Officials search for fugitive in day care fire

Published 10:49 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Officials are trying to locate a Houston home day care operator who apparently fled to her native Nigeria after being charged in a blaze at the facility that killed four children and injured three others.

The search for Jessica Tata comes as investigators release new allegations about the blaze, saying Tata left the children she was caring for without adult supervision, while a stovetop burner was on, before the fire. Investigators believe the burner was the source of last week’s blaze.

Tata, 22, was charged late Sunday evening with reckless injury to a child involving serious bodily injury in the death of 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson. The charge carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison.  Officials said Monday they believe Tata has fled to Nigeria, where she is originally from.

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Prosecutors have declined to say whether they plan to file additional charges against Tata.

Fire Department Assistant Chief Michelle McLeod declined to comment on how investigators determined Tata had fled or when she had left. U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Alfredo Perez said if his agency confirms Tata is in Nigeria, it will ask that country to arrest her on behalf of the U.S.

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.

“I don’t really know what to say about that,” Ukera said. “There is nothing that I can say or do to (Tata) that would resurrect my daughter.  I have forgiven her and will leave it up to the god of justice.”

It was not known if 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 an 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 … 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,” according to the arrest affidavit.

Tata had told neighbors after the fire that the blaze 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.

“It is believed that the burner was left on and was the heat source of the fire,” according to the affidavit.

The affidavit did not specify who left the burner on.