A 23-year-old man dodged the death penalty Friday when he admitted killing two women and attempting to kill a third in July 2008.

Under the terms of his plea agreement, on Dec. 18 Apollo Keith Ortega will be sentenced to two no-parole life sentences on two counts of first-degree murder. He also faces between 13 and 27 years on an attempted murder count, which may be served at the same time as his life sentences, depending on what Pima County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee decides.

Prosecuting Attorney Susan Eazer said "while there was reluctance at first" on the part of the victims' families and the surviving victim to allow the plea, they have since agreed.

Ortega confessed to the murders of Margie Ortiz, 57, and Norma Jean Conner, 52, although when asked if each of the murders were premeditated he initially said "no" to the first, then quickly changed his answer.

Eazer, who expressed concern with Ortega's initial response, asked for the question to be restated.

In the follow-up, Ortega then said he had planned to kill Ortiz, Conner and a third woman.

"I stabbed her" with a kitchen knife, Ortega said, referring to Ortiz.

When Lee indicated he still had reservations about Ortega's first answer, defense attorney Brian Metcalf told the judge Ortega had been evaluated by a doctor within the last week "to assure he's competent."

In October of 2008 Ortega was indicted for 14 felonies, including two murders, one attempted murder and the sexual assault of three women within a 19-day period in July of '08.

The only survivor of Ortega's killing spree was found on the 900 block of South Sixth Avenue July 10, after being stabbed, beaten and sexually assaulted.

Margie Ortiz, who was sexually assaulted and murdered, was found six days later in a culvert near Palo Verde Road and South Alvernon Way by a group of skateboarding teenagers.

Then, on July 29, relatives found the body of Norma Jean Conner, who had also been raped and murdered, inside her home on South Mission Road.

Court documents show Ortega received three years' probation for the unlawful possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia just two weeks before his arrest for the murders.

In a presentence report, Ortega said his father was convicted of a felony and his mother raised him. Ortega recalls his stepfather, who married his mother when he was only 2, as being physically abusive to both him and his siblings.

Ortega admitted to experimenting with a number of drugs including cocaine, meth and heroin during his lifetime. He began drinking as a 9-year-old.

Megan Neighbor is a University of Arizona journalism student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at 573-4244 or at starapprentice@azstarnet.com