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Transgender activist accused of setting his own home on fire

Michigan police say Nikki Joly — who some in the community had believed to be the victim of a hate crime — actually set his own home ablaze.
Firefighters respond to a fire at the house of Nikki Joly in Aug. 2017 in Jackson, Michigan.
Firefighters respond to a fire at the house of Nikki Joly in Aug. 2017 in Jackson, Michigan.Claire Abendroth / Jackson Citizen Patriot via AP

JACKSON, Mich. — Michigan police say a transgender, LGBTQ rights activist charged with arson set his home on fire in an incident initially investigated by the FBI as a possible hate crime, but the man’s attorney is questioning the evidence.

Attorney Daniel Barnett said the evidence is circumstantial and doesn't provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Nikki Joly set the August 2017 fire that killed five pets at his home in Jackson.

The 54-year-old Joly was charged last year with first-degree arson. A hearing is scheduled for March 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court, The Detroit News reported.

Nikki Joly appears in Jackson County District Court on Dec. 11, 2018.J. Scott Park / Jackson Citizen Patriot via AP

"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."

Hitt told NBC News reports that Joly had tried to "fabricate it as a hate crime" were untrue. obtained the arson investigation report that says gas station surveillance video shows Joly buying gasoline the day of the fire and traces of gasoline was found on his clothes. Phone records and witness statements show Joly was home around the time the fire was set, the report said.

"The timeline shows a window of less than five minutes for another person to enter the residence, splash gasoline around, ignite the fire and then leave without being seen," police detective Aaron Grove wrote in the report.

Hitt declined to provide a potential motive for the arson. Barnett said the lack of motive causes doubt in the prosecutor's case.

"It doesn't make sense," Barnett said. "(Joly) was citizen of the year."

A local newspaper selected Joly as Jackson's citizen of the year in 2018. Joly helped open the city's first LGBTQ community center, organized its first gay pride festival and helped pass a nondiscrimination ordinance.

Correction: In a previous version of this story, The Associated Press reported erroneously that police said the man tried to fabricate a hate crime by setting his home on fire. The FBI initially investigated the arson as a possible hate crime but police have not provided a motive.


Brooke Sopelsa contributed.