Fire investigators said the owner of a West Houston day care apparently left the kids alone before a deadly fire broke out, Local 2 Investigates reported Friday.
Jessica Tata, 22, owner of Jackie's Child Care, has not yet been charged with a crime, but police and fire investigators said the criminal case against her was growing the day after that fire killed three children.
Houston Fire Department sources told Local 2 Investigates they had spoken to a neighbor who witnessed Tata arriving home after leaving the kids alone during nap time to go grocery shopping.
That neighbor, Geoffrey Deshano, told Local 2 that he spotted Tata returning home, frantically calling for help as she kept repeating that she had left the kids alone.
"When she pulled up, the kids weren't inside the car with her. They'd been left there by themselves," said Deshano. "We could see grocery bags, drinks right there at the front of the door."
Deshano told HFD investigators that Tata fumbled around for keys, unable to get inside as the smoke intensified.
"It was nap time and she went to the grocery store," Deshano relayed to investigators that Tata had told him.
At an afternoon news briefing outside the smoke-damaged home day care, Houston Fire Department leaders would not confirm the new focus of their investigation or comment about the neighbor's statements.
"We are waiting to speak with her regarding the events that led up to the fire," Assistant Fire Chief Lisa Campbell said. "We have not had an opportunity to do that."
When asked about the neighbor's account of children being left alone, Campbell replied, "We don't have a comment on that. It's an active investigation. We're not commenting at this time,."
Tata's brother, Ron Tata, told Local 2 Investigates that reports of his sister leaving the children alone were "not accurate."
He said Jessica Tata would release a statement or speak with a reporter later, but nothing further was heard from the family.
One HFD investigator told Local 2 Investigates that all smoke detectors were working just fine inside the day care.
He said, "It's hard to imagine that she's in the house and unable to get the kids out in time."
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the ranking investigator said that even the cheapest smoke detectors sound an alarm before smoke is even visible. In this fire, smoke filled the entire home, so he said any adult would have had enough time to save every child's life, had someone been there.
"It's hard to think she's there," said the investigator.
Sources also said there was no sign that any children had started the fire, which seems to have started in the kitchen. It was unclear whether food was left cooking or something else had started the fire in the kitchen.
Deshano said that once he and Tata were able to open a back door, smoke poured out and a choking and crying child emerged.
He said they were unable to reach the other children due to choking, thick smoke.
The Harris County District Attorney's office said no criminal charges had been filed as of late Friday afternoon.