A female student at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, claimed to be a victim of racist attacks. She even reported that somebody had started a small fire in her on-campus residence hall to attack her. But a closer investigation showed that the student started the fire herself.

Shortly before 2:30 a.m. on April 18, the La Crosse Fire Department was dispatched to Marian Hall in Viterbo. Marian Hall is one of the university’s on-campus student dormitories.

Campus security led the fire department responders to the building’s second-floor lounge. There, the firemen saw the remains of a small fire that a campus safety officer had put out before their arrival.

The fire department responders said there was a “fair amount” of smoke damage. A wall and a small area of carpet were also damaged, and the building needed to be ventilated to prevent the students living in the dorm from inhaling too much smoke. But the fire was so small that it didn’t activate the building’s sprinkler system.

On the same night, Viterbo student Victoria C. Unanka reportedly texted one of her friends to say that the fire was not an accident. She claimed she was its intended target because the fire started close to her room in Marian Hall. Unanka had previously claimed to be the victim of several other racist incidents in the past, including one event wherein racist graffiti targeting her appeared in Marian Hall.

Unanka quickly became the main suspect in the arson incident

Because of previous incidents supposedly targeting Unanka, Marian Hall had recently installed surveillance cameras. The La Crosse Police Department (LCPD), in its investigation, used the surveillance video and identified Unanka as the main suspect in the arson incident.

According to an LCPD report of the incident, the video shows Unanka left her room at around 2:09 a.m. She walked around the floor, checking for other people. She then spent the next five minutes at the lounge area and a bathroom before returning to her room at around 2:14 a.m.

During that same time, the cameras picked up smoke coming from the second-floor lounge. Unanka herself sounded the alarm that there was a fire by frantically knocking on the doors of multiple residents and pulling a fire alarm.

When LCPD arrived at the scene, they saw groups of students huddled together talking about how this arson incident may be another hate crime. 

The LCPD even interviewed Unanka. She told the officers that she had been out with her friends that night and came back to Marian Hall at around midnight. She said she prepared some food and went into the lounge area to wash her hands. She claimed to not have been anywhere else in the building and that she did not notice anything suspicious before she saw the fire.

When the LCPD noticed the inconsistencies between Unanka’s version of events and the surveillance footage, officers confronted her about it. She immediately changed her story.

For her second retelling of events, she claimed to be frustrated by the fact that “no one was listening to me anymore” with regards to the supposed previous hate crime incidents against her. This is why she wanted to start a fire in the lounge by turning on a stove in the kitchen and leaving it on.

Unanka claims to have had a change of heart. When she returned to the lounge from the bathroom, she claimed to find some smoking food remnants on the stove. She attempted to put out the smoking mess with paper towels. These paper towels caught on fire, which spread after she tried to shake them in an attempt to extinguish the flames. In a panic, she deposited the burning paper towels in the garbage can. This only made the situation worse.

Unanka was arrested and placed on administrative suspension on the same day

The LCPD arrested Unanka for arson and negligent handling of burning materials, but then released her on a $1,000 signature bond. One condition of her release is no contact with Viterbo’s campus. But campus security gave Unanka a grace period of several hours so that she can pack up her personal belongings in her residential unit.

At the same time as the LCPD was releasing Unanka on bond, she was informed that Viterbo had placed her on administrative suspension. Viterbo President Glena Temple confirmed that Unanka left the campus on the day of her release from jail and that she moved back in with her family.

“This is a complex situation that involves a series of concerning incidents,” said Temple in a statement. “We continue to investigate the incidents earlier in the semester and any potential link between them and this fire.”

“We remain concerned about the student’s wellbeing and we will continue to work with her and her family,” added Temple. “In addition, we continue to hold listening sessions and expanded student support services to assist all our students during these difficult times.”

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