Alicia Smerdon was headed to work June 6, 2018, when it began to rain. The wipers on the vehicle she was driving suddenly stopped working so she pulled over to the side of the road and called for help.
While she was waiting, Smerdon said, she got a notification on her phone alerting her to someone in her home. She had bought a surveillance camera because she suspected her ex-boyfriend, Ryan Haluptzok, was going into her home when she wasn’t there.
Smerdon’s gut feeling was right.
When she pulled up the feed, she saw him enter her home, go toward her bedroom and then leave within about five minutes, she said. He entered her home at 10:01 p.m. About 12 minutes later, a 911 call was received about a fire at the residence.
‘Slap on the wrist’
Haluptzok was charged with first-degree felony arson in January 2019, about six months after the fire.
According to court documents, Proctor Police Officer Andrew Leibel heard the call for the fire at 7 Cypress Drive in the Zenith Terrace community and responded. When he arrived, he saw 3-foot flames coming from one of the windows. He checked the front door and found it was locked. The mobile home was filled with smoke and he noticed a vehicle nearby registered to Haluptzok.
Leibel was able to find a telephone number for Haluptzok, who told Leibel that Smerdon lived at the residence and had left for work. He also told the officer he was in Cloquet and would head that way.
According to court documents, that wasn’t true. After Smerdon showed the officer the video of Haluptzok entering her home and it was determined the fire was arson, investigators obtained a search warrant to track Haluptzok’s cellphone. The data showed that Haluptzok left Cloquet at about 8:18 p.m. and his cellphone did not connect to another tower in the Cloquet area for the rest of the evening, court documents said.
The data also showed that when Leibel called him the night of the fire at 10:25 p.m., Haluptzok's cellphone indicated he was in the area of Smerdon’s home.
Haluptzok and his attorney planned on fighting the charge and going to trial. Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Vicky Wanta said there was a fight over experts before the trial and then COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, which caused the court case to be drawn out even longer than usual.
“From what I understand, when it goes all the way to a jury trial, the process does take a while,” Smerdon said. “Sometimes it takes a year or a year and a half, but in my case, it was three years.”
When Haluptzok pleaded guilty to the crime May 6, 2021, Smerdon said she was relieved and hopeful. Wanta said because the crime was considered a Level 8 felony, the presumptive prison sentence is 41-57 months, regardless of prior convictions.
According to court records, Haluptzok has mostly traffic violations on his record, but there is one first-degree misdemeanor criminal damage conviction in 2001. Wanta said because the conviction is more than 15 years old, it can't be used when considering sentencing.
Wanta said she contacted the Carlton County Attorney's Office, where the crime occurred, to find out the details and see if it was similar in nature to the 2018 crime, but the case was so old they no longer had the complaint in their system.
Wanta said when someone pleads guilty and spares victims from having to testify in court, she always asks for the lower end of the sentence, so she asked the judge for 41 months in prison.
Haluptzok’s attorney, John Schmid, asked the judge for a downward departure, or lower than the minimum, from the sentencing guidelines. Schmid asked the judge for five years probation, stating in his argument that Haluptzok has “accepted responsibility for his offense” and has “remained entirely law-abiding during the three-year time period since the date of this offense.”
The sentencing judge, David Johnson, seemed to agree with Schmid and granted the five years of supervised probation as well as $100 monthly restitution.
“I waited so long for that day and I was really let down,” Smerdon said. “It was like a punch in the gut.”
The sentencing hearing was held over Zoom. Smerdon and her daughter both gave victim impact statements about what they lost and what the fire did to them. Smerdon’s daughter even talked about losing her pet bunny.
But it didn’t matter, Smerdon said.
“I just felt so hopeless. I was basically gasping for air and crying,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it really, but I just felt completely insulted and let down and hopeless that somebody could do something so horrible to somebody and affect them so negatively and basically get away with it.
“Probation is nothing. It’s a slap on the wrist.”
Wanta said Haluptzok is required to wear an ankle monitor for six months and is allowed to go to work and come home. She said she has a lot of respect for the court system and wouldn’t be working in it if she didn’t, but Smerdon “suffered an indescribable injustice in her case (when) Haluptzok was granted a departure from prison and sentenced to probation with 180 days on the ankle monitor.”
“This particular arson was not just damage to property, it was Mr. Haluptzok’s message of power and control that stemmed out of their domestic-type relationship. Mr. Haluptzok took everything from Ms. Smerdon when he burned her home to a near complete loss,” Wanta said in a statement to the News Tribune. “He burned her material possessions; he burned the memories within her home; and he burned the very walls that were meant to keep her safe and secure.
“She and her daughter’s lives have been completely uprooted, and they have been essentially homeless ever since. What Mr. Haluptzok received out of all of this was the inconvenience of having to show up to a court hearing.”
Wanta said she was very disappointed with the outcome of this case and wonders if the pandemic restrictions in place are more harmful to the victims of crimes.
“I think right now with the pandemic restrictions in place, it can be a lot easier for the court to forget the human component of the victims of these cases,” Wanta said. “Victims start their court experience as three initials in a complaint and end their court experience as a muted box on a computer screen. That will always be an injustice to these victims.”
More than a home was lost
Since the fire, Smerdon said she and her daughter have been homeless. She also lost her job due to her post-traumatic stress disorder. She applied for Section 8 housing but has been on a waiting list for a long time.
Lisa Jordan, domestic abuse program coordinator at Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse in Superior, said it is common for abuse survivors to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and not be able to hold down a job because of it.
“The anxiety can become so overwhelming for them that even the smallest little thing that maybe you or I may not think could be a trigger is for them, like the smell of hamburgers cooking,” Jordan said.
Smerdon said she’s lost more than her home and possessions. She’s lost hope in the justice system, has lost hope in the police and has lost her sense of safety and security.
“It’s frustrating because I dated him for 4 1/2 years and I had no idea who I was dealing with until the end,” Smerdon said. “There were red flags all along the relationship and I just didn’t see them. Looking back now, it makes sense.”
Smerdon wants other women to know they can trust their gut and if they see warning signs to be careful because it can snowball out of control.
“If your friends are saying something’s off with somebody and you’re just not realizing it because you’re in love or you know you want to believe them, just listen,” she said. “If you think somebody is following you, they might be. If you think things aren’t right, then trust your gut.”
Jordan said she thinks abuse survivors are some of the bravest people in the world.
"To come forward and first of all speak their truth about what they've been living through and then face their abuser and to stand up for themselves when they've been knocked down for so long is just courageous," Jordan said.
CASDA, Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse
24-hour helpline: 800-649-2921
24-hour helpline: 218-728-6481
PAVSA (Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault)
24-hour helpline: 218-726-1931
Advocates for Family Peace
24-hour helpline: 800-909-8336
Locations: Grand Rapids and Virginia
North Shore Horizons
24-hour helpline: 218-834-5924
Location: Two Harbors
Minnesota Day One Crisis Hotline
24-hour helpline: call 866-223-1111 or text 612-399-9995