National/World

Woman charged in Texas day care fire returns to US

Sunday, March 20, 2011
Houston Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison speaks during a news conference Wednesday, March 2, 2011, in Houston about a day care fire last week in which four young children died. Fire department investigators have said they went to prosecutors six times before they agreed to file charges against the day care operator Jessica Tata. Tata has fled the country and is believed to be in Nigeria. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Houston Fire Department Chief Terry Garrison speaks during a news conference Wednesday, March 2, 2011, in Houston about a day care fire last week in which four young children died. Fire department investigators have said they went to prosecutors six times before they agreed to file charges against the day care operator Jessica Tata. Tata has fled the country and is believed to be in Nigeria. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan) (AP Photo)

A woman accused of fleeing the country after a fire at her Texas day care center killed four children began her trip back to the United States on Sunday to face manslaughter and other charges, a congresswoman said.

Jessica Tata, 22, departed Lagos, Nigeria, at 4:30 p.m. CDT Sunday and officials hoped she would be back in Houston within 24 hours, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston said in a statement issued Sunday.

Authorities believe Tata fled to Nigeria two days after a Feb. 24 fire at her home day care center in Houston killed four children and hurt three others. Tata has been charged with manslaughter, injury to a child and child abandonment amid accusations that she left the youngsters alone at her home day care center while she shopped at a nearby store. Authorities believe the fire was ignited by a stove top burner that had been left on.

"I thank Ms. Tata and her family for coming together and helping her to make the right decision," Lee, D-Texas, said. "I am glad she decided to make the right decision, which is to return to this country of which she is a citizen in order to face the charges against her."

The U.S. Marshals Service declined to provide details of the fugitive's return itinerary. "It is the policy of the U.S. Marshals to not comment on prisoner movements until they are complete," said spokesman Jeff Carter.

Fire investigators have said they received a tip that Tata, a Nigerian-born U.S. citizen, had relatives in Nigeria and might flee.

In her Sunday statement, Lee expressed thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.

"I want to emphasize that all of the U.S. officials, including the State Department, were continuously attentive to this matter," she said. "I am also expressing my appreciation to the cooperative Nigerian officials."

A person answering a telephone call to Ron Tata of Houston, Jessica Tata's brother, hung up Sunday. However, the brother told The Associated Press on Saturday that relatives in Nigeria had informed him early that day that his sister had turned herself in to the U.S. Consulate.

"She just felt really, really, really bad about the whole situation, especially for the families. It would be the right thing to do," he said.

Donna Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, declined to comment on Tata's return.

News of Tata's return was bittersweet to Emmanuel Kajoh of the Houston suburb of Cypress, whose daughter Elizabeth died in the fire.

"I buried my daughter and I want to move on," he said. Tata's return "will not bring back my daughter. I'm moving on, trying to heal the wound, and that's why I don't really want to talk much about it.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which was leading the search for Tata, had put the woman on its list of the 15 most wanted fugitives and offered a reward of up to $25,000. The Marshals Service offered no indication Sunday of whether the reward had been claimed or would be paid. Interpol, the international police agency, also had alerted its member countries, including Nigeria, that she was being sought by the United States.

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