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Student charged with misdemeanor for residence hall fire in hate-crime hoax

A former Viterbo University student has been charged with one misdemeanor count of negligent handling of burning materials after police say she set a fire inside her dorm in April for “attention purposes.”

Victoria Unanka, if convicted, faces a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine or nine months in prison, or both, according to the criminal complaint.

Unanka, through her attorney, entered a not guilty plea at a court hearing on Wednesday, the La Crosse Tribune reports.

Police had arrested her on charges of arson and negligent handling of burning materials, but La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke told The College Fix via email on Thursday that he did not see arson in this case.

“Arson is for burning a structure, this looks more like a dangerous situation to get attention [by] setting fire to a garbage can,” he said via email.

Gruenke provided a copy of the criminal complaint to The Fix, which alleges Unanka admitted to setting the fire to police and that security video footage also places her at the location of the fire, a garbage can inside a lounge in a student dormitory.

Video footage of the incident shows Unanka in the early morning hours of April 18 leave her door room and enter the lounge, which was empty at the time; and she was the last person to exit the lounge before the fire started, the complaint alleges.

After smoke filled the hallway, it states, Unanka popped her head out of her dorm, looked inside the lounge, then “frantically” knocked on doors and pulled the fire alarm, according to video footage.

In her first police interview, Unanka denied any involvement with the fire, which caused walls and carpeting to be “burnt and melted with significant cosmetic damage,” the complaint states.

What’s more, Unanka “had already messaged a friend of hers that she was potentially a victim of another hate crime because of the fire started next to her dorm room,” the complaint states.

But it adds that after police confronted her with video evidence, including a police tactic in which the officer falsely claimed to have video footage showing her inside the lounge even though cameras were only positioned outside, Unanka confessed, the complaint alleges.

Unanka allegedly told police during her second interview she had a change of heart:

I asked Victoria if she set the fire on purpose or accidentally. Victoria advised she wanted to intentionally start a fire in the lounge by turning on the stove top and leaving it on. Victoria advised she did not leave anything on top of the stove top but left the lounge area with the stove top on while she went to the bathroom. …

Victoria advised she had a change of heart and decided she no longer wanted to start the building on fire. Victoria said, “I just thought if I start a fire, something might go wrong.” Victoria stated when she returned to the lounge, she found old food remnants smoking on the stove top and she attempted to use disposable paper towels from the trash to clean up the smoking mess on the stove top.

Victoria stated the disposable paper towels started on fire with visible flames which she shook to extinguish before depositing the burnt tissues in the garbage can. Victoria advised she thought the flames were out and returned to her room. I asked Victoria why she was so depressed to the point where she felt like she had to start a fire and she again stated people were not listening to her anymore. When I asked what she meant by that, she was unable to articulate.

As The College Fix previously reported, the April 18 incident was the culmination of a series of incidents that ignited racial unrest at Viterbo University throughout the spring semester.

Unanka, who is black, had reportedly been the target of other alleged hate crimes earlier in the semester consisting of graffiti, incidents that had prompted administrators to cancel classes for a day so the campus community could protest.

Unanka spoke at the university-endorsed walkout, which attracted hundreds of students and staff.

A few weeks after Unanka was arrested, President Glena Temple said that the student responsible for the dormitory fire had been identified, however, refused to provide the person’s name. Simultaneously, Temple closed the internal investigation into campus racism vandalism and graffiti.

Temple refused to fully connect the dots.

“Despite our best efforts, we may never be able to definitively prove who wrote the hate-filled messages, including both the racist and anti-LGBTQ+ incidents,” Temple told the campus community.

A few weeks after she made that announced, Temple resigned as president of Viterbo University to accept a leadership position at another school. Viterbo Executive Vice President of Student Success Rick Trietley will serve as interim president.

MORE: Here are 50 campus hate-crime hoaxes The College Fix has covered since 2012

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.