Son Testifies Against Dad In Murder/Arson Case

James Kurtenbach faces multiple charges in case of Ramona explosion, house fire

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCSanDiego

    The son of James Kurtenbach, a Ramona gas station owner accused of having his Mount Woodson home burned down by an employee who died in the fire, took the stand in the case against his father.

    Joseph Nesheiwat, 24, died in an explosion at the home in the fall of 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.
     
    Justin Kurtenbach, who was called to the stand by the prosecutor, acknowledged on Monday that he did not have a good relationship with his father.
     
    Defense attorney Paul Pfingst asked Justin to describe his affection level for his father on a scale of one to 10, with 10 equaling hate.

    "Eleven," answered the younger Kurtenbach.
     
    Pfingst started his questioning with an unusual question about a text message Justin had sent to his father.
     
    "Did you send a text message telling him you were going to cut his wife's throat and send her body floating down the river?" asked Pfingst.

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    Justin smiled and said "yes." Pfingst asked why he was smiling. Kurtenbach replied, "sorry." Pfingst never followed up on the text message during morning testimony.
     
    Much of the morning focused on a conversation in which Justin allegedly overheard his father say he wished the Mount Woodson home would burn down.
     
    "I think he said something like, 'What if that would go up in flames or something?' " Justin testified.
     
    The morning also was marked by Justin's apparently inconsistent testimony.
     
    "Did he say he hoped it would burn down?" asked Deputy District Attorney Fiona Khalil.

    "No," Justin replied.

    Immediately afterward, Khalil asked if Justin's father said, "I wish it would go."

    "Yes," replied Justin.
     
    "Did he or didn't he say that, Mr. Kurtenbach," asked Khalil.

    "I can't be 100 percent certain," Justin told the court.
     
    Later, the defense attorney Pfingst tried to put James Kurtenbach's comments about the house into context. Pfingst said that the conversation took place during the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, and that the Mount Woodson home had sustained interior smoke damage because windows were left open.
     
    "Was everybody laughing during that conversation?" asked Pfingst.

    "I believe so," Justin said.
     
    "And everybody there was just joking about it -- is that right?" Pfingst asked.

    "Yes," replied Justin.
     
    Under cross-examination by Pfingst, Justin said he and Nesheiwat would often go to the desert and set off "40-bombs," 40-ounce glass containers filled with gasoline. Flames would shoot as high as 75 feet in the air.
     
    During his testimony, Justin said his father often loaned Nesheiwat a substantial amount of money and "loved him like a son."
     
    Nesheiwat, who was an employee at the gas station James Kurtenbach owned, died at the Mount Woodson home on Oct. 31, 2008. James Kurtenbach, who reportedly owed more than $50,000 in property taxes, stood to collect more than $900,000 in insurance money. He has been charged with second degree murder, arson and conspiracy. He faces 15 years to life in prison on the murder charge.
     
    Nesheiwat's mother sat in the courtroom during the testimony on Tuesday and did not show any outward emotion.