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This was just the first floor of Kurtenbach’s tower of debt.

In 2000, Kurtenbach had been the owner of a gas station in Omaha, Nebraska. Kurtenbach claimed the station did a great business. When he decided to sell it, he showed the buyer records that revealed a million-dollar yearly income. After the new owner took possession — Kurtenbach having left for California — he found tax records behind a file cabinet at the station. From these, Kurtenbach had apparently forged new documents: the income had been inflated some $360,000. The man’s suit against Kurtenbach resulted in a penalty-enriched $300,000 judgment, but Kurtenbach hadn’t paid a dime.

He was freshly divorced from Teresa Kurtenbach, co-owner of Stars, with whom he had three children. Their marital settlement gave her $10,000 a month from Stars’ income. Quickly, Kurtenbach remarried; he and his pregnant wife lived in a 6000-square-foot Poway home whose mortgage was $7600 per month. Kurtenbach’s three monthly mortgage payments — on Stars, the Mount Woodson home, and the Poway home — totaled $23,464.25.

There were other debts: he owed an attorney in Nebraska $26,000; he owed the California State Compensation Insurance Fund $9200, an underpaid premium; he owed property taxes on both homes (having paid nothing for three years) totaling $71,800; because he liked to pay his 11 employees at Stars in cash, he owed taxes and penalties of $174,000 on those wages to the state’s Employment Development Department; and he owed his ex-wife, Terri, $80,000 from a loan. (Terri told detectives that Kurtenbach, pre-arson, told her she’d get her money sooner than later because “something big is going to happen.”)

In January 2009, Terri told the incarcerated Kurtenbach, in a phone call recorded by police, that because he was “so f’ing far in debt” she was making payments for “[your] f’ing loans.” She was “paying for your f’ing shit for November,” referring to the arson. “You know what the ‘f’ you did — [with] the gas station, you put us both in a f’ing hole.”

The most gravity-defying bill that Kurtenbach owed was to the California Board of Equalization. For three years, he had underreported sales tax on Stars’ fuel sales, which, from 2006 to 2008, totaled $16 million. Once contacted by the board, Kurtenbach stalled the inquiry. He offered, according to court files, excuses, “including that he was seeking treatment for cancer in Nebraska,” which was a lie. The board put a lien on Stars, and Kurtenbach received a bill for unpaid sales tax. With interest and penalties it came to $2.9 million.

Pile of debt: $3.5 million. While it’s true that some of these debts were not assessed on Kurtenbach until after the North Woodson Drive arson, Kurtenbach was being audited by the Board of Equalization. He must have known that sooner or later he’d be investigated for tax evasion on his business and his homes. The amount he owed, assessed and coming, was nearly insurmountable for a man of his means.

The Plot Twists

With the fire still sputtering, Kurtenbach arrived at the Mount Woodson home at 4:30 a.m. He told detectives that the tenant had moved out two days before and he was having the carpets cleaned and the place repainted. Paint cans were piled in the garage, near the hot water heater, he remembered. What’s more, he’d smelled propane gas and had called Pro-Flame to check it out.

James Kurtenbach listens as the jury delivers its verdict on multiple charges.

James Kurtenbach listens as the jury delivers its verdict on multiple charges.

What Kurtenbach didn’t tell deputies — which came to light once his son Justin told police everything he knew — was that Kurtenbach had told John earlier that his brother Joe was dead. John and Kurtenbach had met at Denny’s, where Kurtenbach said that if John confessed, “he was going to go to prison, and they would both get ‘screwed over.’” They had to take this to their graves. No one could know. Kurtenbach said he’d pay for the funeral and burial (which would total $25,922), the most recent unpaid monthly mortgage, and a $5000 gas and electric bill (the Nesheiwat’s electricity had been shut off). Kurtenbach also pledged that he was working on the insurance claim and preparing “a wrongful death lawsuit” to “obtain money for the Nesheiwat family.”

In the meantime, arson investigators determined at once that the fire had been deliberate. They noted, according to court documents, the strong smell of gasoline in the home’s ruins, as well as “pour patterns” and “distinct burn patterns” on the concrete and carpet of the downstairs floor and at the back door. That was where Joe had bent down and lit the match, the vapors exploding and catapulting him into the yard.

Kurtenbach was charged with arson in December, 2008. The cited proof: the large explosion; the house-destroying fire; the post-fire odor of gas; and the pour patterns.

Detectives learned from Justin of his father’s penchant for blabbing about his plans. Justin, who also worked at Stars, hated his father for favoring Joe. After the 2007 Witch Creek fires, which had burned or caused smoke damage to many Ramona homes, Justin remembered his dad saying in front of him, Joe, and John that “It would be nice if the [Mount Woodson] rental property burned.” Justin told police that when his father — jokingly, he thought — asked him to do it, Justin said no. But Joe had agreed, Justin said, while John agreed to drive the getaway car.

Police also discovered that John had been lying. He said he knew nothing of Kurtenbach’s plan. It was only when the district attorney’s office offered him a deal — a fact that Kurtenbach’s fifth lawyer, Paul Pfingst, used during the 2010 trial: “John Nesheiwat is a liar who thought of his story only after he was given immunity” — did John ’fess up. He told police that he’d gotten a phone call from Kurtenbach an hour after the explosion, with news that his brother was dead. Kurtenbach called him numerous times that night, telling John to keep his mouth shut, and, later that day, assuring John that he would pay his and his family’s bills.

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Comments

Visduh Oct. 8, 2011 @ 4:17 p.m.

This is one miserable story. I followed some accounts of the case, and the trial, but didn't pick up on the testimony that the house had been doused with 70 gallons of gasoline. While I claim no great expertise in the matter, it is a well-known fact that gasoline vapor mixed with air is highly combustible and explosively so. That, duh, is what makes it such a great motor fuel. Ignite the mixture and the rapidly expanding gas slams that piston down the cylinder. A house fire could be started very effectively, I'd guess, with as little as a half gallon of the stuff. That gasoline-saturated house was an explosion chamber ready to blow the house apart and send a fireball out hundreds of feet. It is a wonder that nobody in the neighborhood smelled the vapor. Even a cupful spilled in a station stinks up the whole area as it vaporizes.

Did Pfingst get him off the murder charge? Maybe. But he didn't keep the creep out of prison. Pfingsty isn't doing so well these days as a defense attorney. He's had some other cases that didn't go the way he hoped. And whose name crops up here but good ol' Kerry Steigerwalt, defense attorney to the guilty as sin.

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SurfPuppy619 Oct. 8, 2011 @ 8:47 p.m.

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. == That is about as painful a death one could imagine. I have been burned veyr good on my arm, 4 inches and it was intesne pain, unbearable-this guy-what the hell was he thinking.

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Visduh Oct. 9, 2011 @ 10:26 a.m.

Another thought: John the brother is "a Catholic", and was fingering his rosary beads for a couple hours after the fire was ignited. Too bad he didn't adhere to the church's teachings about avoiding sinful behavior. He might have also saved his brother's life.

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OttoB Oct. 11, 2011 @ 5 p.m.

I certainly agree with Visduh that this was a 'miserable' story. A genuinely sad affair with not a single 'winner' anywhere near any part of it. I followed it to some degree during its progression, but I had no clue as to the magnitude or gruesomeness of all the circumstances.

Firstly, the notion the jury couldn't totally agree on the 'murder' charge scares me, At least in the sense that if ever there was a case to put a guy in prison for a long long time, this was one of them. Having one of your minions (a young, naive, loyal one at that) do your 'dirty work' so you can not only appear 'clean', but also ultimately counting on coming out the other side more 'whole', is as cosmically immoral as any. No amount of legal argument or rhetoric can supersede the actual 'truth' in such a matter. Steigerwalt & Pfingst should ALMOST be ashamed of themselves.

This story also isn't about a 'mistake' made by a seeming desperate man attempting to fix some wrongs in his life by questionable means. We have to get past this notion that everybody is ultimately good and that they just screw up sometimes. This is a guy who systematically never could get enough or take enough from the world around him. He always wanted more. Apparently at any cost. He had become what they call a 'benevolent dictator'. He might 'give', but only as much as he had to. The ultimate goal is him getting what he wants and, simply, he knows it won't necessarily come free. The minions might get a crumb or two - just enough to keep them hanging on - but in the end it is he that gets the whole loaf (and sadly, believes he's the only one entitled to it).

Finally - overlooking the perverse reality of it - I use stories like this to vividly teach my children about the evils of the world. The simple fact of the matter is real evil does exist. And you don't have to have any 'religious leanings' to know and believe that. It's personified flawlessly (ironically) in guys like Kurtenbach. He is truly evil. His real intentions may have been muddied up by a 'hung jury', but the truth is he never had any intention of owning up to his life's mistakes the proper way and take his lumps like honest, respectable people might. He wanted all of his bad decisions to be cured quickly and by a simple, expedient means that would cost him very little, but produce serious relief from his self imposed 'prison' of debt. It doesn't appear he gave any 'serious' consideration to solving his problems the usual way a legitimate business might in, say, declaring bankruptcy etc. He wanted it only on his terms and his way and with his own 'hopes and dreams' being the sole arbiter of the righteousness of it all. I would bet dollars to donuts that if you asked him today if he has any regrets or believes he was truly in the wrong, he would say "no way".

The good news is at least now his 'prison' has four walls.

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