HOUSTON – The Houston Fire Department shot back at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Wednesday, releasing a detailed chronology of events in their investigation of a fatal day care fire in west Houston.
The move came a day after District Attorney Pat Lykos said any allegations that her department moved too slowly in issuing a warrant for day care operator Jessica Tata were "outrageous."
Tata is facing 10 criminal charges in connection with the fire, which killed four children and injured three. But investigators said Tata fled to Nigeria on Saturday – a day before a warrant was issued for her arrest.
"The events of February 24, 2001, will, for the rest of our lives, have a profound impact on those Houston firefighters who were called to last Thursday’s day care fire. We share with the families of the seven children a deep sense of sadness and a desire to do what is best to bring about some sense of closure," the HFD statement read.
According to HFD, 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 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.
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.
Meanwhile, HFD said the 911 caller and witnesses told on-scene investigators that Tata had driven up to the day care alone that afternoon immediately before the fire was discovered.
Witnesses told investigators they did not remember seeing any other employee exit the building after the fire started, and they didn’t see any adults being rescued by firefighters.
According to HFD, investigators first contacted the Harris County District Attorney’s Office at 5 p.m. Thursday. Investigators wanted to obtain a warrant to search Tata’s car. They said they saw a bag on the front seat of the day care van that may have contained groceries, and they were hoping to find a sales receipt so they could identify where the purchases were made and possibly obtain surveillance video from the store.
But investigators said the DA’s office declined to issue a warrant, saying there was not probable cause to do so.
HFD said the DA’s office suggested that if Tata had gone to the store, she might have left another adult at the facility with the children.
Though they were not able to get the warrant, HFD said investigators did find a plastic bag with an unopened fruit drink and a receipt from a nearby store. The receipt had a time stamp from 1:18 p.m. Thursday – just moments before firefighters were notified about the blaze.
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, HFD said investigators obtained surveillance video from the store that showed Tata arriving and leaving near the time when the fire was reported.
At 2:15 p.m. on Friday, February 25, HFD said their investigators contacted the DA’s office for the second time, saying they thought they had probable cause that Tata had left the children unattended.
According to HFD, the assistant district attorney they spoke with said she would discuss their findings with a chief assistant district attorney and get back to them.
But after that meeting, HFD said the assistant district attorney said no charges would be accepted and asked investigators to interview Tata to confirm if there were any other employees present that day.
When an HFD arson investigator and HPD Homicide investigator contacted Tata, she told them she’d hired an attorney and didn’t want to give a statement without the attorney present.
Investigators said they re-interviewed witnesses to clarify discrepancies and checked state employment records for the day care. They said, according to the State of Texas, Tata was the only employee on record at the facility.
Investigators said they also received a Crime Stoppers tip that Tata might leave for Nigeria.
HFD said investigators again contacted the DA’s office to relay that information Friday, but the chief assistant district attorney said since Tata was a U.S. citizen and had been here a long time, the tip was not valid. The DA’s office again denied charges.
Investigators said the assistant district attorney asked them to interview all of the parents of the victims to get information about any other employees at the day care and to obtain information from work force. The DA’s office also asked that investigators verify with Family and Protective Services Child Care Licensing – a state agency – that Tata was the only employee.
But HFD said since the facility was a registered home day care and not a commercial day care, there was no license issued – only a permit.
Investigators said they weren’t able to contact the parents.
At 4:30 p.m. Friday, HFD said the assistant district attorney contacted investigators, saying the case was attracting media attention and asking if there was any new information.
Investigators said there was no new information, but they asked again if charges would be accepted. But HFD said the DA’s office denied charges.
On Saturday, February 26, HFD investigators canvassed the neighborhood where the day care was located to verify if residents had seen any other employees at the facility, and the residents said they hadn’t.
Investigators were able to contact and get statements from two of the victims’ families, but they didn’t contact the DA’s office, since the other families had not yet been located.
Then, on Sunday, February 27, between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., HFD investigators said they spoke with the DA’s office for a fifth time.
They said when they relayed all the new information, and the chief assistant district attorney of special crimes denied charges and asked that they interview every parent to see if they’d seen any other employee at the day care.
HFD said investigators were able to contact all the families, and the families all denied ever seeing any employee besides Tata.
When that information was relayed to the DA’s office, sometime between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday, HFD said charges were accepted.
While investigators were preparing a probable cause affidavit, they said they received information from an ICE agent that Tata had boarded flights from Dallas to Atlanta and Atlanta to Lagos, Nigeria on Saturday, February 26.
But at a press conference on Tuesday, March 1, Lykos said it was up to arson investigators to collect evidence against Tata.
"We do not live in a police state," Lykos said. "While officers can certainly arrest people for crimes with their own discretion, the penal code outlines when you can arrest without a warrant. But you have to have objective facts to justify holding that person in custody."
When asked whether Tata should have been arrested on Thursday or Friday, Lykos said she had "no opinion," but implied that investigators had not collected sufficient evidence quickly enough.
Lykos blasted anyone critical of the job her office had done, characterizing the public statements as "unprofessional" and "counterproductive."
The DA’s office released their own timeline of events in the investigation Tuesday, saying they were first contacted by HFD investigators about a search warrant at 5 p.m. on Thursday, February 24.
The DA’s office said they were again contacted by an HFD investigator on February 25, saying there was a conflict among witnesses as to whether Tata or another employee was present when the fire started. The DA’s office said the assistant district attorney told investigators to interview Tata and request the assistance of HPD.
On Sunday, February 27, the assistant district attorney again spoke with investigators and told them to present their evidence to intake and file charges, the DA’s office said. At 9 p.m. that same night, the DA’s office said an HFD investigator arrived at intake and charges were filed, but the probable cause statement was found to be insufficient by the magistrate.
The DA’s office said a new affidavit was drafted on Monday, February 28, at which point probable cause was found by the magistrate and charges were filed.
Meanwhile, Houston City Council members weighed in Tuesday at City Hall.
"It looks like there was some indication that [Tata] was, in fact, a flight risk," said City Councilman C.O. Bradford. "It baffles me why we didn’t try to suspend or pull her passport."
Oliver Pennington, the councilman who represents the district where the fire happened, said someone had dropped the ball.
But Rusty Hardin, a prominent attorney who was a former prosecutor, defended the DA when he was asked for comment at City Hall on Tuesday. He said Lykos needed to make sure she had enough evidence before accepting the charges.
"When something horrible happens, sometimes nobody is at fault in terms of investigating," Hardin said. "And I think the Monday-morning quarterbacks are having a field day, but from a citizen’s standpoint, I don’t see anything that should have been done differently."