Woman charged in deadly fire pleads not guilty

Day care owner Jessica Tata, 22, appeared in court on multiple charges from a deadly fire that killed four young children

March 24, 2011 6:56:20 AM PDT
The woman accused in a deadly day care fire made her first court appearance Wednesday afternoon and pleaded not guilty to all charges against her.

Day care owner Jessica Tata's hearing didn't last long. She said nothing, but some of the family members of the young victims had plenty to say.

The courtroom was packed and there was extra security for the arraignment hearing. It was the first time both Tata's family and the victims' families were all in the same room with Tata since last month's fatal fire. You can imagine it was tense for every person in that room.

Tata is accused in the deaths of four helpless children, but as she entered the courtroom in a yellow jumpsuit, the 22-year-old Tata appeared a child herself. She was silent, walked slowly with her head held low. She never made eye contact with anyone in the courtroom, not even her own family.

Charge by charge, prosecutor Steve Baldassano read through more than a folder, detailing the horror of last month's home day care fire and the subsequent lives of the children lost and injured as a result. Tata pleaded not guilty to all 13 counts.

Darlene and Marlene Price are the great aunts of Shomari Dickerson, the three-year-old who died in the fire. While their family is hurting, they extend sympathy to Tata's family as well.

"She's 22 years old. Her life is over at 22. Although we lost the babies, her life is over as well," said

Elias Castillo's mother, Keshia Brown, who was most visibly shaken in court today was less sympathetic and more angry.

"I need to see her. I need to see how I feel. I need to see the woman who killed my son. I'm not gonna run from it, I'm gonna confront it," Brown said.

Tata's family hired defense attorney Mike DeGeurin two days ago. He calls the fire a terrible accident, adding that Tata's visit to Nigeria was perfectly legal.

"When she left to go to Nigeria, there were no charges against her. Nothing illegal about doing that," DeGeurin said.

Tata's attorney says he expects a bond hearing within a week. Her next scheduled court appearance is May 12.

She is being held without bond in the Harris County Jail.

Tata hires attorney

Eyewitness News has learned she has hired well-known attorney Mike DeGeurin to represent her.

Tata was flown back in to Houston early Tuesday morning wearing a bullet proof vest, authorities say for her own safety. The 22-year-old was arrested Saturday in Port Harcourt Nigeria. She fled to her homeland last month after a fire at her home day care that killed four small children.

Authorities say Tata left a stove on and seven small children home alone when the fire started. Little Elias Castillo was one of the four children who died. His father plans to be in court today when Tata makes her first appearance and he is calling for a harsh penalty.

"Me, I think she needs to get not more than life, you know what I'm saying? Death penalty, I think," said Elias' father, Maurice Castillo.

Castillo says he is still grieving his son's death.

Meanwhile, Tata faces four counts of manslaughter, six counts of reckless injury to a child, three counts of abandoning a child under 15 and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Aside from Elias, 20-month-old Kendyll Stradford, who started going to the day care two days before the fire, three-year-old Shomari Dickerson and 19-month-old Elizabeth Kajoh also died after the fire.