Activist Charged in House Fire Investigated as Hate Crime

Michigan police call hoax on 2017 blaze
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 26, 2019 3:48 PM CST
Fire at Home of Gay Rights Activist Was a Hoax: Cops
Nikki Joly attends a rally for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 in Lansing.   (Robert Killips/Lansing State Journal via AP)

A Michigan gay rights activist and former Citizen of the Year has been charged with setting his home ablaze in what was first investigated as a hate crime. The 2017 fire killed five pets, the Detroit News reports. Nikki Joly, a transgender man, had received death threats prior to the fire, and investigators determined that the cause of the blaze was arson. More than a year later, Joly was arrested, but police haven't put forth a motive and his lawyer says, "It doesn’t make sense." The house was a rental, and was insured by its owner. A police report said two people who worked with Joly at the Jackson Pride Center said Joly, 54, had been upset that the issue of gay rights was receiving less attention, but one of them says her statement was misinterpreted and she didn't hear Joly say such a thing. And Joly's lawyer adds, "There was plenty of media coverage already [for gay rights activism] before the fire." A hearing is scheduled for March 8.

"It’s embarrassing," one gay rights activist in Jackson says. "How do you do it to the community you have put so much effort into helping?" Joly had just achieved a series of local victories for gay rights residents, per the News: He'd organized the city's first gay festival, opened its first gay community center, and helped win an anti-discrimination ordinance—which had been rejected for 18 years running. The Jackson newspaper named him Citizen of the Year. Joly's case has drawn comparisons to that of actor Jussie Smollett, who is accused of a hate crime hoax in Chicago. "Real hate crimes are on the rise," an academic at Oakland University tells the Detroit Free Press. "But as these crimes increase and become publicized, it’s not surprising to me that people would take the opportunity to use this to their advantage and fabricate hate crimes." (Smollett's TV dad recently defended him.)

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