Charges grow in deadly US day care fire

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Associated Press

Posted on March 2, 2011 at 10:02 PM

HOUSTON (AP) — A day care operator accused of leaving the children she was watching alone when a fire broke out at the facility, killing four kids, faced a growing list of charges as authorities continued to answer questions about why the woman wasn't detained before she fled to Nigeria.

Prosecutors have now filed a total of 10 charges against Jessica Tata, said Donna Hawkins, a spokeswoman with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, said.

Joining the reckless injury to a child charge that had been filed earlier in the week are six more counts of the same charge, as well as three counts of abandoning a child. All the new charges were filed late Tuesday.

The reckless injury to a child charges each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The abandoning a child charges have a sentence of up to 10 years.

The Feb. 24 blaze at the day care facility, run out of a west Houston home, also injured three other children.

Attempts by The Associated Press to contact Tata's family in person and by phone at multiple addresses and telephone listings have been unsuccessful.

Houston Fire Department investigators accuse Tata of leaving all seven children who were in the home at the time of the fire without adult supervision. Investigators said surveillance video shows she was shopping at a nearby Target store when the fire started.

Investigators believe the fire was started by a stove top burner that had been left on. Tata told investigators the fire started in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom.

Earlier this week, arson investigators and Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos exchanged barbs in media reports over whether one of the agencies might have dropped the ball in not charging Tata before she became a fugitive. The first charge against Tata was filed Sunday, a day after authorities say she fled to Nigeria.

But on Wednesday, Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison tried to downplay any perceptions the two agencies were fighting.

Garrison said that in retrospect, he might have had investigators follow Tata to keep tabs on her.

"Somewhere along the way we may have made a mistake. We are not going to blame anybody," he said.

Garrison said investigators had trusted Tata's attorney, Mike Monks, who had indicated the day care operator was going to speak with authorities. Tata didn't give a statement before fleeing.

But Monks said he was never retained as Tata's attorney and thus never made any promises to authorities that they could speak to her.

Garrison, along with the U.S. Marshals Service in Houston, said a "red notice" has been sent out by the international police agency Interpol on Tata that tells police agencies around the world to be on the lookout for her. A spokeswoman for Interpol in Washington, D.C. did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Even if authorities determine that Tata is in Nigeria, it won't be easy to get her back to the United States, said Douglas McNabb, a Houston attorney who specializes in international extradition law.

While Nigeria and the United States have an extradition treaty dating back to 1935, the crimes Tata is charged with might not be covered, he said.

"If (Tata's) family engages an experienced extradition attorney, they could really tie this sucker up for a very long time. It could drag on for years," McNabb said.

Two of the injured children, a 22-month-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, remained hospitalized in good condition at Shiners Hospital for Children in Galveston, hospital spokeswoman Jo Ann Zuniga said Wednesday.

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