By Juan A. Lozano
Investigators found that the operator of a home day care where a fire killed four children last week had left the youngsters in her care alone to go shopping, according to a court document made public Tuesday.
Surveillance video shows Jessica Tata was shopping at a Target store about a mile away from the facility when the fire started Thursday, investigators said in a probable cause affidavit.
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 fled to Nigeria since being charged in the fire. Authorities said Tuesday they are still trying to locate her. She has been charged with reckless injury to a child and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said Tuesday her office plans on filing nine more charges against Tata. 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.
Authorities earlier this week had said that Tata was a native of Nigeria. But Lykos said Tata is a U.S. citizen who was born in Harris County and apparently has family in Nigeria.
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 video shows Tata entering the 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 Tuesday.
Prosecutors have faced some questions about how they’ve handled the investigation.
In a statement late Tuesday, Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison said arson investigators went to prosecutors six times before they agreed to file charges. Garrison also said arson investigators told prosecutors on Friday about a tip that Tata might flee to Nigeria, but he said prosecutors didn’t think the tip was valid.
Lykos defended her office’s handling of the case during a news conference earlier in the day. She said her office could not file charges until investigators determined Tata had left the children alone in the home. She also said her office didn’t get a tip that Tata might be fleeing the country before she could be charged.
“Suggestions that anyone in the district attorney’s office unreasonably delayed the filing of criminal charges against Ms. Tata or that she could have been arrested and held in custody during the pendency of this investigation, these allegations are outrageous,” Lykos said.
Garrison said that by Friday investigators believed they had probable cause that Tata had left the children alone, but prosecutors told them to conduct more interviews. Garrison said investigators weren’t able to finish those interviews until Sunday.
On Sunday, as the charge was accepted and a probable cause affidavit was being prepared, investigators received information from an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that Tata flown from Dallas to Atlanta on Saturday, then went to Lagos, Nigeria.
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.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.