Corrected: Daycare owner pleads not guilty to manslaughter

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 23, 2011 7:39 PM
Corrected: Daycare owner pleads not guilty to manslaughter

(In final paragraph corrects location of Tata's capture in Nigeria)

By Deborah Quinn Hensel

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The operator of a home day care facility where a deadly fire killed four toddlers pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to 13 charges against her as family members of the victims wept softly in a Houston courtroom.

Jessica Rene Tata, 22, who fled the country after the February 24 fire, sat in a yellow jail jumpsuit as the counts against her were read aloud by Assistant District Attorney Steve Baldassano in the 180th District Criminal Court.

She faces six counts of reckless injury to a child, four counts of manslaughter, and three counts of abandonment of a child under 15 years of age. Authorities say Tata left the children for a shopping trip before the fire broke out.

She remains in the Harris County Jail with no bond.

At least six bailiffs were on hand to maintain order in the courtroom, where Tata's family sat in the back row and the victims' families filled the second and third rows.

Patrick Trahan, a spokesman for the Houston Fire Department, said Wednesday that the investigation continues into the fire that killed Shomari Dickerson, 3; Elias Castillo, 18 months; Elizabeth Kajoh, 20 months; Kendyll Stradford, 20 months; and injured three other toddlers at the West Houston home where Tata ran the day care.

The U.S.-born daughter of Nigerian citizens had been the subject of an Interpol search for almost a month and was placed on the U.S. Marshals Service list of the top 15 most wanted fugitives.

She was returned to the United States on Monday and spent one night in an Atlanta jail before being returned to Houston early Tuesday morning.

Tata's mother, Josephine Tata, has said her daughter turned herself at the U.S. Consulate in Nigeria "because it's the right thing to do."

However, the U.S. Marshals Service issued a statement that said Interpol agents captured her in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)