SAN DIEGO - A man accused of intentionally setting a fire in his Mira Mesa home, killing his mother and sister, pleaded not guilty Monday to murder and other charges that could lead to the death penalty if he's convicted.
Thongsavath Sphabmixay, 44, was ordered held without bail in the deaths last Friday of 69-year-old Bouakham Sphabmixay and his sister, 48-year-old Pamela Sphabmixay. The women died a day after they were overcome by smoke in the fire at the family's home in the 11200 block of Featherhill Lane.
The defendant lived at the residence with the victims and a male roommate.
About 1:30 a.m. last Thursday, the roommate noticed the smell of gasoline outside his bedroom door, said Deputy District Attorney Nicole Rooney.
"He (the roommate) opened his door and noticed the landing was on fire, which was blocking the only exit to the stairs out of the second story," the prosecutor told reporters.
Rooney said the roommate was able to go through the flames and jump down to a lower landing to escape.
As he was leaving, the roommate heard the victims -- who shared a bedroom -- open their door, scream and shut the door, according to the prosecutor.
Rooney said the roommate called for help to the defendant -- who was still in the house -- but he fled the scene.
"He told him they needed to get his mother and sister out," said Rooney. "Instead, the defendant got in his car. He drove away and left the scene."
She said the roommate went across the street to get help and tried to go back in the house to rescue the victims, but was unable to do so because the smoke was so heavy.
When contacted by police, the defendant initially gave them his brother's name, Rooney said.
In addition to two counts of murder, the defendant is charged with charged with premeditated attempted murder and arson, with special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder by arson.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis will decide later whether the defendant will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he's convicted.
"We consider the defendant to be extremely dangerous," Rooney said, asking that Sphabmixay be held without bail.
The judge agreed, but offered to re-visit the bail issue at a later hearing, after noticing that the defendant seemed to be struggling to understand the proceedings, even with the help of a Laotian translator.
A status conference is scheduled for Wednesday and a preliminary hearing for April 19.