Agencies at odds over fatal day care fire probe

March 6, 2011 2:57:46 PM PST
As Glenn Price prepared to bury his 3-year-old grandson, one of four children killed in a fire at a Houston day care, he expressed frustration about why the woman accused of leaving the children alone was able to flee to Nigeria. "How could she have gotten out of the country?" Price said at his grandson Shomari Dickerson's funeral last week. "Jessica Tata, if you can hear us right now, be a real woman and come forward. You've got all these babies' deaths in your thoughts, in your conscience."

Investigators believe Tata fled the U.S. two days after the Feb. 24 blaze at her home day care center and shortly after she spoke with a lawyer about her possible criminal liability. The fire also injured three children, and Tata was charged a week later with manslaughter.

Authorities said they are doing everything they can to find Tata and bring her back to the U.S. But that's provided little comfort for many family members like Price, who said that "without a doubt" the investigation has been mishandled.

Local prosecutors and arson investigators have bickered over whether possible delays in charging Tata could have given her an opportunity to run. Fire investigators said they relayed a tip that Tata might flee, but prosecutors said they never got the information.

Houston fire chief Terry Garrison downplayed any rift, saying everyone is frustrated.

"We're upset because the closure for these families will take a lot longer," he said.

The first 911 call about the fire came in at 1:29 p.m., but surveillance video shows Tata was shopping alone at a nearby Target store from 1:09 p.m. until 1:22 p.m., according to court records and separate timelines prepared by the Houston Fire Department and the Harris County District Attorney's office.

When questioned around 3 p.m., Tata told investigators she was in the bathroom at the home when the fire started. But then she complained of feeling ill and was taken to the hospital. Investigators believe the fire was ignited by a stove top burner that had been left on.

"We tried to make contact with her (at the hospital)," Garrison said. "She says, 'I can't talk to you. I don't even know who you are. I have amnesia."'

Fire investigators believed they had enough evidence to arrest Tata early the next day and show she'd left the children alone. But prosecutors said it wasn't enough and told investigators to talk to Tata and confirm there were no other adults in the home.

So investigators re-interviewed witnesses, confirmed with state officials that Tata was the day care's only employee and relayed a tip to prosecutors that Tata -- a U.S. citizen who had family in Nigeria -- might flee. Garrison said investigators again approached prosecutors, who didn't consider the flight-risk tip valid and again declined to file charges.

However, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said her office was never told Tata might flee.

"The primary thing is, was the defendant at home? If not, was there an adult in the residence at the time of the fire? Until you had evidence from witnesses to the negative, then you can't file charges," Lykos said.

When investigators tracked down Tata, a day after the fire following her release from the hospital, she refused to speak without a lawyer, Garrison said.

Tata, her brother and mother met with lawyer Mike Monks for about 20 minutes that afternoon. Monk declined to comment on the discussion but said neither Tata nor her family hired him.

"They came in to talk to me about possible criminal liability in the case," said Monks, who had represented Tata's family before.

Later that day, as media attention intensified, prosecutors inquired about new information, according to the fire department's timeline. Fire investigators said they had none, and unsuccessfully asked a third time for charges.

The next day, Feb. 26, investigators conducted more interviews -- but Tata was on her way out of the country.

She'd flown from Dallas to Atlanta, and just before midnight, she was on a flight to Lagos, Nigeria, according to passenger records reviewed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Tata arrived in Nigeria the following day as investigators, unaware she was gone, finished talking with all the children's families and convinced prosecutors to charge Tata with injury to a child. Investigators learned Tata had fled while preparing the probable cause affidavit.

But it wasn't until a day later -- four days after the fire -- that a judge accepted the charge.

"We are doing everything we can to have that woman arrested and brought back to this country," said Lykos, the Harris County district attorney.

Interpol, the international police agency, has alerted its member countries, including Nigeria, telling them Tata is being sought by the U.S. The U.S. Marshals Service is offering a reward of up to $25,000 and put Tata on its 15 Most Wanted fugitive list.

Prosecutors have since filed nine more charges, including injury to a child and child abandonment. A grand jury on Thursday indicted her on four counts of manslaughter, which carry sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

Repeated efforts by The Associated Press to reach Tata's relatives by phone and in person at their home have been unsuccessful.