Murder trial underway for day care owner accused in deaths of four children in a fire
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Prosecutors say in February of 2011, Jessica Tata left a pot of oil boiling on a stove when she left her day care to run to a store. That sparked a fire, and four children at the day care died.
It was an emotional first day in court Wednesday as three mothers who lost their children in the blaze took the stand in Tata's murder trial.
Jessica Tata kept her eyes forward as she walked into court Wednesday morning. The former day care owner is accused of killing four young children and injuring three others after prosecutors say she left a pan of oil burning on the stove at her home day care.
Family members of the young victims killed, including the mother of 16-month-old Elias Castillo, say they are here to get justice.
"She intentionally left the babies alone, twice that morning. How stupid do you have to be to leave kids?" said Keisha Brown.
She is expected to testify, but first on the stand Wednesday was Tiffany Dickerson, whose 3-year-old daughter was severely burned in the fire, and her son, Shomari Dickerson, was killed.
Tiffany Dickerson testified that she was working as a nurse assistant at a hospital when she heard someone come over the loud speaker, testifying, "I heard code blue, double pedi."
Dickerson tearfully testified when she found out the kids were coming from her day care, she called Tata's phone and "a firefighter answered the phone. He asked me if I had a child at this day care. He said, 'I'm so sorry but all the kids have been rushed to different hospitals.' I collapsed on the floor."
Dickerson says she later discovered her injured daughter had been transported to her hospital, but her son Shomari was taken to another hospital. He didn't make it. Dickerson saying, "I never got to see my baby again."
The defense says it was a tragic accident.
"You can hear the frantic situation going on. 'My babies, my babies, my babies are burning,'" said defense attorney Mike DeGuerin.
The state is asking the jury to convict Tata of murder.
"You are going to hear about trust and betrayal. That's the evidence that's going to be in this case," said prosecutor Steve Baldassano.
Tiffany Dickerson brought her daughter who survived the fire to court Wednesday. The defense objected to her bringing the child into the courtroom in front of the jury.
Tata is charged with one count of felony murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Tata faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Stay with Eyewitness News and abc13.com for the latest on this case.
Opening statements on Wednesday morning
Opening statements occurred this morning in the trial of Jessica Tata and both sides are already laying out their case.
This will clearly be an emotional case with family and loved ones of the deceased children in court this morning and set to testify, as well as those of defendant Tata.
The jury of seven women and five men listened carefully to opening statements as prosecutors painted a picture of these parents' trust betrayed while the defense called this a "terrible accident."
Tata is charged with felony murder in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo, one of four toddlers who died in a fire at Tata's home day care in February 2011. Investigators say Tata left those children alone while she went shopping and a fire started from oil burning on the stove.
While the defense tried to paint Tata as a genuine caregiver, prosecutors say she talked to an employee at a Target, having left the children alone, and showed she knew what she had done.
"He mentions to the defendant, 'Hey do you want to do this survey?' and she says, 'Well, I don't know if I have time. I left food burning on the stove and my sister is home asleep with the kids. You think that's OK?' And you could hear Ray mention, and he'll tell you, 'No.' He said, 'That's not OK,'" prosecutor Steve Baldassano said in opening statements.
"It was a dream of Ms. Tata to be a caregiver, a childcare operator. She had been caring for children since she was a child, in church, babysitting, babysitting for the church, and she carried that on. And it was something that she was good at," said defense attorney Mike DeGuerin.
Testimony got underway Wednesday morning after brief break after opening statements. Prosecutors say they will call a long list of witnesses.
Tata's attorneys say she didn't intend to harm the children and shouldn't be charged with murder.
Her attorneys say she fled to Nigeria after the fire because she had not been charged with any crime and she wanted to escape the media spotlight to be with her father and family over there.
nigeria, georgia, local
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