A day care operator's ability to slip out of the United States before she was charged in the Thursday afternoon fire that claimed the lives of four children has prompted questions about whether law enforcement or prosecutors dropped the ball.
Jessica Tata, 22, left Texas on Saturday on a flight bound for Nigeria. One day later, a charge of reckless injury to a child was filed. But it was too late. Tata was gone.
Houston Fire Department arson investigators said it took at least four approaches to the Harris County District Attorney's Office before prosecutors filed charges against Tata on Sunday.
Houston Fire Marshal Richard Galvan also said an arson investigator told prosecutors on Friday they had a tip that Tata was preparing to leave the United States.
The DA's office, through a spokeswoman, said Monday that HFD's initial evidence was lacking.
"The state had to establish there were no other employees or adults on site at the time the defendant (Tata) left the residence," said Donna Hawkins, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. Tata operated an at-home day care for children.
Hawkins declined to comment about the potential flight risk.
"We thought we would get charges Thursday night," Galvan, who oversees the arson investigation division, said Monday. "This is the first time I've experienced the hoops I had to go through with the DA."
Within hours of the fire, arson investigators had two witnesses claiming they saw Tata pull up in her car after the house fire was in progress because when she opened the door, smoke came billowing out. They also had an in-store video from the nearby Target that showed Tata was shopping at the time of the fire.
But the DA's office told HFD that only proved that Tata was not at home. Investigators were told on Friday to contact the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to make sure Tata was the sole proprietor and did not have any other staff who could have been in the house at the time.
They were also told to interview more relatives of the children.
When they did and returned Friday afternoon, they were told again by the DA's office that they didn't have enough evidence.
Then HFD informed prosecutors they had a tip Tata was preparing to leave the United States.
"Investigator Ruben Hernandez called the DA's office," Galvan said. As a Houston police sergeant listened, Hernandez informed an assistant district attorney that a Crime Stopper's tip indicated Tata was preparing to flee the country and that she was a flight risk.
"It was a little frustrating for us," said Galvan.
Arson investigators went back and conducted more interviews and returned on Saturday. Again they were told there was not enough proof that another adult was not in the house at the time.
So they went out again on Sunday.
Galvan said he is still not clear what convinced the DA's office to file charges.
"I don't know what the last piece of the puzzle was for them to accept the charges," Galvan said.
Galvan also said investigators tried to talk to Tata at the hospital and at the home of a friend where she was staying on Friday, after her discharge from the hospital.
Officials said she experienced chest pains the day of the fire and was sent to the hospital. By the time a Houston arson investigator arrived later to question her, Galvan said, Tata's memory failed her.
"When we tried to ask her questions, she didn't remember anything," Galvan said. "She didn't know who we were, why we were there. She didn't remember her address."
Galvan said they backed off, told her they would talk to her on Friday.
When they tried on Friday, at her friend's home, she informed them she had an attorney and would not talk to them. So they left.
"She lawyered up, she wouldn't talk," Galvan said.
Tata's brother, Ron Tata, 26, said Monday that he had "no idea" of his sister's whereabouts. He said he had "heard rumors" that she was arrested in Houston, in Georgia or possibly in Nigeria.
He declined further comment when told that she was in Nigeria.