Lady Justice
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A man accused of killing his estranged wife and her sister, whose bodies were found miles apart in Escondido, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to special circumstance murder charges that could lead to the death penalty if he’s convicted.

Juan Carlos Ortega, 33, was ordered held without bail.

What prompted the slayings remain unclear, but Deputy District Attorney Jodi Breton said Ortega confessed to the killings and said there was no one else involved.

Ortega is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstance allegations of lying in wait and multiple murders, two counts of felony child endangerment and one count of arson. A decision will be made later as to whether he will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he’s found guilty and the special circumstance allegations are found to be true.

Shortly before 4:30 a.m. last Thursday, firefighters extinguishing a blaze engulfing a parked white SUV at the corner of Country Club and Kauana Loa drives in the unincorporated Harmony Grove area discovered the body of 26-year-old Ana Soto inside the vehicle, Escondido police Lt. Kevin Toth said.

Detectives traced the charred SUV to its registered owner’s residence about three miles to the east, in the 500 block of West 11th Avenue, near South Centre City Parkway in Escondido.

Inside the home, officers discovered the body of Veronica Soto Ortega, 30. Two children found sleeping unharmed in the house were taken into protective custody and later turned over to family members, Toth said.

The deceased sisters, who lived together in the home, had sustained traumatic injuries, according to police, who withheld further details about the nature and extent of those wounds.

About 14 hours after the discovery of the second body, homicide detectives arrested Ortega, who was Soto Ortega’s husband, at his Carlsbad workplace, Toth said.

Ortega will be back in court Sept. 4 for a readiness conference. A preliminary hearing was set for Oct. 31.

— City News Service