Judge: Kurtenbach Was "the Brains of the Operation"

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCSanDiego

    An East County judge has sentenced a Ramona gas station owner to 15 years and 8 months for conspiring with an employee to burn his house down on Tuesday.

    James Kurtenbach, 49, was convicted of conspiring to commit arson, arson causing great bodily injury, insurance fraud, and vandalism in October.

    The employee, Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, was killed while setting fire to the home. Prosecutors had initially charged Kurtenbach with second degree murder, but eventually threw out the charge.

    During the sentencing, prosecutors told the judge Kurtenbach had no regard for others.

    "He had no regard for the risk that he placed Joe Nesheiwat in, for the risk that he placed the neighbors in, for the risk that he placed the community of Ramona in and for the risk that he placed our entire county in, should that fire have gotten out of control," said prosecutor Fiona Khalil.

    Kurtenbach's attorney Paul Pfingst said the prosecution was placing blame.

    "At the end of the day, this case is about an arsonist who blew himself up during the course of an arson," Pfingst said.

    During sentencing the Judge Herbert Exharos said he could not overlook the fact that Kurtenbach had shown such a callous indifference.

    "He has somebody do his bidding, he had somebody do his dirty work, and I'm absolutely convinced he was the brains of the operation," Exharos said.

    Nesheiwat died in the explosion at Kurtenbach's Mount Woodson home on Oct. 31, 2008. The county's chief medical examiner testified during a preliminary hearing that 85 percent of Nesheiwat's body was covered with burns. Only remnants of a shirt collar and a sock and shoe were left after the explosion.

    Kurtenbach, who reportedly owed more than $50,000 in property taxes, stood to collect more than $900,000 in insurance money, according to prosecutors.

    After court, Nesheiwat's mother, Terry Sellers, said Kurtenbach had gotten what he had deserved.

    "I hate him with a passion," Sellers said. "Our whole family is not the same, it will never be the same."