Tata's defense: Electrical malfunction started fatal fire

Day care owner Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder

HOUSTON - The defense in the Jessica Tata murder trial claims an electrical malfunction in a kitchen appliance started the fire that killed four children.

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

The first witness for the defense took the stand on Wednesday. Richard Bonyata was hired by the defense to inspect the evidence found after the fire.

Bonyata suggested that the burner switch on the stove may have been faulty. He said similar switches on other stoves had caused burners to turn on or jump in temperature on their own.

Bonyata also said that an electrical malfunction in the refrigerator could have also caused the fire. He said there was heavy fire damage to the refrigerator and the area around it. He testified that a damaged electrical relay was recovered after the fire and records showed that someone tried to repair the refrigerator a week before the fire.

The prosecution had arson experts in court to listen to Bonyata's testimony. Earlier in the trial, the prosecution's engineering expert testified that he examined the stove after the fire and determined one of the burners had been on. He said that there were no problems with the stove's switches.

Susan Lahmeyer with the Texas Department of Family Protection Services took the stand on Monday. She testified that Tata took a six-hour orientation course in June 2009 that included instruction on state requirements, codes and best practices for child care. She applied for a permit to operate a home day care on Feb. 4, 2010.

Tata's home was inspected on Feb. 23, 2010, and two deficiencies were noted, Lahmeyer said. Inspectors said there were no fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors in the home. Those problems were corrected and Tata received her permit on March 1, 2010.

Lahmeyer told the jury that Tata was only permitted to take care of six infants or toddlers and six school-aged children. Tata was caring for seven children under 3 years old at the time of the fire.

Tata's license was revoked after the fire. The agency found her guilty of neglect.

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.

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.

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