Firefighters made a gruesome discovery when they doused a fire in an SUV outside Escondido in August 2018. The body of Ana Gabriela Soto, 26, was hidden in the back of the vehicle. She had been shot.
Escondido police went to the home of the SUV’s registered owner, Soto’s older sister, Veronica Soto Ortega. Outside, they found a blood trail on the walkway, a prosecutor said. Inside, the 30-year-old was dead in her living room, bludgeoned and stabbed, a blanket thrown over her body.
Behind a closed bedroom door, her daughters, ages 4 and 5, slept.
Before the day was over, police found Soto Ortega’s estranged husband, Juan Carlos Ortega, at work and arrested him on suspicion of murder.
On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney An Dang told a Vista Superior Court jury that Ortega armed himself with a gun, knife and socket wrench, slipped inside and killed both women, then tried to cover it up. Dang said Ortega murdered his wife because she had filed for divorce, and he “didn’t want to let her go.”
His defense attorney told the jury that the deadly encounter with the sisters was self-defense, saying Ortega’s sister-in-law had put a knife to Ortega’s throat.
“It’s not a whodunit,” attorney Wil Rumble told the panel. “It’s ‘What happened?’”
Attorneys gave their opening statements Tuesday in the trial for Ortega, now 38, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder, with special-circumstance allegations of lying in wait and committing multiple murders. He is also charged with two counts of felony child abuse and arson, and faces life in prison without parole if convicted on all counts.
Dang said that not long after midnight on Aug. 9, 2018, Ortega left his car at a Park & Ride at the edge of San Marcos and walked about three miles to the central Escondido apartment he had once shared with his wife.
Dang told the jury Ortega carried a gun, a knife and a socket wrench. “Each step, he felt the weight of his weapons — and he knew what he wanted to do,” the prosecutor told the jury.
“He became obsessed with the thought she could be with someone else,” Dang said.
The prosecutor said Juan Ortega watched and waited, then entered the apartment on West 11th Avenue near Centre City Parkway. “About 3:15 a.m., he entered, ready to kill,” she said.
Dang told the jury the defendant shot his sister-in-law and cut her throat, and stabbed his wife to death. She said he then “shoved” his sister-in-law’s body into the back of his wife’s Ford Equinox and drove off, tossing out Soto’s cellphone along the way.
At Country Club Drive and Kauana Loa Drive, just east of Escondido, the defendant poured lighter fluid over the body, set it on fire, then made the 1.5-mile walk back to his vehicle on Nordahl Road, the prosecutor told the jury.
A passerby found the burning vehicle and called 911.
The estranged couple was supposed to be in court later that day. Dang said Ortega — knowing his wife was dead — sent a text message to her phone that read: “Thanks for wasting my time.”
Dang told the jury there was no evidence Ortega acted in self-defense. The killings, she said, were premeditated.
Rumble, the defense lawyer, told the jury that Ortega’s family was central to his life, and that he’d tried to kill himself several months earlier after his marriage crumbled. He said Ortega moved out of the apartment and was living in his car. He’d also been sneaking into the apartment and taking his wife’s underwear.
Rumble said that in the hours before the killings, Ortega parked his car and walked to the apartment to see if his wife had a man there.
He watched the apartment and eventually went in. Rumble said that as Ortega talked to his wife, his sister-in-law stood behind him and put knife to his throat. The three of them ended up on the floor, struggling.
“He — Juan Ortega — is not a murderer,” Rumble said. “He never would have put his daughters in danger, and he acted in self-defense in that apartment.”
The attorney said Ortega’s actions in the aftermath were “panic and fear,” and the text to his wife later that day had been an attempt at cover up.
Rumble said there is no evidence his client brought a knife to the apartment. He acknowledged that Ortega had been looking to get a gun four months before the killing, but said there is no evidence he had gotten one. “It’s absolute speculation that he had a gun.”
The gun used to shoot Soto has not been found.
Trial testimony will continue Wednesday.