HOUSTON (AP) - A Texas woman accused of murder four children who died last year at a fire in her home day care did not seem to be frantic or in a hurry after remembering while out shopping that she had left a stove burner on, a former store manager testified Friday.
Investigators have said Jessica Tata, 24, had left the children alone at her home while she went shopping at a nearby Target when a fire broke out in her kitchen, killing four children and injuring three others.
Tata's attorneys argue she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old, and she tried to save them from the February 2011 fire. Tata is being tried on one of four felony murder counts she faces, related to the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Ray Menzies, who was a manager at the Target, said he talked to Tata at the store after she complained about a price discrepancy over some pants she had bought the night before.
Menzies told jurors that after Tata finished paying for her items at 1:19 p.m., he walked her over to a nearby kiosk to have her fill out a customer survey. The ex-store manager said as he talked with Tata about the survey, she suddenly remembered having left the stove on in her day care. Menzies said Tata indicated her sister was asleep at the day care, though authorities have said no adult was in the home and Tata did not have anyone working for her.
"She told me she had grease on the stove and it was on low and she told me her sister was there with the kids and if it would be OK" to take the survey, Menzies said.
Menzies said he told Tata the survey was secondary and "I told her by no means was it OK."
He testified that Tata then walked away but didn't appear to be in a hurry.
"When she left the kiosk, if was not frantic or a "I have to get out of here' but a fast-paced walk," Menzies said.
Surveillance video from the store that was presented to jurors Thursday showed that after Tata left the kiosk, she walked to a Starbucks in the store, where she spent about a minute before leaving the Target at 1:22 p.m. She had arrived at the store's parking lot at 1:06 p.m. The first 911 call about the fire was made at 1:29 p.m.
Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, suggested while questioning Menzies that the ex-day care owner's demeanor changed to one of concern after she remembered leaving the stove burner on, and Menzies acknowledged Tata did leave his presence "hastily."
But during additional questioning by prosecutor Steve Baldassano, Menzies told jurors that if Tata had wanted to leave the store right away, it would have taken her "not even 30 seconds" to do so.
Besides the four felony murder counts, Tata was indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.