A popular gay rights activist was charged on Monday with first-degree arson after an FBI investigation led authorities to believe he set fire to his own house in an elaborate hoax meant to look like a hate crime.
Nikki Joly lost five pets when his Michigan house burned to the ground in 2017, according to the Detroit News. At the time, he was a prominent figure in the LGBTQ community who had helped open the city’s first gay community center, organized the first gay festival and helped establish a hard-won ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gay people.
Considering Joly’s status in the community, the FBI initially treated the fire as a hate crime. But the more they pounded the pavement, the more the trail led right back to Joly. “We determined it pretty quickly to be an arson,” said Elmer Hitt, Jackson’s director of police and fire services, according to the Detroit Free Press. “We investigated it over what probably was a year’s time before the prosecutor ended up issuing charges.”
Joly, a transgender man, had been declared Citizen of the Year by the Jackson Citizen Patriot, a local newspaper, in 2018. The accompanying article dug into his painful past and celebrated him as the leader he’d become. It described the rejection he’d experienced at 15 from the adopted parents who couldn’t accept that he didn’t identify as a girl, the sexual assault he’d survived and the harassment he’d received for being transgender.
The article also called him “stubborn and undeterred” in his anti-discrimination crusade and detailed all the things he’d done for the LGBTQ community. But many in the community have expressed deep disappointment over Joly’s case.
“It’s embarrassing,” Travis Trombley, a gay resident involved in the fight for the anti-discrimination ordinance, told the Detroit News. “How do you do it to the community you have put so much effort into helping?”
“All that good work is tainted. We know one bad mark outshines a hundred good ones,” added community member Stella Shananaquet, whose son is gay. “I’m infuriated someone could tear down the community that way.”
Investigators have still not announced a suspected motive for Joly to burn his own house down and kill his own pets in the process. But Barbara Shelton and Bobby James — two officials from St. Johns United Church of Christ, home of the Jackson Pride Center, where Joly spent much of his time volunteering — have proposed a theory to the police.
They told authorities that Joly was annoyed that the gay rights controversy wasn’t receiving much attention once the anti-discrimination law he’d fought for had been passed. They said he was also disappointed in the lack of fanfare over the gay rights parade he’d helped organize, according to a police report. But when questioned by the Detroit News, Shelton backpedaled, saying, “Not sure I said that. I have no idea about anything, never heard Nikki comment in any fashion about anything like that.”
Joly’s attorney, Daniel Barnett, dismisses the speculation.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he told the Detroit News. “He was Citizen of the Year. There was plenty of media coverage already before the fire.”
Joly’s supporters are also standing by him.
“If there’s a cause he’s always there,” friend Terri McKinnon told the newspaper. “He goes out of his way to help anybody and everybody. We’re lucky to have him.”
The case is reminiscent of another alleged hate crime hoax that recently came to light — that of Empire actor Jussie Smollett, who reported that he was assaulted by two men who hurled homophobic and racist slurs at him outside his Chicago apartment in January. Investigators now say that Smollett knew his attackers and have accused him of hiring them to stage the crime to elicit public sympathy. Smollett was arrested on Thursday and charged with a felony.
Just how common are hate crime hoaxes? The New York Times reports they’re “rare,” but “do damage.” Cynthia Deitle, who spent 20 years as an FBI special agent focusing on hate crimes, said the most common reason for this kind of hoax is “the desire for attention and sympathy.” She said, “The cases I examined took place in a workplace environment and at residences, and sometimes the allegation was made to draw attention away from a real negative aspect of the complainant’s life, like poor performance at work or school, or a feeling that the complainant was not getting the attention she or he deserved.”
A hearing to file motions in the Joly house fire case is scheduled for March 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court, according to the Detroit News. Yahoo Lifestyle has contacted Joly’s attorney for comment.
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