Nikki Joly is a transgender man who helped open a gay community center and started a pride parade in the city of Jackson, Michigan. For his efforts, the local paper named him Citizen of the Year. So when the house where Joly was living burned down in 2017 and there was evidence it had been set intentionally, many suspected it could be a hate crime. But after an investigation police and the FBI both concluded the only person who could have set the fire was Joly himself. From the Detroit Free Press:
Authorities are accusing Joly, who was named Citizen of the Year by the Jackson Citizen Patriot last year, of setting fire to his own home and killing his pets, two dogs and three cats. He has been charged with first-degree arson.
A hearing has been set for March 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court.
“We determined it pretty quickly to be an arson,” Elmer Hitt, Jackson’s director of police and fire services, said Monday. “We investigated it … over, what probably was a year’s time before the prosecutor ended up issuing charges.”
Last October, Michigan Live obtained police reports that included some of the details of the case.
Security camera footage from a Marathon gas station showed Joly filling a five-gallon gas can earlier that day. Traces of gasoline were found on the clothing Joly was wearing the day of the fire, the report says.
Cellphone records and witness statements from the day of the fire indicate that Joly got a call at work at St. John’s United Church of Christ, 801 S. Mechanic St., from his partner, Chris Moore, at 1:02 p.m. Moore said she forgot her lunch at home and asked Joly if he could bring it to her at work in the 400 block of W. North Street, according to the report.
Joly told investigators he went home, grabbed the lunch, said hello to his dogs in their kennels and left to deliver the forgotten lunch, the report says.
Both Joly and investigators determined it takes about five minutes for Joly to drive home from the church. Calls to 911 to report the fire began at 1:16 p.m., records show…
Adding the time it took Joly to leave the church, drive home, retrieve the lunch and leave shows a window of less than five minutes for another person to enter the home, splash gasoline around, ignite the fire and leave without being seen, according to the investigation.
After the fire Joly gave the gas can to a neighbor to hold for him:
In March, police discovered Joly had given a five-gallon gas can containing about three gallons of gas to one of his neighbors a few days after the fire, according to the report.
The neighbor told police that Joly asked him to hold on to it for him and he did not think it was suspicious at the time.
Another neighbor was holding onto Joly’s lawn mower, which was also given to him a few days after the fire. The mower’s gas tank was full and contained slightly less than a gallon of fuel.
So it seems like there might be a missing gallon of gas. After the fire, a church Joly works with took him and his partner in and raised donations which soon topped $50,000. The home itself wasn’t owned by Joly and was insured by the owner. Joly was in the process of buying it but had missed a year of payments before the fire until the same church helped him catch up by paying $6,700 to the owner on his behalf.
While the timeline and other evidence seems pretty solid, Joly’s defense is basically that he had no motive to do this. Why burn down his own residence? But the police report noted maybe he was disappointed that attention for his issue had declined after his success passing an anti-discrimination law:
Two people who worked with Joly at St. Johns United Church of Christ, where the Jackson Pride Center was located, said he had been frustrated the controversy over gay rights had died down with the passage of the nondiscrimination law, according to the report.
The church officials, Barbara Shelton and Bobby James, when asked by police about a possible motive for the fire, said Joly was disappointed the Jackson Pride Parade and Festival, held five days before the blaze, hadn’t received more attention or protests…
“Shelton and James both described Nikki as very deceptive and stated that when it comes to Nikki there are ‘layers of manipulation,’” police detective Aaron Grove wrote in the report.
Of course, the same question has been raised in the Smollett case. How could someone earning $65,000 for a TV gig feel he wasn’t earning enough or getting enough attention, but it certainly appears that’s what happened. People’s motives aren’t always easy to discern, especially when politics and the media are part of the equation. Here’s a local news report about the case: