A former St. Catherine University student charged with setting fires on the college’s St. Paul campus told police she did it because she’d “been reading about the US military destroying schools in Iraq or Afghanistan and she felt that she should do exactly the same thing,” according to a criminal complaint filed Friday.
“You guys are lucky that l don’t know how to build a bomb because l would have done that,” Tnuza Jamal Hassan, 19, of Minneapolis, allegedly told investigators after being arrested Wednesday afternoon in a campus dorm lounge.
Hassan was charged in Ramsey County District Court with a single count of first-degree arson. No injuries were reported in the fires, all of which occurred in the middle of the day Wednesday.
Neither Hassan nor her relatives could be reached for comment. She remained in custody Friday afternoon at the Ramsey County Jail.
Hassan allegedly told investigators she set six fires, though university and fire officials said there were eight.
According to the complaint, the most serious fire started in Saint Mary Hall, a residential dormitory that also houses a daycare. Police said there were 33 children and eight adults in the building, when a chair was set ablaze — triggering the building’s sprinkler system, which prevented it from spreading.
Then, a second fire was set at the Butler Center fitness facility in a women’s bathroom.
Police reviewed surveillance footage and saw a woman — later identified as Hassan — entering both halls just before the sprinklers activated. She was carrying a plastic shopping bag, which police later recovered. It contained a box of matches.
Police located Hassan at 1:30 p.m, roughly two hours after they arrived.
Hassan told investigators she was a student at St. Catherine’s, but dropped out last fall because she and her family were planning a vacation to Ethiopia.
She told them, according to the complaint, that “her fire-starting was not as successful as she had wanted,” and “she wanted the school to burn to the ground and that her intent was to hurt people.
“Hassan said this was the same thing that happened in ‘Muslim land’ and nobody cares if they get hurt, so why not do this?” the complaint added.
Hassan told investigators she wrote a letter to her roommates about “bringing back the Caliphate,” an Islamic state. The letter scared Hassan’s roommates, who turned it over to campus security, the complaint stated.
A call to a university spokeswoman to confirm whether such a letter existed — and, if true, when university officials received it — was not immediately returned Friday.
St. Catherine’s Public Safety were first alerted to the string of incendiary incidents when a fire was reported in a basement bathroom in Derham Hall, an administrative building, according to a university statement. Reports of additional fires soon followed.
After a third fire was reported, “a pattern was noted, arson was suspected and university officials along with the St. Paul Police and Fire Departments were immediately alerted,” the statement said.
Police and fire fighters were called to the campus at 11:40 a.m.
Assistant Fire Chief Mike Gaede said all but one of the eight fires they discovered were in trash cans, mostly in women’s restrooms. The largest fire was in St. Mary Hall.
“That, by far, did the most damage to the building and the area,” Gaede said. University officials said in a statement that the extent of the damage is being determined, but indicated it was not major.
In addition to the fires at St. Mary Hall, Butler Center, and Derham Hall, university officials said there were five other fires across four more campus buildings, including Our Lady of Victory Chapel; Fontbonne and Mendell halls, which are classroom buildings; and Coeur de Catherine, the student center.
All of the blazes were quickly contained.
Hassan has no prior criminal record in Minnesota. The county attorney’s office is asking that her bail be set at $100,000; her first court date was set for Friday afternoon.
“While this was an unfortunate and stressful event, I am thankful we are all safe and for the wonderful and fast response of our Public Safety team along with the local police and fire departments,” said St. Kate’s President Becky Roloff. “Their thorough and quick actions helped ensure we were kept informed and the situation was resolved as quickly as possible.”
St. Kate’s is in session for students taking four-week January-term classes.
The university notified their community on Wednesday about the incident via email, their emergency alert system and social media, with messages going out every 15 minutes until police gave the all-clear, a university spokeswoman said.
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