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 or major damage were reported in the fires, all of which occurred in the middle of the day Wednesday.
Ramsey County prosecutor Margaret Galvin said in court Friday that Hassan had “substantial ties” to the local community, and added that authorities were investigating whether she had any international ties as well.
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Minneapolis office said he could not comment on whether federal authorities also were investigating the incident. A call to the United States District of Attorney’s Minnesota Office to inquire about whether Hassan might face federal charges was not returned.
A woman who identified herself as Hassan’s older sister - in tears outside Hassan’s first court hearing Friday - declined comment. In addition to the sister, Hassan has a mother in the area, who could not be reached for comment.
Patrick Nwaneri, an attorney retained by Hassan’s family, declined to comment on the charge, but said it came as a “big shock” to the family, adding, “they are just at a loss.”
Hassan, appearing in court in a black and white hijab, gave only brief, one-word answers to questions from the judge.
According to the complaint, she told investigators she set six fires on the private Catholic university’s campus, though university and fire officials said there were eight.
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.
Asked whether such a letter existed and if university officials received it, a university spokeswoman said she could not comment because the investigation is ongoing.
In a statement on Friday, St. Kate’s President Becky Roloff said officials were “shocked and saddened by the reported statements made by a former student … regarding her motives for starting fires on campus earlier this week. We are dismayed by her statements and know that they have impacted us all deeply.
“In addition to my sadness,” Roloff said, “I have a tremendous amount of gratitude knowing that all of our students, faculty, staff, and other community members are safe. I am eternally grateful to those who reported the fires immediately, to our university Public Safety, and to local law enforcement who acted quickly and effectively to respond to this situation and keep us safe.”
Roloff said university officials believe the incident was an “isolated” and their “top concern is our students and the campus community. We are proud to be an open and welcoming university that embraces diversity. As such, we strongly believe that one person does not represent an entire group, and we deeply value all Muslim members of our community.”
Hassan has no prior criminal record in Minnesota.She remained in custody Friday at the Ramsey County Jail, with bail set at $100,000. Her next court hearing is Feb. 28. She has not yet entered a plea.
In addition to setting bail, the court issued a “stay away” order for Hassan to keep away from the St. Kate’s campus, should she make bail.
St. Kate’s is in session for students taking four-week January-term classes.