A man charged with dousing a woman in flammable liquid and tossing a Molotov cocktail on her in an elevator told police he set her on fire because he was angry that she owed him $2,000, authorities said Sunday.
Jerome Isaac, of Brooklyn, was arrested Sunday on murder and arson charges in the death of 73-year-old Deloris Gillespie. The 47-year-old Isaac reeked of gasoline when he entered a police station overnight and implicated himself in Gillespie's death, New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said.
Gillespie was ambushed in the elevator of her Brooklyn apartment building on Saturday afternoon, Browne said. The suspect had been waiting for her when the elevator doors opened to the fifth floor of her building in Prospect Heights, police said.
"It was apparent he knew she was on the elevator," Browne said.
After setting Gillespie ablaze, Isaac went to his apartment building just blocks away and set a fire there, Browne said. He then hid on a roof before turning himself in to police, Browne said.
Isaac told police that Gillespie owed him $2,000 from some work he had done for her, Browne said. The Brooklyn district attorney's office said they didn't know whether Isaac had an attorney.
The suspect was dressed as an exterminator, The New York Times reported.
The brutal attack happened shortly after 4 p.m., lasted about a minute and was recorded by two video cameras, including one inside the small elevator.
Brown said the video showed the elevator doors opening to the fifth floor where Gillespie's apartment was located and the assailant stepping in and spraying her.
Jaime Holguin, the manager of news development for The Associated Press and who lives on the same floor as Gillespie, said he and his girlfriend had taken the elevator on their way out of the building shortly before the attack. They didn't see anyone on the floor with them but did notice an odd smell, as if someone was painting, he said.
Holguin said police told them later that the assailant was already in the building and perhaps had hidden on another floor when they left their apartment.
He remembered Gillespie as nice but sometimes a little off. "At least with me, some days she'd be very, very pleasant, and then the next time, she would almost ignore me," he said.
Gillespie also went through a period this year where she would place duct tape over her apartment door whenever she left.
He said the man in the photos released by police looked like a man who had lived with Gillespie for about 6 months or so toward the end of 2010.
"It seemed like during the time he was here, he was kind of helping her out in her apartment," Holguin said.
He said he had exchanged hellos with the man, and they talked occasionally about Holguin's dog.
The man seemed to stop staying there around the beginning of 2011, but Holguin said he spotted him on the street near the building months after that.
"When we started to see him on the street, he looked a lot more disheveled," Holguin said.
Holguin said that when he and his girlfriend saw the images of the suspect, "We were like, 'Oh, my God!'"
In the video, the elevator doors opens to the floor where Gillespie's apartment was located and the assailant steps in and sprays her, Browne said.
Gillespie, who had grocery bags in her arms, turned about 180 degrees and then crouched in an attempted to protect herself, he said. But the man sprayed her directly in the face and continued to spray her "sort of methodically" over her head and parts of her body as the bags draped off her arms. She turned around and retreated to the back of the elevator.
At some point, Browne said, the suspect then pulled out a barbecue-style lighter, used it to ignite a rag in a bottle and then waited for a few seconds before using the flames to set her afire, causing smoke to fill the elevator.
The man backed out as she fell to the floor of the elevator, Browne said, and seemed to pause before tossing the bottle inside the elevator and onto her.
Browne would not comment on the motive in the killing, but said the suspect knew his victim.
Investigators believe the suspect fled down the stairs of the building, he said.
Police released still images of the man Saturday night, showing him in a black jacket, wearing what appear to be surgical gloves and with a white dust mask perched atop his head like a pair of sunglasses. He is holding what appears to be a canister with a nozzle and spraying as he steps into the elevator.
The Times reported the suspect appeared to have suffered burns to his face and hands.
Neighbors reported a fire in the building, unaware that the woman was burning to death in the elevator.
Residents were evacuated from the six-story building for hours Saturday night.
One neighbor told the New York Daily News that he heard loud screams before smoke started filling the hallways.
"It was high-pitched yelling," said the 29-year-old neighbor, who identified himself as John. "It sounded like it was coming from the fifth floor."
'We all loved her'
Gillespie lived on the building’s fifth-floor for years and appeared to be mentally ill and extremely paranoid, neighbors told the Daily News.
She complained that upstairs tenants stole from her. Her son, who neighbors said is also mentally ill, was staying with her, the Daily News reported.
However, the Times quoted a neighbor as saying that Gillespie was a postal worker.
Heidi Matthews, 46, who also lives in Gillespie's building, told the Times that the victim "was a part of this neighborhood for years."
"It's hard to believe somebody would do that to her," she added. "We all loved her."