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.
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.