Francis X. Donnelly, The Detroit News, February 26, 2019
When the home of Nikki Joly burned down in 2017, killing five pets, the FBI investigated it as a hate crime.
After all, the transgender man and gay rights activist had received threats after having a banner year in this conservative town.
In the prior six months, he helped open the city’s first gay community center, organized the first gay festival and, after 18 years of failed attempts, helped lead a bruising battle for an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gays.
For his efforts, a local paper named him the Citizen of the Year.
Authorities later determined the fire was intentionally set, but the person they arrested came as a shock to both supporters and opponents of the gay rights movement. It was the citizen of the year — Nikki Joly.
His attorney said the lack of a motive cast doubt on the case.
Meanwhile, a police investigative report suggests a possible reason for the fire.
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.
Joly’s attorney, Daniel Barnett of Grand Rapids, said his client already had lots of attention for his gay rights activism, and wasn’t looking for more.
Charges create concerns
As gay rights supporters try to reconcile Joly the crusader with Joly the alleged arsonist, they worry the arrest could be used to reverse all the good he has done.
Public face of campaign
In 2016, some Jackson residents mounted yet another bid for a nondiscrimination ordinance. The law would prohibit bias in employment, housing and public facilities.
He also could be deceptive, Shelton and James said in the police investigative report.
One year after the pride center opened, Joly broke it away from the church. Unknown to church officials, Joly had secured nonprofit status for the center, Shelton told police.
Shelton said she felt betrayed because she was the one who secured the original funding for the center by applying for several grants.
“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.
‘Be very, very angry’
A neighbor, knowing the couple had pets, kicked in the front door but it was too hot to go inside, police said. When firefighters tried to open the back door, it was blocked by the body of a dog.
All five animals died: two German Shepherds and three cats.
Traces of gasoline were later found in five rooms on the first floor of the two-story, wooden-frame house, according to the police report.
Police interviewed resident Robert Tulloch, asking his whereabouts at the time of the fire. He said he was making a deposit at a bank drive-thru, which was confirmed by the investigator, according to the police report.
Two weeks before the blaze, Tulloch had written an email to the city manager and council objecting to plans to raise a rainbow flag at a city park as part of the pride festival.
“That is an in your face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response,” wrote Tulloch, according to a police report.
“It was orchestrated. They wanted to find someone to blame,” Tulloch told The Detroit News.
Meanwhile donations rolled in for Joly and Moore.
The church hoped to raise $10,000 but quickly sped past that amount. By the time St. Johns and other groups were done they had collected $58,000, they said.
In a Facebook post two days after the fire, Joly exhorted supporters not to respond to the blaze by threatening violence.
“Yes, be angry, be very angry,” he wrote. “Use that anger to force good! Use that anger to make change.”
Tracking down the leads
Despite the attention on Tulloch, police had another suspect in mind. They quickly zeroed in on Joly, according to the police report.
Joly told them that, on the morning of the fire, he bought $10 of gas at a Marathon station so he could cut his grass. He began to mow, but it got too hot so he stopped with the backyard half done.
He went to work at the church and got a call from Moore at 1:02 p.m., said the report. Moore had forgotten to pack her lunch so asked Joly to bring it to her at work. The couple share one car.
Joly returned home, which was two miles away, went inside for a minute or two, and left, he told police.
The fire was reported by neighbors at 1:16 p.m.
The sequence of events would have made it difficult for anyone but Joly to set the fire, Grove said in the police report.
Lab tests by police found traces of gasoline on the clothes Joly was wearing on the day of the fire, said the report.
Joly’s arrest hasn’t necessarily settled the issue.
Some residents refuse to entertain the notion he could be guilty.
But some onetime supporters are beginning to waver. Especially after Tulloch obtained a copy of the police report through a public records request and posted it on a website.