HOUSTON – A grand jury on Wednesday indicted Jessica Tata on four counts of felony murder in connection with a deadly day care center fire in February. Seven children were trapped in the burning day care and four of them died.
Tata was also indicted on four counts each of injury to a child, endangering a child and abandoning a child.
Authorities believe Tata left seven children alone at the day care while she went shopping on Feb. 24. She left a pot of burning oil on the stove and it went up in flames, according to the indictment.
The indictment lists the stove and the fire as "deadly weapons."
Tata’s attorney said the DA’s office went too far.
"The bottom line is, this is an unnecessary stretch of the law to charge Jessica Tata with felony murder," said Mike DeGuerin. "The grand jury, in its historic function, is supposed to stand between an overzealous prosecution and the citizens."
But KHOU 11 News legal expert Gerald Treece said you don’t have to intentionally kill someone to be guilty of murder.
"The government’s not saying she intended to kill these children. But under the felony murder rule they are saying she committed the felony of intentionally abandoning the children, putting them in that position of peril where this could happen," Treece said. "I think the DA’s right. When you attempt to commit a felony, and in the process of attempting to commit a felony a life was taken, penal code section 7.02 of the Texas penal code is very clear on that—this is the type of conduct that could be."
The DA's office wouldn't comment on camera, but did release a brief written statement: "The grand jurors spent a great deal of time carefully evaluating the testimony and the evidence in these cases. I appreciate their thoroughness and hard work," said Assistant District Attorney Carl Hobbs in the statement.
Eighteen-month-old Elias Castillo, 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson, 20-month-old Elizabeth Kajoh and 20-month-old Kendyll Stradford perished in the blaze. Three other children, aged 3 and under, were injured.
Two days after the fire, Tata caught a flight to Nigeria as investigators scrambled to convince prosecutors to file charges.
Eventually, she was put on the U.S. marshals’ list of the 15 most wanted fugitives, and the agency offered a reward of up to $25,000.
Tata was later captured and returned to Houston on March 21. She pleaded not guilty to the initial charges against her.
Family members of the victims have said they hope the case spurs changes in how the state regulates day cares and the people who run them.
"Although it’s not going to bring all the children back it’s definitely going to set a new standard for day cares," Tiffany Dickerson, the mother of a fire victim and survivor, said. "Anyone who’s following the same patterns as her, anyone that’s sneaking off for moments at a time and leaving children unattended, will know that this is a wake-up call that this is not OK and there are consequences for these actions."
Dickerson has filed a lawsuit against Tata, her parents and the state, claiming negligence.
Meanwhile, Tata remains in the Harris County Jail on $1 million bond, separated from the other inmates for her protection. A judge refused her attorneys' request last week to lower the bond to $50,000.
In a jailhouse interview last month, Tata said she was struggling to express her remorse to the victims’ families.
"Sorry is not enough," Tata said. "You can only say sorry so many times."