Prosecutor: Kids twice left home alone day of fire

October 25, 2012 - 9:33 PM

HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston home day care where four children were killed in a fire last year was run by an irresponsible woman who twice left the children alone that day to go shopping, prosecutors told jurors Thursday during her murder trial.

Investigators have said Jessica Tata was shopping at a nearby Target when a fire broke out in her home's kitchen and that she'd left the children home alone. But prosecutors suggested Thursday that she also went shopping that morning and left behind the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.

Prosecutors played surveillance video that they say shows Tata shopping alone at a Walmart the morning of the fatal blaze in February 2011. The video later shows her van leaving the store's parking lot, though it isn't clear if the children are in the vehicle.

Tata's attorneys also showed a video, one she took the day of the fire that shows her loading the children into the van. However, defense attorney Mike DeGeurin did not say what time the video was taken or if it was before Tata had gone to Walmart.

In the video, Tata could be heard telling the children, "OK guys, get up. It's time to go." Three-year-old Shomari Dickerson, who died in the fire, could be seen running outside of the home to the van.

Tata's attorneys argue that she never intended to hurt the children and that she tried to save them from the fire, which injured three other children.

Tata was indicted on four counts of felony murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. But she is currently being tried in Houston on just one of the murder counts, for the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo.

If convicted, the 24-year-old Tata faces up to life in prison.

Brian Smith, who worked at the Walmart, testified Thursday that the surveillance video and a receipt he reviewed showed Tata was at the store around 7:50 a.m. the day of the fire. In the video, Tata can be seen walking down an aisle alone. Prior testimony indicated that most of the children in Tata's care that day had been dropped off by 7:15 a.m.

"Does she appear to be in a hurry?" prosecutor Steve Baldassano asked, referring to the video.

"No," Smith responded.

Smith later acknowledged that he couldn't tell if any children were in the van as it left the Walmart parking lot.

Later Thursday, prosecutors played surveillance video showing Tata shopping at Target just before the fire, which investigators say was sparked by oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner.

Tata can be seen arriving at the store at 1:06 p.m., paying for her items and then lingering in a Starbucks in the store before leaving at 1:22 p.m. More testimony about when Tata was in the Target was expected Friday. The trial is expected to last about a month.

Legal experts say 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.

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