The weeping, cash-strapped relatives of a woman torched in the elevator of her apartment building said Thursday that she was kindhearted and helped a homeless man, and paid with her life.
Deloris Gillespie's children told reporters that the 71-year-old had hired Jerome Isaac to do some chores in her Brooklyn apartment.
And on Dec. 17, "he ended up killing her," said Gillespie's son, Everett Haynes, holding back tears.
"For someone to set someone on fire — that's ridiculous!" he said. "I mean, what is this country coming to?"
Haynes joined Gillespie's daughter, cousin and brother at a news conference in the offices of New York City Councilwoman Letitia James, D-Brooklyn, who has been assisting them in the days after Gillespie's death.
They sat side by side, with a smiling picture of Gillespie taped on the wall behind them.
A memorial service is scheduled for Friday at the First A.M.E. Zion Church in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
The family says it doesn't have enough money to pay for the service or other costs related to the death.
The handyman, Jerome Isaac, is charged with first-degree murder and arson in Gillespie's death. Police say he cornered her in the elevator as it opened on the fifth floor of her apartment building in the Prospect Heights neighborhood, then sprayed her with gasoline and set her ablaze as she screamed. Surveillance cameras captured Isaac wearing an exterminator's mask and gloves as he ignited her with a barbecue lighter.
He surrendered to police a day later, reeking of gasoline.
Isaac, 47, told police Gillespie owed him money. She had told neighbors the handyman was stealing from her.
A defense attorney said last week he had been in touch with his client and would evaluate all possible defenses.
Daughter Sheila Gillespie Hillsman said she helped the Manhattan medical examiner's office identify her mother's remains so a positive identification could be made and a death certificate issued.
Hillsman traveled from her home in Gary, Ind., after getting the news and said the New York community responded with open arms to the family's grief.
"It's just been really hard, but I've really received a lot of love from New York, and I really appreciate it," she said. "I got a lot of hugs on the street."
James said a Manhattan hedge fund manager who did not know Gillespie had come forward offering to donate $10,000 to pay for the memorial service and other expenses. But there was no such deposit in the fund that the politician set up to help the family; only $800 is now available, donated by friends and neighbors.
James said she spoke again with the money manager Thursday, was assured he would cover the costs and considered the issue resolved.
Haynes, of Stuart, Fla., said he was "tapped out."
"We're at the bottom now," he said.
His mother, at the time of her death, was still working as a clerk at a post office in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood.
A native of Bastrop, La., she had moved to New York as a young woman, settling in Brooklyn, where she attended a Baptist church while reaching out to anyone who was struggling in a neighborhood that has rapidly been gentrifying, relatives said.
"Deloris was always aware that she was her brother's keeper," said her cousin, Tracey Gillespie, also from Gary, Ind.