Fire victim's mom testifies in Tata's punishment

Day-care owner Jessica Tata found guilty of murder

HOUSTON - The mother of the boy Jessica Tata has been convicted of killing testified in the punishment phase of day-care owner's trial on Thursday.

Jessica Tata was found guilty Tuesday of murdering 16-month-old Elias Castillo.

Tata, 24, left children in a home on Crest Park near Waypark alone with a pan of grease heating on a stove while she went shopping on Feb. 24, 2011. When she got home, the house was on fire. Elias, Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months and Kendyll Stradford, 20 months all died in the fire. Three other children were hurt.

Tata's murder conviction carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.

Elias' mother took the stand Thursday.

Keisha Brown chuckled as she described Elias as a happy baby who seemed to always be smiling. Tears began to flow when she recounted how she learned her son had been hurt in the fire at the day care.

Brown said she rushed to the hospital where Elias was being treated. She had all the hope a mother could that he would pull through, but he died the next day.

"Can't nobody say a single word and make you feel better ... because your heart is breaking," Brown said.

As Brown testified, one of the jurors was seen crying. Tata stared down at the table in front of her.

Kiyanna Richardson, 7, had two siblings in Tata's home during the fire. Her brother, Shomari, died. Her sister, Makayla, was injured.

Kiyanna, who was at school when the fire occurred, told jurors that Tata often left the children alone in the home. Tata told the children to not open the door, Kiyanna said.

A 7-year-old girl who Tata was paid to care for told a jury Thursday that it was not unusual for Tata to leave young children at her home alone while she ran errands. Brighten Long said that when she was 4 years old, Tata would put the older children in a van and take them to a McDonald's inside a Walmart store. Tata left the infants in their cribs, unattended, at the day care, Brighten said.

Holly Long said after she removed her Brighten and her son from Tata's day care after Brighten told her about things that were happening there.

Lindsay Lay lived near the day care. She said that she considered putting her child in Tata's day care in the fall of 2010. She said she walked to the day care several times between Halloween and Christmas. Lay said she could always hear children inside the home, but the van normally was not in the driveway. She testified that she knocked on the door several times and normally never got an answer. One time, Lay said, an unidentified woman answered the door.

During the punishment phase, Alfredo Galvan, a welfare fraud investigator, told jurors that Tata reported on state records that she was "self employed" and received money for "babysitting." He said Tata reported, on some applications, that she made $80 per week.

Galvan said that Tata received $4,136 worth of food stamps between December 2007 and February 2011. He said she was overpaid $3,981.

Several witnesses told jurors about Tata's history with fires.

On Wednesday, one of Tata's former classmates told jurors about Tata's time as a student at Taylor High School in Katy. Krystal Batts said she had horrible memories when she heard about the fire at Tata's day care.

"I'm still a little shaken up about it," Batts said.

Batts testified that her friendship with Tata ended the day in 2002 that Tata went up to her at school, showed her matches and said, "'I think I'm going to do something crazy.'"

Batts said a short time later, she heard the fire alarm and 3,000 students were evacuated from the school. She said she was then terrified of Tata.

On Tuesday, a school official told jurors that Tata set two fires, one in the main building and another in the ninth-grade building, that caused about $2,000 worth of damage.

Tata has admitted to setting the fires because she was angry about being disciplined. She received probation and was required to undergo a counseling course called "Fire Stoppers," which is taught by the Houston Fire Department.

Houston Fire Department counselor Lisa Hayes testified that she warned Tata to think about her actions because she could kill people.

Tata's response was, according to Hayes, "I don't care."

Tata's former juvenile detention supervisor, Richard Sizemore, told the jury that Tata was written up 13 times, mostly for refusing to follow directions and disruptive outbursts, while she was in the Juvenile Detention Center for three months.

Tata did not take the stand in her defense. Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he has not decided if Tata will testify in the punishment phase.

Tata faces three additional counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. Trials on those charges have not yet been scheduled.

Prosecutors said Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping at a Target store. Tata's attorneys said she didn't intend to hurt the children. Defense attorneys said murder charges were excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children.

After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011. She has remained jailed since then. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship. She was not charged with a crime at the time she left the country.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.