The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

November 14, 2012

Witness: Day care owner concealed criminal history

HOUSTON — A Texas woman convicted of murder for a fire that killed four children at her home day care lied in her application to run the business about having a juvenile record, which would have prevented her from getting a child care license, a former state official testified Wednesday.

Jurors heard the testimony during the punishment phase of Jessica Tata's trial. She was found guilty Tuesday of one count of felony murder in one child's death and faces up to life in prison.

Prosecutors said the February 2011 fire started after Tata left the children alone to go shopping, and had left a pan of oil on a stove that was turned on. Her attorneys argued that she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years, and that she tried to save them.

When Tata applied to run her home day care, she didn't indicate she pleaded to an arson charge as a juvenile in connection to two fires on the same day in bathrooms at her suburban Houston high school, said Susan Lahmeyer, a former district director of licensing at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The department oversees day care facilities.

"If we had had that information ... that would have prevented the agency from issuing a license," Lahmeyer told jurors. "A history like that elevates the concern about taking care of children."

Lahmeyer said her agency does a background check on all applicants but such a check did not turn up Tata's criminal history. She said she didn't know why Tata's criminal past did not come up.

Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, while questioning Lahmeyer, suggested that Tata had been under the impression that her juvenile criminal history was confidential and she might have misunderstood the question on the application about whether she had pleaded guilty to a crime.

Under the juvenile system, a defendant does not enter a guilty plea but enters a plea of true to a charge. Tata entered a plea of true to delinquent conduct of arson and received probation.

Lisa Hayes, a Houston fire department arson investigator who in 2003 taught a fire prevention class that Tata had to take after her arson case, told jurors Tata didn't seem concerned that individuals could have been injured by the fires she started.

Tata "said she didn't care about hurting other people," Hayes said.

Jurors were also shown photographs of the burns suffered by two of three children who were injured but survived the fire. The photos were of 22-month-old DaJohn Ashley, who suffered burns on 22 percent of his body, and 2-year-old Makayla Dickerson, who suffered burns on 15 percent of her body; both children had to undergo multiple surgeries.

Other testimony Wednesday focused on claims by prosecution witnesses that Tata intimidated students and school administrators when she was in high school.

Sandra Wilson, an assistant principal at the high school where Tata enrolled after her arson case, testified that she had to discipline Tata several times, including once for forging grades.

"She had a presence about her that was very intimidating to other people," Wilson said.

Wilson said that after she disciplined Tata for the forged grades, Tata tried to follow her home one night from school.

"I didn't want her to know where I live ... I was shook up" by the incident, said Wilson, who added that Tata eventually stopped following her.

Testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday.

Tata was charged with four counts of felony murder along with charges of abandoning a child and reckless injury to a child. But but her trial was only for the murder count in connection to the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo.

During a break in testimony Wednesday, Elias' grandmother, Rossi Castillo, said she hopes Tata gets the maximum punishment.

"She deserves life in prison so she doesn't do any more harm," she said.

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