HOUSTON - A day care owner has been booked into the Harris County Jail after investigators said she spent several weeks on the run out of the country following the deaths of four children in a fire.
Jessica Tata arrived at Hooks Airport from Atlanta about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday. She was then taken to the county's inmate processing center and booked into jail.
She was scheduled to appear before a magistrate Tuesday morning to hear the charges against her. But she was taken directly to the jail's medical ward after she was booked. Sources told KPRC Local 2 that there are concerns about Tata's health, so she is undergoing a complete physical and psychological evaluation.
She is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday afternoon.
Tata wore leg irons and a bulletproof vest as she got off the plane and as she walked into the jail. Her hair was noticeably different from the original mug shot released by the Fulton County Sheriff's Office on Monday. On Tuesday, the sheriff's office released a second mug shot showing her "natural" hair, which had been cut while on the run.
Inmates at the Harris County Jail are not permitted to wear any type of hairpiece.
Tata will be held in administrative segregation, locked down 23 hours a day in an 8-foot by 9 1/2-foot cell, but she will never be alone.
"She will be housed in a single cell, and that's for her safety," Harris County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Christina Garza said. "She will be accompanied at all times as she moves throughout the jail. Again, that is for her protection."
Tata has been charged with 14 state felonies, including manslaughter, abandoning children, and reckless injury to a child. She also faces a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
She will likely be held in jail until her case goes to trial because she is a proven flight risk.
Tata's family said she turned herself in to authorities in Nigeria, but the U.S. marshals office said she was tracked down by an international team of investigators.
"We were feeding them some information as to Jessica Tata's whereabouts," Deputy U.S. Marshal Alfredo Perez said. "With that information, Interpol agents in Nigeria and Nigerian officials took Jessica Tata into custody."
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 fire.
Arson investigators said the fire started in the kitchen after someone left a pot of oil sitting on a hot burner.
Houston Fire Department officials said Tata was grocery shopping at a Target store nearby when the fire stated. 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.
Houston Fire Department officials said Tata originally appeared to be a victim of the fire.
"She was upset. She obviously needed medical treatment and we transported her," Chief Terry Garrison said. "We did interview her on the scene and she was not able to give us a lot of information. What she did say to us was not truthful and we were able to determine that later. She made a statement that she was in the bathroom when the fire occurred and she came out of the bathroom."
Garrison said investigators later tried to interview her at the hospital, but she claimed to not recognize them. Her attorney then told the Houston Fire Department that Tata would speak with investigators, but then she left the country.
"We live in a free country. There are laws we have to follow to arrest people," HFD spokesman Pat Trahan said. "Ms. Tata took advantage of that freedom. We're glad the U.S. marshals office was able to assist us in getting her back."
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