John Nesheiwat was parked in his car, a rosary on the seat beside him, about a mile from the North Woodson Drive rental home owned by James Kurtenbach, a 4000-square-foot luxury house in one of the few but posh golf-course communities next to Ramona. Minutes before, John had dropped off his younger brother Joe — an amiable 24-year-old, with short-cropped hair and an Arabic tattoo on his arm, who was about to do a big favor for Kurtenbach.
Forty-seven-year-old Kurtenbach was Joe’s employer at Stars Petroleum, a flagship gas station in town. Jim Kurtenbach and Joe thought of each other as father and son: Jim had given Joe a job at Stars eight years previously, lots of responsibility, and eventually the night manager’s post. He also supported Joe and John’s mother, Terry Sellers, and the rest of family, four brothers and a sister, with gifts and loans. You might say Joe owed him.
Kurtenbach’s demeanor could slide from sugary to enraged when he did not get his way, but “Whatever Jim said, Joe said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,’” Sellers remembered. Joe told her to “Have faith; everything will work out.”
The relationship was a mix of pledges and paybacks. Do something for Jim, Jim does something for you. His latest promise was that the whole family would have “a good Christmas and a great Thanksgiving.” That meant new motorcycles, which the brothers coveted, and partial forgiveness of debts — in Joe’s case, $8000. What a boon this would be since he would soon be moving out of his mother’s home and in with his girlfriend, who, eight months before, had given birth to a child. Their child.
That’s how it was for the Nesheiwat brothers, Thursday evening, October 30, 2008, one night before trick-or-treaters would flashlight their way through Ramona’s sidewalkless subdivisions. As John sat in his car, a mile from the rental home, he trusted that his brother knew what to do. Get in, get out. John, who also worked at Stars, trusted Jim Kurtenbach. The boss had said that this big favor wouldn’t look like arson, not after he’d told friends and customers that he smelled propane at the property. Torching the house would be a “fucking cake walk,” Jim said. “Real simple.”
John waited. Any moment now Joe would text, telling him the deed was done. The moment came, around 1:30 a.m. — and it was nothing like the quiet blaze John expected. The sky erupted with a blast of light. The car rattled as if from an earthquake. John was shocked: Was the fire supposed to quake the earth like that? He stared as the bright light grew, smoke graying the orange glow. He drove to North Woodson Drive’s gated entrance, frantically phoning his brother. No text came. Nothing. Joe was supposed to text right after he lit the gas. That was the plan. John pushed Joe’s number again. Nothing. Again he called. And again. Seventeen times. Where was Joe’s text? He was supposed to text. Months later, John told a sheriff’s detective: “I heard the explosion and what I saw — I don’t think any human would have survived it.”
John drove home. There, in the driveway of his mother’s place, he waited. For two hours. The longest two hours of his life. A Catholic, he picked up the rosary and let the beads move through his fingers like knots in a rope bridge across a canyon. He prayed, for his brother and for himself. He was now an accomplice to arson.
Miles away on North Woodson Drive, the house was an inferno. It had blown sky high, the garage door traveling 100 feet into the street, the roof collapsing, window frames and glass flying into the yard. The good-natured Jordanian kid who, along with Jim, had presoaked the house with 70 gallons of gasoline (and himself with cannabis), and who’d lit the match to help out his boss — Joe lay in the backyard, screaming, foaming at the mouth, writhing on the ground, clawing at his scalded body. Awakened neighbors said the agonal sound — it lasted for five minutes and was, the prosecutor later wrote, “enough time for Joe to realize what was happening to him” — reminded them of an injured and trapped animal.
That afternoon, Jim and Joe — seen by John and a neighbor — had filled approximately 14 five-gallon utility jugs of gasoline at Stars. Transporting them to the North Woodson home, the two had doused the downstairs. Joe’s instruction, the “big favor,” would be to return to the house late at night where, while John waited, Joe would strike one match, toss it into the home, then run like hell. He’d text John right away. Real simple.
Nothing went according to plan.
The blast and fireball threw Joe Nesheiwat from the back door across the patio, where he landed on his knees with blunt-force trauma. The blast fried 85 percent of Joe’s body with second- and third-degree burns. According to the autopsy, the pressure wave of the explosion ruptured his capillaries and bled “into the lung spaces”: his lungs “super expanded and leaked.” (This is how the medical examiner knew Joe had struck a match near the gas vapors: the close force of the blast had burst his lung tissue.) Joe had dressed in shorts and T-shirt, a sweater, and sneakers. He’d struggled, choking on his final breaths — his nose and throat filled with soot, his hair singed off, one hand “degloved” of its skin, his face blistered by “droplets of burning fluid,” his liver lacerated by the force of being catapulted away from the back door — his charred naked body left with only the collar ring of his T-shirt around his neck, his socks, and the remnants of a tennis shoe on one foot.
Kurtenbach’s Pile of Debts
On the day before Jim and Joe loaded a van with 70 gallons of gasoline, Kurtenbach told his Farmer’s Insurance agent to raise, yet again, the coverage he carried on the home. In February, he’d changed the amount from $600,000 to $900,000, and now he bumped it up another $15,000. It was odd, because Kurtenbach, who’d bought the home in 2005 for $910,000, had tried to sell the place for two years with no takers. He kept it rented, but the market, fueled by the foreclosure crisis, was tanking. In 2006, Kurtenbach listed the house at $950,000; by fall 2008, it was appraised at $600,000. Losing more than a third of its value, it still wouldn’t sell.