News & Politics

Transgender Activist Charged With Arson for Burning Her Own Home, Killing 5 Pets

A transgender activist in Jackson, Mich., has been charged with setting the blaze that destroyed her own home, killing her pets: two dogs and three cats. After she reported the fire, the FBI investigated it as a hate crime, but police smelled a rat and the state prosecutor charged the woman with first-degree arson.

In the wake of the hate hoax perpetrated by Empire star Jussie Smollett, the Michigan arson case has gained renewed attention. Elmer Hitt, director of police and fire services for Jackson, told PJ Media the trial is pending.

Nikki Joly, 54, was born a woman but identifies as a man. She pressured the city council to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in February 2017 and led the Jackson Pride Parade and Festival.

She was arrested in September 2018 and charged with one felony count of first-degree arson. Police arrested her more than one year after the fire on August 10, 2017. The fire burned down her house, killing her two German shepherds and three cats.

Police first interviewed Robert Tulloch, who had written an email to the city damager and city council objecting to the city raising a rainbow flag at a park for the gay pride festival. “That is an in your face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response,” Tulloch had written. This letter came two weeks before the fire, The Detroit News reported.

Tulloch had an alibi, however. He was making a deposit at a bank drive-thru, which was confirmed by the police investigator. “It was orchestrated. They wanted to find someone to blame,” Tulloch told The Detroit News.

Nikki Joly did not have a good alibi. According to the police report, she got a call from Chris Moore, her girlfriend, at about 1:02 p.m. on August 10. Moore had forgotten to pack her lunch, so she asked Joly to bring it to work. Joly returned home, went inside for a few minutes, and left.

Neighbors reported the fire at 1:16 p.m. This sequence of events made it extremely unlikely that anyone other than Joly had started the fire, police detective Aaron Grove wrote in his report.

“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 scene [sic],” Grove wrote, The Detroit News reported.

Joly told an insurance company investigator the arsonist must have been in her home at the same time she was. Police lab tests found traces of gasoline on the clothes she was wearing on the day of the fire.

Two weeks after the incident, a city police detective and two FBI agents interviewed Nikki Joly for four hours. According to the police report, she drooped her head during the interview, staring at the floor. She didn’t admit setting the fire, but did not deny it, either.

The first-degree arson charge Joly faces is punishable by up to life in prison and/or a fine of not more than $20,000 or three times the value of the property destroyed, whichever is greater, MLive reported. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Steve Idema said Joly is guaranteed a prison sentence if she is convicted of the charges.

After the fire, St. John’s United Church of Christ, which hosted the Jackson Pride Center, rushed to raise money for Joly and Moore. According to The Detroit News, the church aimed to raise $10,000 but quickly surpassed that amount. St. John’s and other organizations raised $58,000 for the couple.

While Joly’s attorney insisted that there was no motive for the transgender activist to burn down her house and kill her pets, people who worked with Joly at St. Johns suggested a motive.

Barbara Shelton and Bobby James, two church officials, said Nikki Joly had been frustrated that the controversy over gay rights had died down after the passage of the nondiscrimination law. They also said Joly was disappointed that the Jackson Pride Parade and Festival, which took place five days before the fire, had not received more attention or protests.

Nikki Joly indeed received attention after the fire. In addition to the money raised on her behalf, she gained notoriety when a local paper named her “Citizen of the Year.”

Like the Jussie Smollett case, it seems Nikki Joly may have orchestrated the hate hoax to draw attention to herself and her issues. When everyone is competing to be the most interesting victim, it stands to reason an activist might victimize herself, even if it means burning down her house and killing her pets.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.