New charges against day care owner

March 2, 2011 7:59:45 AM PST
In a case that spans from Houston all the way to Nigeria, a Houston woman is now facing more charges after a day care fire that killed four small children. It was tough talk Tuesday afternoon from Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, who is filing new charges against day care owner Jessica Tata.

"Jessica Tata is a United States citizen ... and she is a fugitive from justice," Lykos said.

Lykos also warns against anyone profiting from this tragedy.

The DA tells us Tata will be facing nine more charges, all felonies, similar to what she's already facing, but it's unlikely those will bring her back to Houston. This is a woman who fled the country when she wasn't charged with anything, but she was simply under investigation.

But as the fire chief has escalated the blame game between the fire department and the DA's office, the DA fired back.

Now that the search for Jessica Tata moving from west Houston to West Africa, the finger pointing back home is well underway. Houston's fire chief seems to blame the district attorney unnecessary delays in the case that led to Tata's disappearance.

HFD Chief Terry Garrison said, "Determining that Miss Tata was not at the residence at the time of the fire and then handing that over to the district attorney was frustrating for us."

The district attorney pushes us towards holes in the fire department's case.

Lykos said, "There was a conflict from the witnesses as to whether the defendant was present in the house at the time of the fire and as to whether there was another adult at home at the time of the fire."

In this case, most of the puzzle pieces started coming together quickly. At the scene of the fire on Thursday, two witnesses told arson investigators they didn't see any adults running from the building and that Tata was the only adult there. Within hours of the fire, arson investigators had security video from a Target store showing Tata shopping around the time the fire started. But it wasn't enough for the district attorney.

DAs wanted more proof there weren't any other adults in the home. That puzzle piece apparently didn't come until Sunday afternoon when Tata was already in Nigeria.

Thursday at the scene of the fire was the only time arson investigators ever spoke with Tata. She was rushed to a hospital during their interview. Investigators tried again Thursday night to speak with her, but Tata claimed to forget every detail.

"Do I believe it? No, I don't," HFD Executive Assistant Chief Richard Galvan said.

They tried again Friday in the hospital, but were turned away when Tata said she had an attorney. She was released from the hospital Friday.

At 12:53 that afternoon, Crime Stoppers got a tip, Tata was getting ready to flee to the country. Arson told the DA about it, but neither the DA nor arson investigators decided to follow her or legally detain her for investigation.

Galvan said, "The DA has to give you the probable cause warrant. They've got to give it to you. We presented our evidence to them and they refused it."

Lykos said, "I'm deeply disappointed that certain people have chosen to cast blame in the media. These public statements are unprofessional and they're counter-productive."

Saturday as arson investigators tried to track Tata down, she was several steps ahead, boarding a flight in Dallas bound for Nigeria at 1:00 Saturday afternoon. No one has seen her since, and if they have, they're certainly not telling us. She's considered a fugitive and the DA wants her back.

While the United States and Nigeria have an extradition treaty in place, Univeristy of Houston Law Professor Jordan Paust says the charges Tata faces -- endangerment and reckless injury -- may be a problem because neither of those charges are included in the extradition treaty.

"You have to request extradition," Paust said.

Neither of those charges is on the list. Manslaughter is.

But Lykos doesn't think it matters.

"There are a variety of mechanisms to bring somebody back in addition to extradition," Lykos said.

Exclusive interview with Jessica Tata's brother

In an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News, Jessica's brother, Ronald Tata, says the family didn't know she had plans to flee.

"No one's to say what made her run. There are allegations out with all types of things, all the way from manslaughter to the lethal injection," he said. "I don't know what happened because I'm always finding out stuff from the news."

"She's a completely different person. She's very involved in church. She loves kids; you can ask the parents. Just a completely different person -- a complete 180," he said.

Ronald maintains the family doesn't know where she is, but would like for her to turn herself in.

"I'd tell her that we love her, we urge her to do the right thing and no matter what happens, we're gonna be here to try and support her and support these families," he said.

Ronald started a charity to the the families of the victims, but Lykos said the move was inappropriate and that the only thing family members should be doing is trying to get their sister to return to face justice. During his interview with Eyewitness News a few hours later, Ronald said he had dropped the project after he heard Lykos' comments.

Statement from HFD Chief Terry Garrison

The events of February 24, 2011, will, for the rest of their lives, have a profound impact on those Houston Firefighters who were called to last Thursday's day care fire. We share with the families of the seven children a deep sense of sadness and a desire to do what is best to bring about some sense of closure. We provide the following as a factual account of the events leading to the filing of charges and the issuance of the arrest warrant for the suspect. [Read full statement]

Our efforts are now focused on her return.