Mastermind in fatal arson fire sentenced to prison

EL CAJON (CNS) – A Ramona gas station owner who orchestrated a fire at his vacant Mount Woodson home that killed a trusted employee was sentenced Tuesday to nearly 16 years in prison.

“He had somebody do his bidding,” said Judge Herbert Exarhos, who handed down the sentence of 15 years and eight months for James Kurtenbach.

“He had someone do his dirty work,” the judge said. “Basically he created a bomb.”

Kurtenbach, 49, was found guilty in October of conspiracy to commit arson, arson causing great bodily injury, failing to disclose an event affecting an insurance claim and vandalism.

Jurors also found true allegations that the defendant used a device to accelerate the fire and committed the arson for monetary gain.

But a mistrial was declared on a second-degree murder charge stemming from the death of Joseph Nesheiwat in the Oct. 31, 2008, fire. Prosecutor Fiona Khalil later dismissed that count and separate charges of workers' compensation, insurance and tax fraud.

Nesheiwat's mother, Terry Sellers, said she was pleased with the sentence, although she did not have kind words for Kurtenbach, who was like a father to her son and another son, John.

“I hate him with a passion. I really do,” Sellers told reporters. “I can't forgive him yet. It's eating me alive. Our whole family is not the same and will never be the same. I wish every mother would have a son like Joe.”

Sellers said the victim had worked for Kurtenbach since the age of 16.

“He (Kurtenbach) wrapped him around his finger,” the mother said. “Whatever Jim said Joe did, and the last thing Jim asked him took his life away.”

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst argued unsuccessfully for a sentence of between five and 10 years behind bars, saying Nesheiwat was in on the plan to blow the house up and ended up dying when he set the blaze.

Pfingst said there was no evidence that Kurtenbach pressured Joseph Nesheiwat and his brother to participate in the conspiracy to burn down the home, but Exarhos disagreed.

“He's (Kurtenbach) the brains behind the operation, is he not?” the judge asked.

Pfingst said the case will be appealed.

“What happens when an arsonist blows himself up during the course of an arson? Who bears responsibility for that?” Pfingst asked aloud after the sentence. “We claim that it is the arsonist, and not his accomplices. The court felt otherwise.”

Pfingst said Kurtenbach and the victim were good friends.

“To suggest that he (Kurtenbach) is not remorseful by the loss of his good friend, is, I think, unfair,” Pfingst said. “Especially since he paid all of the funeral expenses and all of the other expenses to make sure that he (Nesheiwat) received a funeral that the Nesheiwat family was unable to afford.”

Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil said she was pleased with the sentence, which was the maximum Kurtenbach could have gotten under the law.

“I think that, as a community, it sends the right message,” Khalil said. “If you're going to plan an arson, somebody dies, and you put the community at risk, you're facing a very severe prison sentence.”

Khalil said Kurtenbach was in San Diego County during the region's devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007.

“Obviously he lived through it,” the prosecutor said. “He saw the devastation it caused to our community. And yet, at the height of the fire season, he went ahead and planned an arson of a home, using gasoline which he knew when it was ignited would cause an explosion, would cause great bodily injury and serious death, would cause an enormous fire. And that's exactly what happened here.”

John Nesheiwat was given immunity and testified for the prosecution.

Khalil said Kurtenbach sent the victim to the Mount Woodson home to start the fire after they had been there days earlier to douse the place with gasoline.

Early on Oct. 31, 2008, Kurtenbach sent Nesheiwat to set the house on fire, causing an explosion that left him with second- and third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body, Khalil said.

Nesheiwat's body was found just outside of the home.

The fire also did more than $126,000 damage to a neighboring home.

Khalil said Kurtenbach's financial woes were building when he decided to burn the Mount Woodson house, which he twice tried to sell after getting divorced, remarried and buying another house in Poway.

He owed more than $39,000 in taxes on the property and $16,000 in taxes on his Poway home at the time of the fire, the prosecutor said.

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