Family of victims in Houston day care fire testify at Jessica Tata murder trial

FILE - In this March 23, 2012, file photo, former day care operator Jessica Tata leaves court after her arraignment in Houston. Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, in the trial of Tata, the Houston day care owner who fled to Nigeria after a February 2011 fire killed four young children and injured three others. She faces four felony murder charges as well as five other counts, including abandoning a child. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)
Pat Sullivan
Jessica Tata leaves court after her arraignment in Houston on March 23, 2012.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

(CBS/AP) HOUSTON - The mothers of four children who died in a 2011 home day care fire in Houston recounted Wednesday the despair and grief they felt in the wake of the deadly blaze.

The parents testified in court during the first day of former day care owner Jessica Tata's felony murder trial. She is facing up to life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say the 24-year-old woman put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping. While she was at a nearby Target, a fire broke out in the kitchen when oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner ignited. Three children were also seriously injured in the February 2011 blaze. Tata's attorneys say she didn't intend to hurt the children.

"It's heartbreaking. She's a baby. She didn't know," said Kenya Stradford, whose 20-month-old daughter Kendyll died in the blaze.

The mothers told jurors they had trusted Tata, believing their children were safe with her.

Keshia Brown, whose 16-month-old son Elias Castillo died in the fire, testified that the day care's Christian learning environment had reassured her.

"She seemed like a nice person, knew what she was doing," said Brown, 21.

Tata was indicted on nine charges, including four counts of felony murder. She is being tried on one of the murder counts, for Elias' death.

Tata showed no emotion most of the day, but wiped away tears during testimony from Betty Ukera, whose 20-month-old daughter Elizabeth died in the fire. Ukera and Tata had met in church in 2007 and were friends.

Ukera cried when she told jurors about the last time she saw her daughter alive - when dropping her off at the day care.

"They walked away from my car. (Elizabeth) turned, waved at me. She would walk a little bit and wave at me," Ukera said.

Complete coverage of Jessica Tata on Crimesider