Day Care Operator Says Fire That Killed Four Houston Kids Was An Accident

An attorney for a woman who is on trial after four children died in a fire at her Houston home day care says the blaze was a deadly accident, not an act of murder.

Closing argumentsbegan Monday in the trial of Jessica Tata on one of four counts of felony murder.

The 24-year-old day care operator is accused of leaving the children alone to go shopping as a mid-afternoon fire broke out on Feb. 24, 2011. Prosecutors say Tata left oil cooking on a stove burner while she went out to the store.

Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin argued that Tata should never have left the children, but that the fire could have been sparked by a malfunctioning refrigerator. Tata tried to rescue the children when she arrived home to find the house in flames. Three children survived

He says testimony that Tata remembered at the store that the stove was on could have been faulty memory.

If convicted, Tata faces life in prison. She has pleaded not guilty.

Two days later the tragedy, she boarded a flight to Nigeria and spent the next three and a half weeks a free woman. U.S. and international law enforcement officers searched for her, but never found her. She later turned herself in to Nigerian authorities, who then turned her over to the U.S. embassy.

The first glimpse Houstonians got of Tata stateside was in a wig. When she was brought shackled and handcuffed to the Harris County jail, it had been confiscated, revealing a shaved head.

“In my culture when women are in mourning, they shave their heads,” Tata explained To Houston TV station KTRK Eyewitness News.

She says she was grieving for the children.

Tata’s brother and mother visit her often. She has not seen any of the children’s parents.

“I would love to talk to them, but can’t,” Tata said. “I’ve been instructed not to talk to anyone involved in the case.”

She also says jailers screen her visitors.

Tata would not tell the station why she fled to Nigeria or why she left the kids that day, but her attorney has previously said there is more to her story.

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