What was Jessica thinking when she left oil burning on the stove?
Firefighters raced out of the smoke-filled building at lunchtime on 24 February 2011, carrying soot-covered children. Meanwhile, 22-year-old Jessica Renee Tata stood crying hysterically. ‘My kids! Pray for them!’ she wailed.
Because the fire was at 2810 Crest Park Lane, Houston, Texas – the place where Jessica ran Jackie’s Child Care.
She’d told neighbours she’d passed out from the smoke inside, then come to and made her way out. She’d even rescued two children from the house and rung the emergency services herself.
The young victims, aged 18 months to 3 years, were covered in so much soot, firefighters couldn’t tell what gender or race they were.
Tragically, four children – Elias Castillo, 16 months, Elizabeth Kajoh, 19 months, Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, and Shomari Dickerson, 3 years – didn’t make it.
The remaining three children – DaJohn Ashley, 22 months, Shomari’s sister Makayla Dickerson, 2 years, and Ryland Lwanga, 3 years – were seriously injured. Jessica suffered cuts, bruises and smoke inhalation.
But once the commotion died down, things didn’t add up. If Jessica had been inside when the fire started, why did her clothes still look pristine?
It seemed Jessica worked night and day – six, sometimes seven, days a week, 24 hours a day.
But Jessica wasn’t there when the fire broke out. A surveillance video and shop receipt showed she’d left seven toddlers alone, while she popped to a shop.
Charges built up against her – manslaughter, four counts of reckless injury to a child, and abandoning a child under 15.
She pleaded not guilty to all charges. The four counts of reckless injury were upgraded to felony murder. She pleaded innocence.
It turned out the fire was caused by oil left on a hot burner, while Jessica was out food shopping. Was this a mistake, a tragic accident or murder?
Jessica would face one charge at a time.
The first trial began in October 2012, for the murder of Elias Castillo.
Jessica sobbed as her call to emergency services was played.
A sign of guilt, or how much she’d loved the kids? An autopsy indicated Elias had probably suffocated from carbon monoxide.
A manager at the store Jessica had gone to that day testified that Jessica told her that the stove was on.
So was Jessica Tata a murderer or a carer who’d got in over her head?
Jessica Tata was found guilty of felony murder for the death of Elias Castillo.
It seemed she made a habit of leaving the children in their cots while she went shopping.
Tata was sentenced to 80 years in prison, eligible for parole in 30 years, and fined around £6,000.
In January 2013, prosecutors dropped the remaining charges against Tata.
‘[Jurors] heard about all of the kids, all seven were mentioned from beginning to end,’ said Assistant Harris County District Attorney Steve Baldassano. ‘I think the 80-year sentence reflected that.’
He said there was no way to stack additional sentences on top of the 80-year punishment, so any more trials would be redundant.
‘There’s really no reason to drag the families through all of that again,’ he said.
By Rachel Tompkins