The operator of a Houston day care where four children died in a fire is facing a growing list of criminal charges even as new allegations emerge that she had left the youngsters in her care alone and was shopping when the blaze happened.
Surveillance video shows Jessica Tata was shopping at a Target store about a mile away from the facility when the fire started on Feb. 24, investigators said in a court document made public Mar. 2.
Investigators believe the fire, in which three other children were injured, was started by a stove top burner that had been left on.
Tata, 22, has been charged with reckless injury to a child. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said her office plans to file nine more charges against the woman whom authorities say has fled to Nigeria, where she has family. They will include six more charges of reckless injury to a child and three charges of child endangerment.
“I would urge the Tata family … that they have Ms. Tata return to Harris County and face justice,” Lykos said.
It was not immediately known whether Tata had an attorney. Attempts by The Associated Press to contact her family in person and by phone at multiple addresses and telephone listings have been unsuccessful.
The U.S. Marshals Service in Houston is still trying to confirm that Tata is in Nigeria, said agency spokesman Alfredo Perez. Joachim Olumba, a spokesman for the Nigerian Immigration Service, said he had no information about Tata or her whereabouts.
According to the probable case affidavit made public, surveillance video shows Tata entering a Target store at 1:09 p.m. and driving away at 1:24 p.m. The first 911 call about the fire was made at 1:29 p.m., according to the affidavit.
Tata had told neighbors immediately after the fire that it started in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom.
Houston Fire Department investigators have said in court documents that two of Tata’s neighbors described seeing her drive up and go into the home where the day care center was located, then hearing her screaming seconds after she went in the front door. They saw smoke coming from inside.
According to the probable cause affidavit, one of Tata’s neighbors, Sandra Sawyer, told investigators she tried to reassure Tata at the fire scene that everything was going to be OK because firefighters had arrived quickly, but Tata told her, “Oh no, the fire was going for a long time.”
Sawyer also told investigators that when she asked Tata whether another woman might have been in the home but had fled, Tata responded, “Oh no, I was the only one there today.”
Fire department investigators also spoke with six parents whose children were at the day care and they all said they never saw another employee other than Tata when they dropped off or picked up their children.
Two of the injured children remain hospitalized at Shiners Hospital for Children in Galveston. Their conditions have been upgraded to stable and improving, hospital spokeswoman Jo Ann Zuniga said.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report
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