HOUSTON - A day care owner pleaded not guilty during her arraignment Wednesday to charges in connection with a fire that killed four children.
Jessica Tata was charged with four counts of felony murder, four counts of abandoning a child and one count of reckless injury to a child.
The judge ruled against a defense request to combine all of the charges into one trial. The first of what could be up to nine trials will begin Jan. 20.
"That could be tough. I don't know how anyone could afford that kind of prosecution," defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said.
Prosecutors said it is too soon to say how many trials will be necessary.
Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, and Elias Castillo, 16 months, died in 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 blaze.
Some of the families were in the courtroom Wednesday and wept when the charges were read.
Dickerson's mother said they are seeking justice.
"SEEK stands for 'Shomari, Elias, Elizabeth and Kendyll.' Seek justice," Stephanie Dickerson said.
Arson investigators said the fire started in the kitchen after a pot of oil was left on a hot burner.
Tata, 23, was supposed to be watching the children, but Houston Fire Department officials said she 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. The first call to 911 was made by someone other than Tata at 1:29 p.m., investigators said.
A few days after the fire, Tata left the country for Nigeria. She was brought back in April and remains jailed on $2 million bond.
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