HOUSTON—Family members are looking for answers and hoping for justice in the murder trial of a woman accused of leaving several small kids home alone at a west Houston day care in 2011. Four children died and three others were injured when a fire broke out and spread throughout the house.
A jury of seven women and five men heard opening statements from the prosecutors and the defense Wednesday. There was sobbing and crying heard from many of the children’s mothers as attorneys revisited the fatal decision Jessica Tata made on February 24, 2011 that changed their lives forever. One of the mothers clung to her child’s blue blanket as arguments were presented.
Prosecutors said Tata left seven small children alone while she went shopping at a nearby Target. She also left a pot of oil burning on the stove, which ignited and began to spread. The children were defenseless.
Elias Castillo, Elizabeth Kojah, Kendyll Stradford and Shomari Dickerson died in the blaze.
Defense attorney Mike DeGuerin said his client absolutely loved children and had been caring for them for many years.
”It was a dream of Ms. Tata to be a caregiver, a childcare operator. She had been caring for children since she was a child; in church, babysitting, babysitting for the church and she carried that on. And it was something that she was good at,” DeGuerin said.
DeGuerin said the stove had problems sometimes when being shut off and Tata could not foresee that such a terrible accident could happen.
But Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said Tata knew exactly what she had done and even mentioned that she left the stove burning to a store employee during her shopping trip.
“He mentions to the defendant, ‘Hey do you want to do this survey?’ And she says, ‘Well, I don’t know if I have time. I left food burning on the stove and my sister is home asleep with the kids,’” Baldassano said.
Family members of the victims were overcome with emotion when prosecutors said all of the children died side by side.
Prosecutors told how Tata initially lied on the scene saying the fire started while she was in the bathroom, refusing to admit that she left the kids by themselves. They also said she later pretended to not know what happened, and ate and watched television while being protected by her family members at the hospital.
While parents prepared to bury their children, Tata fled to Nigeria, but was captured a month later.
The trial, prosecutors said, is about betrayal and trust.
Outside the courtroom, a mother explained how she had no problem leaving her son in Tata’s care.
“She came off as a cool person when I talked to her,” said Keisha Brown, Elias Castillo’s mother. “Just like a normal person gains a normal person’s trust.”
Tata’s attorney say the murder charge is excessive because she never intended to harm the children. Her mother agrees.
“She loved those children very dearly and she would not do anything to intentionally hurt them,” said Josie Tata, the defendant’s mother.
Tata faces up to life in prison.