A Houston daycare owner was sentenced to 80 years in prison after being convicted for felony murder in the death of one of four children killed in a fire while under her care. In February 2011, Jessica Tata, 24, left seven children unattended at her home daycare while she went shopping, leaving a pan of oil cooking on the stove. The house caught fire while she was away, claiming the lives of four children and injuring the other three.
Tata was found guilty for the murder of 16-month-old Elias Castillo, but still faces three more counts of felony murder for the other three children, as well as three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury. In the days after the fire Tata fled to Nigeria in an attempt to escape prosecution, but was arrested and extradited back to the U.S. in March 2011.
Jurors found Tata guilty on November 13 after a three week trial. Lawyers representing Tata presented character witnesses who testified that the young woman cared for and attempted to save the children, but prosecutors only needed to prove that her absence was responsible for the deaths. Several experts also testified on Tata’s behalf, attempting to make the case that defective kitchen appliances were responsible for the fire.
Prosecutors were able to produce video surveillance film from a nearby Target, as well as testimony from a former manager from the store who said that Tata did not seem to be in a hurry, even after realizing she left the pan on the stove. Former school administrators claimed that Tata had a violent past, and had set two fires in the bathroom of her high school. The former caretaker never took the stand in her own defense.
Tata will not be eligible for parole for 30 years, and was also fined $10,000 by the court. Castillo was the youngest of the children under her care at the time of the fire, who ranged from 16-months to three years old.