HOUSTON – Investigators say a home day care operator who left the children she was watching alone was shopping when a fire that killed four children began, according to a court document made public Tuesday.
Surveillance video shows Jessica Tata was shopping at a Target store about a mile away from the facility when the fire started last Thursday, investigators said in a probable cause affidavit.
Investigators believe the fire, in which three other children were injured, was started by a stove top burner that had been left on.
Tata, 22, has fled to her native Nigeria since being charged in the fire. Authorities said Tuesday they are still trying to locate her. She has been charged with reckless injury to a child and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
It was not immediately known whether Tata had an attorney. Attempts by The Associated Press to contact her family in person and by phone at multiple addresses and telephone listings have been unsuccessful.
The video shows Tata entering the store at 1:09 p.m. and driving away at 1:24 p.m. The first 911 call about the fire was made at 1:29 p.m., according to the affidavit.
Tata had told neighbors immediately after the fire that it started in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom.
Houston Fire Department investigators have said in court documents that two of Tata's neighbors described seeing her drive up and go into the home where the day care center was located, then hearing her screaming seconds after she went in the front door. They saw smoke coming from inside.
According to the probable cause affidavit, one of Tata's neighbors, Sandra Sawyer, told investigators that she tried to reassure Tata at the fire scene that everything was going to be OK because firefighters had arrived quickly, but Tata told her, "Oh no, the fire was going for a long time."
Sawyer also told investigators that when she asked Tata whether another woman might have been in the home but had fled, Tata responded, "Oh no, I was the only one there today."
Fire department investigators also spoke with six parents whose children were at the home day care center and they all said they never saw another employee other than Tata when they dropped off or picked up their children.
Two of the injured children remain hospitalized at Shiners Hospital for Children in Galveston, but their conditions have been upgraded to stable and improving, hospital spokeswoman Jo Ann Zuniga said Tuesday.
Prosecutors have not said whether they plan to file additional charges against Tata.
The U.S. Marshals Service in Houston is still trying to confirm that Tata is in Nigeria, said agency spokesman Alfredo Perez.
"We have to determine where she's at first before we even start making arrangement to get her back to Texas," Perez said.
Authorities planned to talk to Tata's family in Houston but Perez declined to comment on what other actions the Marshals Service is taking to track her down.