The first of four funerals for the victims of a day care fire began Thursday, and the search for day care owner accused of leaving the children alone while she went grocery shopping and then fleeing the country continues.
Family and friends said goodbye to Shomari Dickerson, 3, on Thursday. Houston Fire Department officials and community members saddened by his death streamed into a funeral home to support his family.
"He had a lust for life and does not deserve this," said Tracy Storms, Shomari's grandmother.
Shomari, along with Elizabeth Kojah, of Cypress, and Kendyll Stradford, of Katy, both 20 months old, and Elias Castillo died from a fire at a home in the 2800 block of Crestpark at Waypark shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 24. The house served as a day care facility called Jackie's Child Care.
Three other children were injured in the fire. Shomari's sister, Makayla, and another child were taken to Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston with severe burns. A third child has been treated and released.
Arson investigators said the fire started in the kitchen after someone left a pot of oil sitting on a hot burner.
Jessica Tata, 22, was the owner of the day care. Houston Fire Department officials said she was grocery shopping at a Target store nearby when the fire stated. Detectives said security video showed her arriving at the store at 1:09 p.m. and driving away from the store at 1:24 p.m. The children had been left home alone, investigators said.
"Who goes grocery shopping and leaves something on the stove? Who does that? Who is that careless?" asked Storms.
Witnesses said Tata returned as smoke began billowing out of the home day care. The first call to 911 was made by someone other than Tata at 1:29 p.m., investigators said.
Tata was charged Monday with one count of reckless injury to a child in connection with Shomari's death. Nine more charges were filed against Tata on Tuesday, prosecutors said. She will face a total of seven counts of reckless injury to a child and three additional charges of child endangerment, they said.
Before she could be arrested, Tata left the country, investigators said. Houston Fire Department officials said she flew from Dallas to Atlanta and then took a flight to Nigeria on Saturday. She left before charges were filed against her, so there was no reason for airport officials to stop her.
Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said he would have followed Tata himself when she left the hospital after the fire had he known what he knows now.
Garrison said Tata was not arrested immediately because she appeared to be a victim.
"We did interview her on the scene and she was not able to give us a lot of information, Garrison said. "What she did say to us was not truthful and we were able to determine that later. She made a statement that she was in the bathroom when the fire occurred and she came out of the bathroom."
He said that Tata later claimed to have amnesia and did not recognize anyone. When investigators reminded her they were the same officials from the fire scene, asking her if she really doesn't remember them, she answered, "I'm too distraught," according to Garrison.
"The worst thing we did is believe Ms. Tata and her attorney that they were going to talk to us that day. And when we tried to make contact. We weren't able to," Garrison said.
U.S. marshals have filed federal charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, and HFD said it issued a Red Notice to Interpol in hopes that Tata can be arrested in Nigeria.
Shomari's grandfather had a message for Tata.
"You can hide, you can run, but God is going to bring you to justice," said Glenn Price.
If Tata is eventually arrested in Nigeria, it may still be a while before she returns to Houston. Attorney Stanley Schneider said the extradition process is long and difficult.
"If she wants to disappear, then it's how long before you find her and get her into custody? Have the Nigerian government arrest her and then start the process... so that could be never," Schneider said.
Schneider said the United States has extradition treaties with almost every country in the world, but each country has certain restrictions on how and why a person can be brought back.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said Tata is a U.S. citizen who was born in Harris County. She attended Katy's Taylor High School.
Sources in the Katy Independent School District said that Tata set two fires when she was a ninth-grade student at Taylor High School. Sources said one fire was set in the main part of the campus. The other fire was in a bathroom in the Ninth Grade Center.
Tata is not accused of arson in the day care fire, officials said.
Anyone with information on Tata's whereabouts is asked to contact the U.S. marshal's office at 713-718-4259.
All Funeral Arrangements Set
Funeral arrangements for two more of the victims have been set.
Elias' viewing will be held at Memorial Oaks Funeral Home, 13001 Katy Freeway, from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday. His funeral will be held at 3 p.m. Friday.
A wake will be held for Kendyll will be held at Forest Park Funeral Home, 12880 Westheimer Road, from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday. Her funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday.
A prayer service for Elizabeth will be held at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, 6646 Addicks Satsuma Road, at 6 p.m. Friday. Her funeral will be held at the same church at 1 p.m. Saturday. She will be buried at Memorial Oaks Cemetery on the Katy Freeway.
Fire Department officials said they are working with the Houston Police Department's Victim's Services Unit to provide assistance to the victims' families.