HOUSTON (AP) — A 7-year-old girl once cared for by a Texas woman convicted of murder after a fire at her home day care killed four children told jurors Thursday that the woman previously left several babies unattended while she took other children to a McDonald’s.
Jurors heard the child’s testimony during the punishment phase of Jessica Tata’s trial. She was found guilty Tuesday of one count of felony murder in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo and faces up to life in prison.
Prosecutors said the February 2011 fire that killed Elias started after Tata left a group of children alone with a pan of oil on a hot stove while she went shopping. Along with the four children who died, three were injured.
Tata’s attorneys say she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old and she tried to save them.
Brighten Long, who was enrolled with her brother at Tata’s day care, told jurors that Tata had left children alone before. She said Tata once took her and several other children to eat at a McDonald’s but left some babies alone in her home. Prosecutors said this happened in July or August 2010.
“Did she leave the babies by themselves in the house when you went to McDonald’s?” prosecutor Connie Spence asked the girl.
“Yes,” said Brighten, who held a doll in her lap as she sat on the witness stand.
Brighten said Tata and the children brought the food back to the day care and “the babies were still in the cribs” when they returned. She did not say how many babies were left alone.
Brighten’s mother, Holly Long, told jurors that after her daughter told her what happened, she pulled the girl and her brother out of Tata’s day care. The siblings were only in Tata’s care for two to three weeks, Long said.
Another witness, Lindsay Lay, said she tried to visit Tata’s day care between nine and 12 times in the fall of 2010, when she was considering using the facility for her then 8-year-old daughter. On several occasions, she knocked on the door and no one answered but she could hear children inside, she said. Tata’s day care van, which Lay had seen in the neighborhood, was not in the driveway.
“You could hear children playing. You could hear them laughing. You could hear them talking,” Lay said. “Nobody would answer the door.”
Lay said a woman she didn’t know answered the door once, but the woman couldn’t answer questions about the day care. Authorities say Tata was the only authorized employee of the day care.
Alfredo Galvan, a former investigator with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told jurors he investigated Tata, who had received food stamps from December 2007 to February 2011, and determined she had committed welfare fraud.
Tata underreported her income and wrongly received nearly $4,000 in benefits, Galvan said. She faces a theft charge in that case.
She also faces three additional felony murder and other charges in relation to the other children killed and injured in the fire.
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