HOUSTON (AP) — A Houston home day care operator left the kids she was caring for without adult supervision, while a stovetop burner was on, before a blaze that killed four children and injured three others, according to an arrest affidavit made public Monday.
Investigators believe the burner was the source of last week's fire.
Hours after the new details about the blaze were released, Houston fire department officials announced that day care operator Jessica Tata had fled the Unites States and they had asked the U.S. Marshals Service in Houston to help track her down.
Officials believe Tata has fled to Nigeria, where she is originally from.
Tata, 22, was charged late Sunday evening with reckless injury to a child involving serious bodily injury involving the death of 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson. The charge carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors have not said whether they plan to file additional charges against Tata.
It was not immediately known whether Tata had an attorney. Attempts by The Associated Press to contact her family in person or by phone at multiple addresses and telephone listings have been unsuccessful.
Houston Fire Department investigators said in the affidavit that two of Tata's neighbors described seeing her drive up on Thursday and go into the home where the day care center was located, then hearing her screaming seconds after she went in the front door. They saw smoke coming from inside.
"Both witnesses stated that it only took them a few seconds to arrive at the fire scene and they both stated they saw no adults or employees of the daycare either inside the building or running out of the building other than (Tata). It appeared to them that (Tata) was the only adult at the daycare," the arrest affidavit states.
Tata had told neighbors immediately after the fire that it started in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom. Investigators said there was an electric stove in the kitchen with a pot containing oil on the burner.
The affidavit did not specify who left the burner on.
Two of the injured children remained hospitalized Monday in critical but stable condition.
Fire Department Assistant Chief Michelle McLeod declined to comment on how investigators determined Tata had fled or when she had left the country.
"Right now we are trying to confirm everything," said U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Alfredo Perez. "Just because someone who is wanted flees to another country doesn't mean the United States isn't going to get them back and have them face justice."
Perez said if his agency confirms Tata is in Nigeria, it will ask that country to arrest her on behalf of the U.S. He said he believed the United States has an extradition treaty with Nigeria.
Tata's bond has been set at $500,000.
Betty Ukera, the mother of 20-month-old Elizabeth Kajoh, one of the children who died in the blaze, said she was still processing the news that Tata had fled the country.
"Whatever she did that day resulted in the death of my daughter and perhaps it is human instinct to want to run away. I don't know really," she said. "Only God will give us justice in this matter and we leave it to him."