A former student of Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, who set a fire in a resident hall as part of a hate crime hoax has been charged with a misdemeanor count of negligent handling of burning materials. Police say that she set a fire in her dorm for “attention purposes.”
Victoria Unanka faces a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine, nine months in prison, or both, if convicted. Unanka entered a plea of not guilty at a court hearing on Wednesday, La Crosse Tribune reported.
Police arrested her on charges of arson and negligent handling of burning materials, but the La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said that he did not see arson in the case due to her apparent motive.
“Arson is for burning a structure, this looks more like a dangerous situation to get attention [by] setting fire to a garbage can,” he told the College Fix.
Gruenke provided a copy of the criminal complaint to the publication, which says Unanka admitted to police that she set the fire. The complaint also notes that security footage showed her in the area at the time of the incident.
On the night of April 18, Unanka reportedly texted a friend to say that a small fire had been set in her dorm, insisting that she must have been targeted because it began next to her room. Unanka previously claimed to be the victim of a hate crime.
Viterbo president Glena Temple said that even after she was arrested for setting the fire, the university was still in the process of investigating her early claim of victimhood.
“This is a complex situation that involves a series of concerning incidents,” Temple said, according to the La Crosse Tribune. “We continue to investigate the incidents earlier in the semester and any potential link between them and this fire.”
The fire department was able to extinguish the fire with a fire extinguisher, but said that there was a “fair amount” of smoke damage and the hall needed to be ventilated. The department also reported damage to the carpet and wall surrounding the garbage fire. The fire was small enough that it did not trigger the hall’s sprinkler system.
Police were able to identify Unanka as the suspect who started the fire because the story she told police did not line up with what had happened.
Unanka allegedly told police that she was with her friends at the night of the fire and only returned home around midnight, at which time she did not leave the residence hall before returning to her room. She told police she didn’t see anything suspicious prior to the fire. Once the alarm went off, she said she and a friend knocked on doors to get other students out of the building.
However, a review of the security footage noted inconsistencies with Unanka’s claims. Notably, it showed her leaving her room two hours past midnight and checking to see if others were around. After five minutes, Unanka entered the lounge and a bathroom before returning to her room. Within minutes, smoke could be seen on the camera, at which point Unanka knocked on residents’ doors and pulled the fire alarm.
A resident advisor told police that Unanka texted a friend to say that the fire was another hate crime against her.
Police confronted Unanka with the inconsistencies in her story, prompting her to change her testimony. She admitted that she set the fire, stating that she had changed her mind after setting it and attempted to clean the smoking remnants of old food on the stove. She said paper towels she used caught fire and she tried to shake them out to extinguish the flames, at which point she threw them in the garbage can.
Unanka told police that she was frustrated “no one was listening to me anymore” after making previous claims about hate crimes.