Trial Begins for Gas Station Owner Charged in Deadly Explosion

By R. Stickney and Greg Bledsoe
|  Wednesday, Sep 22, 2010  |  Updated 2:13 PM PDT
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Small Town Reels in Wake of Arson Death, Trial

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Arson Victim's Mother Wants Answers

James Kurtenbach is under arrest, charged with the Oct 31 arson of a Ramon home. The explosion killed Joseph Nesheiwat, Kurtenbach's employee. Now, Nesheiwat's mother wants to ask Kurtenbach one thing.
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The Poway man accused of sending his employee to his death in an alleged scheme to torch a rental home for insurance money, warned the man’s brother to keep his mouth shut or they would both be in trouble, prosecutors said Wednesday. 

When prosecutors revealed their case against James Kurtenbach Wednesday, new details surfaced in the two-year investigation of the businessman who has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the death of Joseph Neishewat.

Neishewat, 24, was found dead outside Kurtenbach's home in the 1600 block of Woodson Drive in Ramona after an explosion in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 2008.

“Joseph Neishewat went to that house that night with the intention of burning that house down. And he was sent there by this defendant James Kurtenbach,” prosecutor Fiona Khalil told jurors during opening statements in the trial Wednesday.

Neishewat’s brother John drove the victim to the home on the night of the explosion and dropped him off. According to Khalil, the surviving brother will testify under conditions of immunity about a meeting with Kurtenbach prior to the night of the explosion.

“[Kurtenbach] told them he wanted the date moved up, and the evidence will show that the defendant’s home owner’s insurance policy was due to expire the Monday after the fire was set,” Khalil said.

Neishewat was an employee at a Ramona gas station owned by Kurtenbach and owed him $10,000 according to prosecutors.

Kurtenbach, who allegedly had not paid his property taxes since 2005, owed over $39,000 in property taxes on the Mt. Woodson house and an additional $16,000 on another home, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors allege that Kurtenbach had been planning to burn down the home since 2007 and had increased insurance coverage on the home in February 2008.

Kurtenbach's defense attorney told reporters in pre-trial interviews, "At worst, this case is an arson that went terribly wrong not through any plan."

Prosecutors told jurors John Neishewat will testify that Kurtenbach instructed him to meet in a Denny's parking lot after the explosion. "The defendant comforted him over the death of his brother but told him to keep his mouth shut or they would both be in trouble,” Khalil said.

Defense attorneys may present their opening statement this afternoon.

Kurtenbach has pleaded not guilty to 12 felony counts, including second degree murder, arson and insurance fraud. 

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