HOUSTON Jessica Tata made her first court appearance in Houston Wednesday with famed defense attorney Mike DeGeurin by her side.
Tata entered the courtroom wearing handcuffs and a yellow jail jumpsuit. She looked straight ahead, making no eye contact with anyone in the courtroom.
Tata pleaded not guilty to all charges against her. She s facing more than 14 counts including charges of manslaughter, child abandonment, reckless injury to a child and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in connection with a day care fire that killed four children and injured three others in February.
Prosecutors were not saying much about the charges against Tata.
The defendant is being held now without any bond. The state intends to try this case in the courtroom not in the media, prosecutor Donna Hawkins with the Harris County District Attorney s Office said.
Before Tata entered the courtroom, Judge Marc Brown warned the crowd to remain quiet during the hearing.
As the charges were read, the only sounds were the sobs from the victims families. They packed the courtroom to face Tata for the first time since the fire.
Tata s family members were also on hand for the arraignment.
The only sign of emotion from Tata was a two-second glance at her brother as she left the courtroom and headed back to jail.
Christina Garza, a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff s Office, said Tata will have extra security while in jail and will be isolated for her protection.
Ms. Tata will be housed in a single cell, and that is for her safety and her protection, she will be accompanied at all times as she makes movements throughout the jail, Garza said.
DeGeurin said the next step for his client is convincing a judge to set bond.
There is much more to what happened than everyone knows, DeGeurin said before the hearing began. This is a terrible, terrible accident.
He told reporters Tata actually tried to save the children, one of whom Elizabeth Kajoh, was her goddaughter.
She broke windows with her hands. She crawled in twice a third time was when she passed out before the firemen got there, DeGeurin said.
Investigators say Tata left the seven kids alone in the day care while she went shopping at Target. When she returned, the building was on fire. Fire officials said the blaze was sparked by an unattended pot of oil left on a burning stove.
The 22-year-old woman, who has both Nigerian and U.S. citizenship, left the country two days after the fire. She was an international fugitive for nearly a month and was put on the U.S. Marshals 15 most wanted list before she was captured in Nigeria and extradited to Texas early Tuesday morning.
But DeGeurin said his client didn t flee the country; she left before she was charged.
While in Nigeria, DeGeurin said Tata met with a judge and two attorneys.
I do know that her father, the judge and her father made some sort of arrangement for her to go to the embassy to her hotel, and then she was picked up from there, he said.
Tata s brother also told reporters that his sister had turned herself in to authorities in Nigeria a claim U.S. Marshals disputed.
We were feeding them some information as to Jessica Tata s possible whereabouts. With that information, Interpol agents in Nigeria and Nigerian officials took Jessica Tata into custody and we brought her back, Deputy U.S. Marshal Alfredo Perez said Tuesday.
After the arraignment, relatives of the victims were ushered out of the courtroom holding hands.
Visibly shaken, they asked not to be interviewed and were escorted to visit with a victims advocate.
But before the hearing, they talked about what compelled them to attend.
I need to see her. I need to see the woman that killed my son. I m not gonna run from it. I m gonna confront it. I m not like her I m not a coward, Keisha Brown, who lost her son in the fire, said.
No more running for Jessica Tata. Now it s time to face justice, and that s why we re here, for the support of our family and to finally see justice start, Darlene Price, whose nephew was killed in the blaze, said.