Fire chief: 'We may have made a mistake'

March 2, 2011 8:03:32 PM PST
Houston's fire chief finally spoke out Wednesday afternoon about the deadly day care fire and the owner who fled the country. The fire chief says his investigators believed suspect Jessica Tata would stay for questioning.

For days we have been questioning the Houston Fire Department and the District Attorney's Office asking why Tata was allowed to leave the country as she was being investigated for the fire at her west Houston in-home day care that killed four children and injured three others last week.

HFD Chief Terry Garrison took questions from reporters Wednesday and talked about claims that his investigators could have and should have done more.

One of the biggest questions the families of the victims have -- How could the lone suspect in the death of their children disappear right from under fire investigators' watch?

"We don't know how the lady got away. We thought everybody knew she was Nigerian and had that potential when we were trying to get charges. We thought that someone would, if nothing else, watch her," said Christopher Leonard, attorney for one of the victims who lost her daughter in the fire.

On Wednesday afternoon, Houston's fire chief said he owes the families of children who died in last Thursday's fire an apology.

"We will continue to apologize to those families because I truly believe that the slip-up was that we trusted the attorney, we trusted Ms. Tata -- they trusted Ms. Tata with the lives of their children, we trusted her attorney to have her stand accountable and and we were all deceived," said Chief Garrison.

That trust meant no fire investigator ever put Tata under surveillance before she fled.

Garrison said arson investigators first interviewed her at the scene and on other occasions, but she was not truthful.

"She said she was in the bathroom when the fire occurred. We go to communicate with her a few more times, she says, 'I'm having medical problems.' We go to interview her at the hospital and her brother told us she'll talk to you when she's done being treated. After she was released, she said, 'I can't talk to you. I have amnesia and I'm too distraught,'" said Garrison.

At that point, Tata had apparently hired an attorney.

"The next day, we make contact with her. She said, 'I won't talk to you without my attorney.' We talked to the attorney who told us we're going to make her available to talk," said Garrison.

That never happened and Tata is believed to have fled to Nigeria.

"I understand his frustration," attorney Mike Monks said.

Monks is the attorney Garrison was talking about.

"I said if she retains me, then yes, we will schedule the time to talk to you in my office because that's what he wanted to do, and she never did," he said.

Monks says Tata and her family had a 30-minute conversation on Friday, in the same office where we spoke. He says she didn't' say anything about traveling, but he did tell her the potential charges were serious.

"I indicated to, her in my opinion, that there were several violations of the criminal law that had occurred," he said.

The next day, Tata was gone.

Garrison said instead of keeping tabs on Tata's whereabouts, the department was gathering more information to try to get an arrest warrant from the DA's Office by interviewing the parents, witnesses and watching surveillance video from a store where Tata allegedly had been shopping around the time of the fire.

"At the time, we weighed our decision on a few things -- we felt like she was a person who made a mistake and we trusted her attorney who said she was going to talk to us," Garrison said. "We believed Ms. Tata and her attorney that she was going to be made available to talk."

Chief Garrison says if had to do it over again, he would personally follow Tata to make sure she didn't leave. They, after all, had a Crime Stoppers tip she was a flight risk. They thought they had probable cause to arrest her. While they debated with the district attorney for days over charges, no one was watching Tata to make sure she kept her word.

"She's not here and we are. So as far as I am concerned, somewhere along the line, we may have made a mistake," Garrison said.

The district attorney said they could not file charges until they determined Tata did in fact leave the children alone. Witnesses told investigators the children were home alone when the fire started.

Garrison deflected any suggestion that he was frustrated with the DA's Office for not filing charges against Tata earlier than Sunday.

"When I said I was frustrated -- I'm frustrated that Ms. Tata is not here to answer to these charges," said Garrison. "I think the DA's office is as frustrated as any of us."

When asked if investigators had been in touch with Tata's attorney since she fled, Garrison said they had made several phone calls and had not received a reply.

The fire chief stated that he is proud of the fire department and that the department will evaluate its actions during this investigation.

Garrison also said that the fire department has set up a fund for the victims' families and that he wants the families to get some closure by having Tata extradited back to Texas.

A spokesman with the U.S. Marshal's Office said Wednesday they are actively and aggressively tracking down Tata, that they're working around the clock and checking out a list of things that they could not tell us about because they're part of the investigation.

Tata is charged with six counts of reckless injury to a child and three counts of abandoning a child.