or set fire to the house. But he added this: “I’d have to assume he was present in front of the fire.”

He said Nesheiwat received “second- and third-degree terminal burns.”

Williamson testified he interviewed Kurtenbach’s insurance agent and found the house had $900,000 in coverage. Williamson also said Kurtenbach contacted another insurance agent the day before the fire and added $15,000 in insurance coverage.

Kurtenbach was arrested shortly before Christmas posted $2 million bond on Jan. 31, and remains free. He has pleaded innocent to all charges, and has no prior record.

   
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