A woman accused of fleeing to Nigeria after a fire killed four children at her Texas home day care center pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and other charges Wednesday, two days after she was returned to the U.S.
Jessica Tata, 22, is facing 13 state charges related to the Feb. 24 blaze that also injured three children. Her attorney entered the plea during an arraignment hearing in Houston. Tata, who didn't speak during the court appearance, is being held without bond and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.
Authorities believe she left all seven children alone while she went shopping, and the fire was ignited by a stove-top burner that was left on at her Houston home. She caught a flight to Nigeria two days later, as investigators scrambled to convince prosecutors to file charges.
Her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said his client didn't flee. He said Tata, who was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship, met with a judge and two attorneys in Nigeria after she learned of the charges in Texas, and with the help of her father made arrangements to turn herself in.
DeGeurin called the fire a tragic accident and said there was more to the story, but declined to provide details.
"This is a terrible, terrible accident," DeGeurin said after the hearing. "It was not an intentional act."
Prosecutors declined to comment after leaving the courtroom, saying "we intend to try these cases in the courtroom, not the media."
Family members of at least two of the victims attended the hearing, including relatives of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. They wore white T-shirts with the toddler's picture on the front and a back with the words: "Gone but never forgotten. I'll always love you."
"I need to see the woman who killed my son," Elias' mother, Keisha Brown, said before the hearing. "I'm not like her. I'm not a coward."
"This is where justice begins. No more running for Jessica Tata," added Darlene Price, the great aunt of 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson, who also died in the fire. Shomari's mother, Tiffany Dickerson, filed a lawsuit earlier Wednesday against Tata, her parents and the state alleging negligence.
Tata also pleaded not guilty to injury to a child and child abandonment charges. The manslaughter and injury to a child charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. She also faces a federal charge of leaving the country while trying to avoid prosecution.
Because of the high-profile nature of the case, Tata will have her own jail cell and be accompanied by a deputy when she leaves her cell for her own protection, officials said.
DeGeurin said he plans to seek bond for Tata, and argued that she didn't flee the country to avoid prosecution because she left before charges were filed. A bond hearing was expected sometime within the next week.
"When she left to go to Nigeria, where her father lives, there were no charges against her. So there is nothing illegal about doing that," DeGeurin said.
Houston Fire Department investigators have said that they tried to speak with Tata several times before she left, without telling authorities, for Nigeria.
The U.S. Marshals Service, which headed the search for Tata, said a series of tips and other information helped Interpol agents track down and capture Tata on Saturday. Tata was escorted back to Houston late Monday evening. She arrived on a flight to Atlanta earlier in the day.