By Deborah Quinn Hensel
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Interpol has delivered a "red notice" to police in Nigeria and other countries, alerting them to look for a Houston day care operator whose home-based center caught fire last Thursday, killing four toddlers in her care and injuring three others, officials said on Wednesday.
The suspect, Jessica Tata, 22, has been charged with reckless injury to a child and child endangerment. The Interpol notice circulates the warrant worldwide with a request that the wanted person be arrested with a view to extradition.
Investigators for both the Houston fire department and District Attorney Pat Lykos have said they believe Tata boarded a plane to Lagos, Nigeria, on Saturday. Tata is the U.S.-born daughter of Nigerian citizens.
But a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service office in Houston would not confirm on Wednesday about Nigeria being the focus of his agency's search.
"I'm not going to say that we're attempting to look for her in Nigeria," said spokesman Alfredo Perez.
"I know that's what a lot of news sources are saying, but that's not what we're saying. We are moving forward in this investigation," Perez said.
"The bottom line is we're going to find Jessica Tata and we're going to bring her back to Texas to face justice."
At the fire scene last week, firefighters saw Tata "as one of our victims," Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said at a press conference on Wednesday.
"She was upset and obviously needed medical treatment, and we transported her," Garrison said. "We did interview her on the scene and she was not able to give us a lot of information. What she did say to us was not truthful, and we were able to determine that later."
Garrison said that he would have "personally followed" Tata if he had known she was a flight risk.
"We felt like she was a person who made a mistake and she still had ties to this community. We trusted her attorney when he said she was going to make a statement to us," he said.
If Tata fled to Nigeria, bringing her back could be difficult, according to Geoffrey Corn, an associate professor at South Texas College of Law who specializes in criminal and international law.
Child endangerment and reckless injury to a child are not qualifying offenses listed in the extradition treaty the United States has had with Nigeria since the 1930s, he said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)