HOUSTON - The woman who ran a west Houston day care that caught fire, killing four children, fled to Nigeria before she was criminally charged, fire officials said Monday.
Jessica Tata, 22, has been charged with one count of reckless bodily injury to a child. The charge carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison, if convicted, according to Donna Hawkins, of the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
Tata has not been taken into custody. Immigration officials said she flew to Nigeria on Saturday before she was charged, so there was no reason for airport officials to stop her.
Tata is from Nigeria.
An arrest warrant was issued on Monday.
The U.S. Marshal's Service in Houston said it has been asked to help track down Tata.
"If she is out of the country, that doesn't mean we're not going to get her back," said Alfredo Perez with the U.S. Marshals Service.
Tata was the day care provider at a home in the 2800 block of Crestpark at Waypark when a fire broke out Thursday at 1:40 p.m. The house served as a day care facility called Jackie's Child Care.
Investigators said Tata was not home at the time of the fire because she was grocery shopping. Sources told KPRC Local 2 that security video shows she was in a store for at least 13 minutes.
Firefighters arriving at the scene found two injured children outside the home and five more trapped inside. All of the victims ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Three of the children, Elizabeth Kojah, of Cypress, and Kendyll Stradford, of Katy, both 20 months old; and Shomari Dickerson, 3, died on Thursday. A fourth child, Elias Castillo, died on 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 in connection with Dickerson's death. Prosecutors would not say if more charges are expected. Her bail will be set at $500,000.
Neighbors said they saw Tata pull up to the home with grocery bags, and then realized the house was on fire. Witnesses said she yelled for help and neighbors tried to rescue the children, but the smoke was too heavy.
According to court documents, the fire started on top of the electric stove in the kitchen. Investigators said a pot of oil was left on the burner, which was left on.
Witnesses said they did not see any other adults or employees at the scene, other than Tata when she returned to the home.
Tata's family members said they have not seen her since Friday and do not know where she is staying.
Tata's brother, Ron, said his family is devastated over the deaths and that they set up an assistance fund to help with funeral and other expenses.
"We feel very, very bad for what happened to the families. We love them and pray for them every single day," Ron Tata said. "We are opening a benefit account. We have certain contributors. I'm a Realtor and my broker is contributing. A lot of folks are working with us to bring some type of comfort to these families."
Tata's mother, Josie, said she is praying for the families of the children.
"We just been praying that almighty God will see these families through and deal with them, heal them, and provide peace for them, and guide them through this critical time in their life," said Josie Tata. "Our heart is broken. We've been crying. If crying can bring these children's life back, we would have done it."
"Being a parent, honestly, if it were my child, I know I would be hysterical," neighbor Jewell Adams said. "We've just been praying for the families that went through this bad tragedy."
Neighbors, relatives and friends have set up a memorial to the children outside the home.
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