Neighbors testify in fatal day care fire trial

Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder

HOUSTON - A neighbor told a jury Monday that Jessica Tata tried to save children who were inside her burning home day care.

Tata, 24, is on trial, charged with felony murder. Prosecutors said she left several children home alone with a pot of grease heating on a stove while she went shopping in 2011. When she got home, the house was on fire, officials said.

Four children were killed in the fire.

Christian Wendeberg, who lived near the burning home, testified that he saw Tata dash into the house to rescue the children. He said she came out with two children, one of whom was unconscious. Both had suffered burns, he said.

Wendeberg shot cellphone video of the fire, too. He asked Tata how many children were inside the home when the fire started. She told him there were nine children in the home, Wendeberg said.

Investigators said there were actually seven children inside the home.

A second neighbor, Sandra Sawyer, also told a jury Monday that Tata told her that nine children were inside the home. Sawyer said she went through Tata's cellphone and read out the names of the children and their parents. That's when Tata realized that only seven children were there, Sawyer said.

Sawyer said she tried to assure Tata that the children would be OK, but Tata told her that the fire had been going on "a long time." Sawyer said Tata told her that she had been in the bathroom when the fire started and she passed out from the smoke.

Sawyer testified that she saw several of the children being carried out of the home by firefighters. Those children were covered in soot. Sawyer said she noticed that Tata did not have any soot on her clothing and she didn't smell like smoke.

Sawyer said she told Tata to call her mother, but Tata didn't want to do that.

"'Oh my God -- don't tell my mom,'" Sawyer said Tata told her. "'She's going to kill me. She didn't want me to have this day care in the first place.'"

Neighbor Michael McAndrews said Tata told him something odd while firefighters were battling the blaze and trying to rescue the children.

"'I don't need to be running a day care. I've got money,'" McAndrews said Tata told him.

Another neighbor, Cynthia Poursartip, said that Tata admitted to her that she wasn't home when the fire stated. When she asked why, Poursartip said Tata told her, "I will tell them that when I testify."

Tata did make a call to 911 when she saw the fire, officials said.

"They're dying. I can't see anything. I can't even go in there and get them," Tata told the 911 operator. "The kids are dying."

Four minutes before the fire started, security cameras caught Tata shopping at a nearby Target store. The video was shown to jurors.

Manager Ray Menzies testified Friday that he asked her to fill out a survey form, but was told, "She told me that she had grease on the stove. And she told me that it was on low, and that her sister was there with the kids. And would it be OK?"

"I told her by no means would it be OK," Menzies said.

He testified that Tata did not have any children with her.

Menzies said she left within 10 seconds, but did not appear to be frantic or hurried. Store cameras showed that she didn't go directly to her car, but stopped and lingered on the way out at a Starbucks counter in the store. When she arrived home, the day care was on fire.

Tata has been charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.

Prosecutors said Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping. While she was at Target, a fire broke out in the kitchen when oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner ignited. Three children were also seriously injured in the blaze.

Tata's attorneys said she didn't intend to hurt the children. Defense attorneys said murder charges are excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.

Tata initially told authorities she was in the home's bathroom when the fire happened. Mike DeGeurin, Tata's attorney, attributed her lie to immaturity.

Legal experts said that if prosecutors can prove the deaths occurred because she abandoned the children to go shopping, they don't need to prove intent to harm to secure a murder conviction. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony and that action led to the death.

After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month, returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.

Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, and Elias Castillo, 16 months, died in the fire at Jackie's Child Care on Crest Park at Waypark Drive shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2011. Three other children were injured. Tata is standing trial for felony murder first for the youngest of the victims -- Elias Castillo.

Tata's trial is expected to last about a month.

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