HOUSTON – In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, HFD Chief Terry Garrison expressed frustration with the investigation into a west Houston day care fire, saying that the worst thing his department did was trust the woman charged in connection with the deadly blaze.
Jessica Tata is facing 10 criminal charges in connection with the fire, which killed four children and injured three others at a home day care center in the 2800 block of Crest Park on February 25.
"My frustration isn’t at any particular group or agency. I’m frustrated with the fact that Miss Tata is not here to answer those charges," Garrison said.
Garrison’s comments came the day after Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos blasted critics who claimed her office was too slow in issuing a warrant for Tata’s arrest.
The warrant was issued on Sunday, February 27 – the day after investigators say Tata fled to Nigeria.
While Lykos said it was up to arson investigators to collect evidence against Tata so a warrant could be issued, Garrison defended his department’s investigation.
"I am extremely proud of our efforts – the men and women of the Houston Fire Department – from the moment that we received the call and started actually managing the fire up to and including the investigation that our arson investigators did," he said.
In a timeline released by HFD Tuesday night, the department said they contacted the DA’s office and presented evidence five times before the attorneys agreed to accept charges against Tata.
"I’m going to tell you that my arson investigators took information, anticipating that charges would be brought, and they were told to go gather more information. And they did that," Garrison said.
But the chief stopped short of placing blame on the DA’s office, instead emphasizing that all of the agencies involved in the investigation were upset that they were unable to arrest Tata.
"You know what? She’s not here. And we are. So as far as I’m concerned, somewhere along the way we may have made a mistake," Garrison said. "I think the District Attorney’s Office is as frustrated as we are. I think everyone is incredibly frustrated. But what’s happened over the last couple of days is it appears that we’re mad at the District Attorney’s Office or they’re mad at us, and that really isn’t the case. The case is, we’re upset that Miss Tata is not here."
According to the HFD timeline, arson investigators arrived at the scene of the fire in the 2800 block of Crest Park at 3:03 p.m. Thursday to determine the origin of the blaze.
When investigators first interviewed Tata, they said she told them she’d put a pot of oil on the stove and had gone to the bathroom. When she returned, she said she couldn’t see because of all the smoke.
But before investigators could transport Tata to arson headquarters for a more in-depth interview, she said she needed medical attention and was transported to the hospital.
"On the scene, we saw Miss Tata as one of our victims. She was upset. She obviously needed medical treatment, and we transported her. We did interview her on the scene, and she was not able to give us a lot of information. What she did say to us was not truthful," Garrison said.
Investigators said their efforts to interview Tata were further delayed while she received treatment.
Once they were able to interview her, investigators said Tata complained of having amnesia and wouldn’t answer their questions coherently.
HFD said investigators instead gathered information from witnesses and surveillance video from a nearby grocery store. They said the video showed Tata entering and leaving the store moments before the fire was reported.
Still, when they contacted the DA’s office, HFD investigators were told to gather more information on whether or not Tata was the only adult in the facility on the day of the fire.
When investigators again contacted Tata on February 26, they said she informed them that she’d hired an attorney and didn’t want to give a statement without that attorney present.
Garrison said his investigators spoke with the attorney, who said he would make Tata available for an interview. But that never happened.
"The worst thing we did is we believed Miss Tata and her attorney that they were going to talk to us on that day… We trusted that attorney, and we trusted Miss Tata. And that is unfortunate," Garrison said.
HFD said they received a Crime Stoppers tip that Tata might be a flight risk, which they relayed to the DA’s office. But investigators said since Tata was a U.S. citizen and had been here a long time, the DA’s office didn’t consider the tip valid.
Gabe Cortez, chief investigator for the HFD Arson Division, said even though they’d received the tip about the possibility that Tata might flee, they needed a warrant to arrest her or stop her from leaving the country.
"On a passport, if you’re going to pull a passport, you have to have a reason. This woman was an American citizen. You can’t just arbitrarily out of the blue pick someone and say, ‘We’re pulling their passport.’ We can’t just pick someone and say, ‘We’re putting you in jail,’" Cortez said. "That’s why we went to the District Attorney’s Office to file the charges to get a warrant."
It wasn’t until the afternoon of Sunday, February 27, that the DA’s office determined investigators had gathered enough evidence to obtain a warrant for Tata’s arrest.
By that time, she was already gone.
An ICE agent told investigators Tata had boarded flights from Dallas to Atlanta and then Atlanta to Lagos, Nigeria, on Saturday.
Though frustrated, Garrison said he and his investigators are focusing on getting Tata back so the victims’ families can have closure.
"I was there on the scene that day. I saw what happened. I saw grown firefighters with tears in their eyes. This was a horrific event. And for us, it’s just that small compared to the grief that the families are feeling. For me, I want the families to have some closure. That’s why we’re all frustrated," he said.