HOUSTON - A day care owner has been indicted in the deaths of four children killed in a fire.
A Harris County grand jury indicted Jessica Tata, 23, on four counts of felony murder on Wednesday.
Tata, 23, has also been charged with 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.
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.
Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said murder charges were an unnecessary stretch of the law.
Tata went to Nigeria before she was charged. Her brother said he helped her fly there because his family wanted her safe from death threats and media scrutiny. She returned to the United States several weeks after she had been charged in connection with the deaths.
If convicted, Tata faces between five years and life in prison.
Tata is scheduled for arraignment on the new charges on July 8.
City Passes Ordinance For Home Day Care Inspections
Houston City Council passed an ordinance on Wednesday that requires annual fire department inspections of home day cares.
Inspectors will look for fire extinguishers, fire detectors, exits and escape plans.
"If they weren't exposed to it before, we're going to give them that lesson on what to look for," said HFD Executive Assistant Chief Richard Galvan. "At times, there could be as little as an exit door being blocked."
The city will charge home day cares $100 a year to cover the cost of the inspections. Those who do not pay will face a $2,000 penalty.
The ordinance also requires operators to have their home open and available for inspection any time a fire inspector stops by.
City officials said Houston has about 1,000 registered home day cares.
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