Houston Woman Charged in Fatal Day Care Fire Returns to U.S.

Jessica Tata, fugitive on the lam since February, caught by Marshals in Nigeria.

March 21, 2011, 10:19 AM

March 21, 2011 — -- The Houston woman charged in a day care fire that killed four toddlers is back in the United States after being arrested in Nigeria.

Jessica Tata, 22, became one of the U.S. Marshals 15 Most Wanted Fugitives when she fled from Houston following a fatal fire at her home-based day care center Feb. 24.

Tata was captured in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, by Interpol and U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security agents, according to a statement from the U.S. Marshals.

"You cannot thumb your nose at the justice system, whether it be domestically or abroad," said Elizabeth Saenz, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Texas. "Justice will be served. Jessica Tata has learned this thanks to the global efforts of the many and unknown."

Agents following tips found Tata in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. A $25,000 reward was offered for Tata's capture.

Port Harcourt is the capital of the oil-rich, but impoverished Niger Delta area where kidnap for ransom is common. A chance to make legal money and help out authorities was too good to pass up, a source familiar with the investigation told ABC News.

Tata faces four counts of manslaughter, six counts of reckless injury to a child, three counts of abandoning a child under 15 and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Toddlers Elizabeth Kajoh, Kendyll Stradford, Elias Castillo and Shomari Dickerson died in the fire at the west Houston home called Jackie's Child Care.

Prosecutors allege that Tata left the children alone in the house while she went shopping, and while she was gone, the fire broke out on a stove-top burner that had been left on. She told investigators she was in the bathroom when the fire started.

Tiffany Amber Dickerson, the mother of 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson and Makayla Dickerson, who is still recovering from severe burns, said she was glad Tata turned herself in.

"I'm very happy that her guilt finally came over her," Dickerson said on Saturday, adding that she cannot express what she'd like to say to Tata if she were able to speak with her today.

Operator of Day Care Fled to Nigeria After Fatal Fire

According to an affidavit in the case, Tata was allegedly shopping at Target at the time the fire started.

"If she had to go to the store, why wouldn't she take them. She had a big van for all the kids to go," Dickerson said. "It's so much to give your trust to someone with a baby you've carried for nine months."

The 22-year-old mom was working as a technician at West Houston Medical Center the day of the fire, when two of the seven injured children were brought in.

Dickerson didn't know that the children were from the day care she used until she got a phone call from her 5-year-old daughter's school asking why no one had picked up the little girl after class.

Dickerson called Jackie's Child Care.

"A man's voice answered and said, 'I'm so sorry. There's been a fire and all the children have been rushed to the hospital.' I just dropped to the floor," she said.

Dickerson rode by ambulance to another hospital to find her daughter, Makayla.

"She was sedated, but she squeezed my finger," Dickerson said.

She still didn't know where 3-year-old Shomari was. When she'd taken him to the day care that morning, he was wearing blue jeans, a blue and white flannel shirt and Jordan sneakers. Now, her little boy was unrecognizable from the burns.

"The whole ER -- all the doctors, all the nurses, three chaplains -- they closed the door and my heart just stopped. They said all the children have been claimed but one and we're 90 percent sure he's your son and we're so sorry he didn't make it," Dickerson said. "I told everyone you might as well kill me too. I'm not going to make it."

Tata Left Seven Children Alone Day of Fatal Fire

The children that Tata left alone ranged in age from 15 months to 3 years. The fire started from oil burning in a pot on the stove, according to court documents.

Witnesses saw Tata arrive by car to the Houston home after the fire had started, according to court records. She could be heard screaming, witnesses told the Houston Fire Department.

Tata was rushed to the hospital following the fire, but was later released. She was too ill to be interviewed at the scene of the fire or in the hospital and refused to talk when arson investigators arrived at her home the day after the fire.

Dickerson said she learned about the day care when Tata was passing out business cards at a Wal-Mart. She said that the day care was certified and that it always appeared clean and very organized.

Makayla, Dickerson's daughter, has a long recovery ahead of her.

"This is going to take the fun out of her childhood. She should be out playing, enjoying life," she said.

Dickerson told ABC News today that she has spoken with the other victims' parents and that her daughter has another surgery scheduled soon.

"She's real strong, and we're gonna get through it regardless," she said.

ABC News' Dana Hughes contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events