Houston's fire chief admitted Wednesday that mistakes were likely made by his arson investigators, as Local 2 Investigates uncovered another missed opportunity to catch fugitive day care owner Jessica Tata, who is accused of leaving seven children alone when a fire broke out, killing four.
"As far as I'm concerned, somewhere along the way, we may have made a mistake," Houston Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison said. "We're going to learn from our mistake. We're not going to blame anybody."
Tata, 22, was the day care provider at a home in the 2800 block of Crestpark at Waypark when a fire broke out Thursday shortly before 1:30 p.m. The house served as a day care facility called Jackie's Child Care. Seven children were at the home when the fire broke out.
Three of the children, Elizabeth Kojah, of Cypress, and Kendyll Stradford, of Katy, both 20 months old; and Shomari Dickerson, 3, died Thursday. A fourth child, Elias Castillo, died Saturday.
Two of the surviving children are at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston in critical condition. The third surviving child has been released from the hospital.
Tata was charged Monday with one count of reckless injury to a child in connection with Dickerson's death Sunday. Nine new charges were filed against her Tuesday, prosecutors said. She will face a total of seven counts of reckless injury to a child and three additional charges of child endangerment.
Tata is not in custody and is believed to be in Nigeria. 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.
Garrison said he would have followed the day care owner himself when she left the hospital after the fire had he known what he knows now.
U.S. marshals said they were preparing to file 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.
Local 2 Investigates confirmed that HFD Arson Squad investigators learned on Monday that a plane ticket had been purchased in Tata's name, but they were afraid it may be a different person.
Investigators said they worked to verify it was the same person, but by the time they did that, she had flown out of the country.
Arson Squad Chief Gabe Cortez said there was not enough time to catch her at the airport, making for a second missed opportunity to place her in handcuffs.
Garrison said Tata was not arrested immediately because she appeared to be a victim.
"She was upset. She obviously needed medical treatment and we transported her," he said. "We did interview her on the scene and she was not able to give us a lot of information. 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 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.
Garrison and Cortez said they took their evidence to the Harris County District Attorney's office on five occasions and were denied the filing of charges each time.
When charges were accepted by prosecutors on Sunday, it was based on the same set of evidence that investigators had presented from the beginning, they said.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker said, "I am confident in the work of the Houston Fire Department and the investigators who were out there."
She said City Council started discussing new restrictions on small day care facilities on Wednesday, however she said, "You can't legislate common sense and it was a horrible mistake on her part, but that mistake is going to have permanent consequences."
District Attorney Pat Lycos stands by her prosecutors, saying on Tuesday that, "If anybody wants to attack, attack me."
U.S. marshals said they were making progress in working with Nigerian officials through the U.S. State Department, but a spokesman declined to elaborate.
Arson investigators said the fire started in the kitchen after someone left a pot of oil sitting on a hot burner.
Houston Fire Department investigators said Tata left the children alone while she went grocery shopping at a Target store that was less than a mile away from the home. 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.
Witnesses said Tata returned just 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.
Lykos said Tata is a U.S. citizen who was born in Harris County. She attended Katy's Taylor High School.
"All these agencies share a frustration that the suspect is not here to face the charges for her actions," Garrison said. "We shared a timeline with the public as an accounting of our actions. I am extremely proud of our efforts."
Anyone with information on Tata's whereabouts is asked to contact the U.S. Marshal's Office at 713-718-4259.
"We're going to work and do whatever needs to be done to get Tata back here," Garrison said.
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.
Some Funeral Arrangements Set
Funeral arrangements for two of the victims have been set.
Shomari Dickerson's viewing will be held at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Earthman Resthaven, 13102 North Freeway. His funeral will be held at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.
Castillo's 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.
Funeral arrangements for Kojah and Stradford have not been announced.
Fire department officials said they are working with the Houston Police Department's Victim's Services Unit to provide assistance to the victims' families.