A woman charged in the deaths of four children faced a judge for arraignment Wednesday afternoon, nearly one month after a fire broke out at her home day care while she went shopping.
Jessica Tata, 22, appeared in the 180th Criminal Court and pleaded not guilty to all counts. Famed defense attorney Mike DeGeurin was hired as her attorney and entered the plea on her behalf. Tata did not speak during the arraignment.
Tata has been charged with 13 state felonies, including four counts of manslaughter, three counts of abandoning a child and six counts of reckless injury to a child. She also faces a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. She is being held without bond.
The courtroom was packed with relatives of the children who died in the fire.
"For me, I've got to see her. I need her to see me -- see what she did to me," said Keshia Brown, victim Elias Castillo's mother.
"To know that this is where justice begins and (there's) 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 today," said Darlene Price, a victim's relative.
DeGeurin said there is more to the story. He said Tata went into the burning house three times to save the children, and lost her own goddaughter in the fire.
"Even her own goddaughter died. She broke windows with hands, bloodied her arms. The third time in was when she passed out. It was a horror movie," DeGeurin said.
He said Tata was not on the run in Nigeria.
"When she left to to go Nigeria, where her father lives, there were no charges against her. So there's nothing illegal about doing that," DeGeurin said.
Tata spent weeks on the run in Nigeria, prosecutors said. She was arrested there on Saturday and returned to Houston early Tuesday, when she was booked into the Harris County Jail.
DeGeurin wants Tata released on bond while she awaits trial. He has asked for a bond hearing.
Prosecutors filed a request with the court to set Tata's bond at $2 million, confiscate her passports and require her to wear an electronic monitor if she is released.
Tata is being being held in administrative segregation, locked down 23 hours a day in an 8-foot-by-9 1/2-foot cell. Harris County Sheriff's Office officials said it is for her protection.
Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, and Elias Castillo died from the 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.
Arson investigators said the fire started in the kitchen after someone left a pot of oil sitting on a hot burner.
Houston Fire Department officials said Tata was grocery shopping at a Target store nearby when the fire started. 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
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.
The manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.