HOUSTON - A judge refused Friday to lower the bond for a day care owner charged in the deaths of four children killed in a fire.
Jessica Tata, 23, was charged with four counts of murder, four counts of abandoning a child and one count of reckless injury to a child. She's being held in the Harris County Jail with bond set at $1.1 million.
Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said the bond amount is excessive and unconstitutional. He wants it lowered to around $50,000 so Tata could be released while she awaits trial.
Prosecutors told a judge that Tata is a flight risk. She flew to Nigeria days after the fire, but she had not yet been charged. She returned to the United States several weeks after she had been charged in connection with the deaths.
Several witnesses testified Friday, including an arson investigator who said Tata lied about being in the bathroom when the fire started but that video from a Target store later revealed that she was shopping and left the children alone.
When investigators asked for a statement from Tata at the hospital the night of the blaze, she said she was in shock and could not remember anything.
The arson investigator said Tata and her family were actually in her hospital room watching news coverage of the fire. The investigator testified that he went to interview Tata at her friend's house the next day, but she said she needed to talk to an attorney first. The investigator said they expected to talk to her on Feb. 26, but she had left the country.
The investigator also testified that Tata was convicted of arson as a juvenile after she set two fires at Katy Taylor High School.
A Child Protective Services worker introduced documents that showed Tata did not reveal the previous arson arrest when she applied for a day care license.
The first witness to testify in the bond hearing was a Houston police officer who helped track down Tata in Nigeria.
Tata's brother, Ron, admitted to helping his sister travel to Nigeria because his family wanted her safe from death threats and media scrutiny.
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 blaze.
Arson investigators said the fire started in the kitchen after a pot of oil was left on a hot burner.
Tata 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 day care. The first call to 911 was made by someone other than Tata at 1:29 p.m., investigators said.
In court, Tata's attorneys played a recording of Tata's 911 call in which she pleaded with the operator and neighbors for help.
"They're all dying. Please somebody help me. Oh my God, my babies. Oh my God, I don't know what to do," Tata said on the 911 call.
DeGeurin said Tata went into the burning house three times to save the children and lost her own goddaughter in the fire.
As the 911 call played, Tata cried. There were tears in the court audience as well as the mother and grandmother of two of the victims became overwhelmed with grief and then left the courtroom.
Late Friday afternoon, state district Judge Marc Brown denied the bond reduction request without additional comment.
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