HOUSTON (AP) — It had been Jessica Tata's dream to run a day care.
She was soon in over her head, caring for too many kids and taking chances by leaving them alone to run errands. The young woman's actions ultimately proved fatal: Four children died and three others were injured when a fire broke out at her home day care after she had left them alone to go shopping at a nearby Target.
On Tuesday, jurors sentenced the 24-year-old woman to 80 years in prison for the death of one of the children, 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She still faces charges related to the rest of the children.
"Nobody wins in this situation," Elias' great-grandmother, Patty Sparks, said after the sentence was announced. "My heart goes out to the Tata family and those precious mothers and fathers who lost their babies."
Tata, who was only a few years removed from her teens when she started her day care, worked alone most of the time. Investigators said the February 2011 blaze happened when a pan of oil she had left cooking on the stove ignited while she was out shopping.
The same jury that decided her sentence had convicted Tata last week of one count of felony murder. The jury could have sentenced her to anywhere from five years to life in prison. Prosecutors had sought a life sentence, while defense attorneys asked only that jurors not give her an excessive sentence.
She will have to serve 30 years of her sentence before she is eligible for parole. Tata also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
Jurors deliberated her punishment for seven hours over two days. The former day care owner had no visible reaction after the sentence was announced.
Tata's attorneys contended she was a good person who loved children but made a terrible mistake.
Prosecutors argued she was an irresponsible day care owner who had doomed the children when she left them alone. They said Tata had repeatedly left kids she was responsible for unsupervised and it was only a matter of time before her actions led to tragedy.
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he still believes Tata should not have been tried for murder because the deaths were an accident.
"The sentence is not going to fix things. It's not going to make anybody feel better later on. But the jury has spoken. That's their sentence," DeGeurin said.
Tata's family and friends, who declined to comment after the sentence was announced, had testified she had changed since her troubled teenage years, when she had pleaded guilty to arson for starting two fires at her high school on the same day.
Defense attorneys had presented expert testimony to argue that a faulty stove or refrigerator may have sparked the blaze.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said that while he has sympathy for Tata's family, she had nobody to blame but herself.
"She was being paid to watch these children. She knew better," Baldassano said. "It's not the stove. It's not the refrigerator. It's not any parents' fault. It's nobody's fault but her own."
One of the surviving children, Makayla Dickerson, stood next to Baldassano as he spoke. Makayla, whose 3-year-old brother Shomari died in the fire, showed reporters scars the fire left on her right forearm.
Tata's attorneys argued she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old, and whom Tata had referred to as "her babies." But prosecutors did not need to show she intended to harm them, only that the deaths occurred because she put them in danger by leaving them alone. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony and that action led to the death.
In a victim impact statement Sparks read in court after the verdict was announced, she told Tata the children were never "your babies."
"They don't belong to you. They never did," she said.
But Sparks said that while she holds Tata accountable for what happened, she forgives her. After reading the statement, Sparks went over to Tata's mother in the courtroom and hugged her.
Jurors declined to speak with reporters after the sentence was announced.
Tata fled to Nigeria after the fire but was captured after about a month, returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed since. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Tata still faces three more counts of felony murder in relation to the other children who died, and three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child in relation to the three who were hurt. Baldassano said prosecutors planned to pursue trials on the remaining felony murder charges.
Follow Juan A. Lozano at http://www.twitter.com/juanlozano70