Nikki Joly, a transgender activist and gay rights leader who was once named citizen of the year, is now charged with arson. Officials have accused Joly of starting a fire at his own home in Jackson, Michigan. The fire killed his pets and police investigated it early on as a hate crime. Joly’s attorney said he didn’t do it. Here’s what you need to know about Joly and what happened.
1. The Fire Was Originally Investigated as a Hate Crime, But Authorities Have Now Charged Joly with Arson. Gasoline Was Found in the Home.
Nikki Joly’s home burned in 2017. FBI investigated it as a hate crime at the time, since Joly was a well known transgender man and gay rights activist, The Detroit News reported. He lived in a conservative town and had received threats before. One of those threats was from a resident named Robert Tulloch, who wrote a letter two weeks before the fire saying a rainbow flag at the city park was a “declaration of war and will be met with a violent response.” But at the time of the fire, he was making a bank deposit.
Authorities have said they believe the fire was intentionally set and charged Joly with arson, The Detroit News reported.
Traces of gasoline were found in five rooms on the first floor of the wooden frame house, a police report said. The fire started on the first floor and erupted through the roof, MLive reported.
Joly told police that he bought $10 of gas to cut his grass, but stopped when the backyard was half finished because it was so hot. Joly went to church where he worked and Moore called at 1:02 p.m., asking Joly to bring her lunch to work because she had forgotten it, MLive reported.
Joly went back home for a minute or two and then left. He said he said hi to his dogs in their kennels, retrieved the lunch, and left. The fire started at 1:16 p.m. and it would take Joly about five minutes to get home from the church, where he was called at 1:02 p.m. The police report said the timeline left little time for anyone but Joly to set the fire. Joly insisted the arsonist was in the home at the same time he was.
Firefighters suspected arson when they stepped inside and saw several items on fire and a divided fire in the family room, MLive reported. A Michigan K-9 detected gasoline in five areas in the home.
Traces of gasoline were also found on the clothes Joly was wearing that day. Joly said that was from the gasoline he bought and used to mow his lawn. A neighbor said that Joly had asked him to hold a five-gallon can of gas a few days before the fire.
2. Joly Was Named Citizen of the Year in 2018. He Had Served in the Army & His Adopted Parents Were Jehovah’s Witnesses Who Kicked Him Out at 15.
Before the fire, Joly had opened the city’s first gay community center, the Jackson Pride Center, and organized the first gay festival, The Detroit News reported. He also helped get an ordinance passed that prohibited discrimination against homosexuals.
All this earned him the designation of Citizen of the Year in 2018, MLive reported at the time.
Joly said that when he was 15, his adopted parents kicked him out of the house. He was born female, and when he was told he had to wear a skirt to his graduation, he wore pants beneath his dress and rolled the legs up. His parents were a substitute teacher and a shoe company manager, and they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said after his parents kicked him out, he sofa surfed for a time and then joined the Army. He told MLive he was raped by a fellow soldier determined to “change” him and he had to testify about it in military court. He was medically discharged from the Army.
He said in his life he was sexually assaulted and often refused service. All this caused him to want to work for gay rights. Joly said about the fire, “There is no space for hate and ultimately, love will win. I believe that, 99 percent of the time.”
3. The Motive Isn’t Known & Joly Didn’t Receive Insurance from the Fire. His Lawyer Says He Didn’t Do It.
The motive for the fire isn’t known. Joly didn’t own the home, but was working on buying it from the owner for $57,000 and was paying a little over $600 a month, MLive reported. The owner, Stephen Carlson, had insurance on the home and filed a $60,000 claim. Joly had an ongoing lawsuit with Carlson and the church helped him settle it and unpaid payments. Carlson was seen on surveillance footage at a grocery store at the time of the fire.
Joly’s attorney said the lack of motive casts doubt on the case.
Police said that two people who worked with Joly suggested he was frustrated that attention to gay rights had died down, especially after a gay rights parade a few days before the fire. But Barbara Shelton, one of the people who reportedly told police this, told The Detroit News that this wasn’t exactly what she had told police. “Never heard Nikki comment in any fashion about anything like that,” Shelton said.
Joly’s lawyer said there was still plenty of attention on gay rights and that motive doesn’t make sense. MLive.com talked with Andrew Abood, Joly’s attorney, who said: “What they have is a coincidence and a coincidence is not proof beyond reasonable doubt. They are trying to convict on circumstantial evidence and theory when they have no direct evidence in the case.”
A local church raised $58,000 for Joly and Moore after the fire.
One of Joly’s friends, Terri McKinnon, wrote on Facebook to dispute the charges against her friend. She wrote, in part:
I’ve not been outspoken on this issue out of respect for my friend and not wanting to do anything that would make things worse. But I cannot be quiet any longer… Let me be clear on this subject. I believe wholeheartedly that Nikki Joly was the victim of a hate crime. I believe that there was no real investigation into this case just an effort to pin this on Nikki. …
I was there that day. In fact, I happen to have been in a messenger conversation with Nikki all that morning. And Nikki was in a hurry because he was on his way to meet me and my family at the fair once he dropped off Chris’ lunch. This is why we were the first ones to join Nikki at his house when we heard about the fire. We were the ones who stayed with them. We were the ones that went with them to take their precious fur children to the vet after. I know how they grieved. If any of you have believed the crap in the media about this, don’t bother to comment. I stand by Nikki and Chris and what has happened and continues to happen is a complete travesty.”
4. Two Dogs & Three Cats Died in the Fire
Although no one was home when the fire started, Joly’s five pets were inside and they all died. A neighbor kicked in the front door but couldn’t go inside because of the heat, The Detroit News reported. A dog’s body was found at the back door.
Two German Shepherds — Nettie and Tripp — and three cats died in the fire. Dozens of people told police that Joly loved his pets and wouldn’t harm them, MLive reported.
Joly was charged with one felony count of first-degree arson in October and two counts of animal killing in December, Insider reported.
5. Joly Is Married, Has a Grown Daughter, & Three Grandchildren
Joly has a grown daughter and recently married longtime girlfriend Chris Moore, The Detroit News reported. Moore is a consultant for a medical firm. Joly spends most of his time volunteering with neighborhood projects, the Red Cross, and the pride center, friends said.
Joly’s grown daughter is Amanda. She’s in her mid-30s and the mother of three, MLive reported.
Joly was charged with felony arson in October 2018 and a hearing to file motions in the case will take place on March 8, The Detroit News reported. First-degree arson can bring life in prison and/or a $20,000 fine or three times the value of the destroyed property, whichever is greater.