Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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November 20, 2012

Woman gets 80 years for deadly Texas day care fire

HOUSTON — 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.

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