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Woman charged in day care fire has fled, official says

By the CNN Wire Staff
Jessica Tata was charged after four children died in a fire at a day care she operated in Houston.
Jessica Tata was charged after four children died in a fire at a day care she operated in Houston.
  • NEW: Additional charges are being prepared against Jessica Tata, 22
  • She is now reported to be in her native Nigeria
  • Four children were killed and three injured in last week's fire
  • Tata is accused of leaving the children alone with the stove on
  • Texas
  • Nigeria
  • Injuries and Traumas
  • Fires
  • Daycare

(CNN) -- The owner of a day care center who is wanted in connection with a fire that claimed the lives of four children last week has fled to her native Nigeria, a Texas fire official said Tuesday.

Jessica Tata, 22, was charged on one count of reckless injury to a child after she left a group of children alone inside a home with the stove on, authorities have said. Three other children were injured in the blaze.

"We do know she's fled the country. She's in Nigeria at this time," said Assistant Fire Chief Lisa Campbell with the Houston Fire Department. She added that she believes Nigeria to be Tata's home country.

Campbell said Tata left on a flight from Dallas Saturday afternoon.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos declined to confirm Tata's exact whereabouts Tuesday, but urged her to return to Texas, calling Tata a "fugitive from justice." She said nine additional charges are being prepared against the 22 year old, who was born in Texas.

Tata had been licensed since March 1, 2010, with state authorities to run the residential day care center, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokeswoman Gwen Carter said. The facility was cited once for not having a fire extinguisher or carbon monoxide detector before she got her permit, according to Carter, but the problem was fixed.

An arrest affidavit claims that Tata "unlawfully and recklessly" caused "serious bodily injury" to at least one of the victims Thursday, after she left that child and six others unsupervised in the home day care facility and drove off in her car.

The blaze itself likely originated on an electric stove inside, which was on and had a pot on it containing oil, according to Houston Fire Department arson investigator Thomas Wood. A definitive cause for the fire will be announced once the investigation is complete.

Neighbors John Chestnut and Geoffrey Deshano told investigators that they heard Tata screaming soon after she pulled into her driveway and went to the front door, the arrest affidavit said. No other adults or day care employees were at the facility, the men said.

The two told reporters that Tata's car was full of groceries when she returned to the house, adding that they called 911 and tried to help get the children out as smoke seeped from the building.

"I came to the side of the house in the backyard and smashed one of the windows open, and I could see a kid having his hands out," Deshano told reporters. "I tried to grab him, but the smoke got into my face and my mouth and I couldn't breathe or see anything, and so I had to pull back."

Chestnut added that he crawled into the house in an attempt to rescue the children.

"I can't see anything, it's hot and I'm coughing and can't breathe and all I hear are kids left and right saying, 'Help me, help me!' " he recalled.

There were seven small children, between 15 months and 3 years of age, inside Jackie's Child Care when firefighters arrived minutes later.

Emmanuel Kajoh, whose 19-month-old daughter Elizabeth died in the fire, described Tata as a "very good lady" who "loves kids." He told HLN's Vinnie Politan that he never had problems with the day care, calling the incident "unfortunate."

Still, for all his positive thoughts about Tata before this incident, Kajoh said he couldn't defend her actions last week.

"She had options to call people," he said of the day care owner's decision to leave the children unattended. "Even if it is one child, not several children, that was a really bad decision. And it cost four lives."