Details in Fatal Arson Revealed

The preliminary hearing in the case against local businessman James Kurtenbach is taking place inside an El Cajon courtroom Wednesday

A Poway man charged with second-degree murder in connection with an explosion and the death of his employee is in an El Cajon courtroom Wednesday for a preliminary hearing.

James Kurtenbach was arrested on suspicion of orchestrating a deadly explosion at his rental home in Ramona on October 31.

Joseph Neishewat, 24, died in the blast. He was an employee at a Ramona gas station owned by Kurtenbach. Watch video: Arson Victim's Mother Wants Answers.

Neishewat's family is in court for the preliminary hearing and were visibly upset as Glenn Wagner, chief medical examiner for San Diego County testified of the cause of Neishewat's death. Wagner testified that 85-percent of Neishewat's body was covered with burns. Only remnants of a shirt collar and a sock and shoe were left after the explosion.

The evidence of smoke found in the victim’s airways which “indicated he was alive at the time the fire started and was alive long enough to at least take several breaths that included inhalation of smoke,” said Wagner.

Wagner went on to testify about vapors and fumes that may have caused scald injuries on Neishewat's body.

Under questioning from defense attorney Kerry Steigerwalt, the medical examiner was asked where Neishewat was specifically at the time of the explosion.

“I assume that he was inside the residence but I don’t know that,” he said. “Unless he fell from some distance, or there is another explanation for the blunt force injuries.”

"There's certainly nothing in the autopsy that says 'I started the fire,'"' he said.

Wagner also testified that Neishewat had marijuana in his system at the time of his death.

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. 

The victim owed Kurtenbach money, according to prosecutors who also believe Kurtenbach had asked Neishewat and another witness to burn down the house in late 2007.  The prosecutor also said Kurtenbach had a history of harrassing employees and one even took out a restraining order.

Kurtenbach was told about the fire at 3:45 a.m., and minutes later sent a text message to Neishewat., according to investigators.

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

Check back for more information from today's court proceedings throughout the day.

Contact Us