Murder suspect gets public defender after lawyer drops case

   Ramona businessman James Kurtenbach was appointed a new attorney Monday after his retained attorney asked to be taken off the case.

   Kurtenbach is charged in the death of his employee, Joseph Nesheiwat, who was killed when Kurtenbach’s vacant home burned down in an arson fire in 2008. A May 17 trial date is scheduled.

   Bart Sheela III, a lawyer with the Alternate Public Defender’s office, took over the case when El Cajon Superior Court Judge Herbert Exarhos appointed him after Steigerwalt bowed out. The Alternate Public Defender’s agency serves defendants in which witnesses or others have been given public defenders and there is some type of legal conflict.

   A closed hearing was held last week over Steigerwalt’s pending departure in which the public and the prosecutor were excluded. Steigerwalt asked to be relieved, and he asked for the hearing to be moved up.

   It is likely that Steigerwalt left because Kurtenbach could no longer afford to pay him. Such hearings are closed due to attorney/client privilege. Steigerwalt couldn’t be reached for comment, but he probably would not have said anything since retainment issues are confidential.

   Sheela is a longtime criminal defense attorney in San Diego and has defended numerous clients over the years who faced murder and other charges. Exarhos didn’t change the trial date Monday, but it is likely it will be delayed to give time for Sheela, who has to go through thousands of pages of hearings and evidence.

   Kurtenbach, who turns 49 on Friday, remains free on $1 million bond and he still operates the Star Gas Station in Ramona. His house at 16421 N. Woodson Drive was destroyed Oct. 31, 2008, following explosions that investigators say were likely set by gasoline.

   He has pleaded not guilty to murder, arson, filing a false insurance claim, tax evasion, and labor code violations concerning the number of employees and making false statements involving workers compensation. If he is convicted, he could face 20 years to life in prison and may be ordered to partially pay back the county for the attorney if he has any assets.

   One of the biggest cases that Sheela won was the trial of a U.S. Marine whom a jury convicted of four counts of vehicular manslaughter and not four counts of murder in a traffic accident in San Diego in the early 1980s.

   Before Steigerwalt ended his representation of Kurtenbach, he filed papers that blamed the explosion that killed Nesheiwat, 24, on the victim himself. It is alleged that Nesheiwat had been asked by Kurtenbach to burn down his vacant home. Nesheiwat suffered terminal burn injuries and was thrown or ran out of the house seconds afterward. He was found dead a few feet from the house.

   Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said it was suspicious of Kurtenbach to increase the insurance coverage of the vacant home within the year before the explosion. She said Kurtenbach increased his coverage of $680,000 to $900,000 in February 2008, and he added $15,000 more coverage the day before the fire.

   Kurtenbach and his attorney will be back in court on March 12 for a status conference. He has also waived his right to a speedy trial and lives in Poway.

   
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