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Jackson — When the home of Nikki Joly burned down in 2017, killing five pets, the FBI investigated it as a hate crime.

After all, the transgender man and gay rights activist had received threats after having a banner year in this conservative town.

In the prior six months, he helped open the city’s first gay community center, organized the first gay festival and, after 18 years of failed attempts, helped lead a bruising battle for an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gays.

For his efforts, a local paper named him the Citizen of the Year.

Authorities later determined the fire was intentionally set, but the person they arrested came as a shock to both supporters and opponents of the gay rights movement. It was the citizen of the year — Nikki Joly.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Travis Trombley, a gay resident who fought for the ordinance. “How do you do it to the community you have put so much effort into helping?”

Why Joly, 54, would allegedly burn down his home remains a mystery. He didn’t own the house, which was insured by its owner, police said.

His attorney said the lack of a motive cast doubt on the case.

Meanwhile, a police investigative report suggests a possible reason for the fire.

Two people who worked with Joly at St. Johns United Church of Christ, where the Jackson Pride Center was located, said he had been frustrated the controversy over gay rights had died down with the passage of the nondiscrimination law, according to the report.

The church officials, Barbara Shelton and Bobby James, when asked by police about a possible motive for the fire, said Joly was disappointed the Jackson Pride Parade and Festival, held five days before the blaze, hadn’t received more attention or protests.

Contacted by a reporter, James declined to comment. But Shelton quibbled with the way police characterized her remarks, saying she had no idea if Joly was frustrated by the lack of controversy.

“Not sure I said that,” she wrote in an email. “I have no idea about anything, never heard Nikki comment in any fashion about anything like that."

Joly's attorney, Daniel Barnett of Grand Rapids, said his client already had lots of attention for his gay rights activism, and wasn't looking for more.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “He was citizen of the year. There was plenty of media coverage already before the fire.”

A hearing to file motions in the case is scheduled for March 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Charges create concerns

As gay rights supporters try to reconcile Joly the crusader with Joly the alleged arsonist, they worry the arrest could be used to reverse all the good he has done.

Stella Shananaquet, whose son is gay, said leaders of social movements need to be beyond reproach because any perceived missteps could be used against their cause.

“All that good work is tainted. We know one bad mark outshines a hundred good ones,” Shananaquet said. “I’m infuriated someone could tear down the community that way.”

Besides his work in Jackson, Joly traveled around Michigan, telling gay rights groups about his activism. He also would recount his personal story. It’s not a happy one.

His mother wasn’t able to take care of him so she gave him up, Joly said in speeches, according to audience members. He flittered from one foster home to another. He was adopted by a Jehovah’s Witnesses couple who, because of his gender identity, kicked him out of the house at 15, he said.

His adoptive parents declined to comment.

Joly, who has a grown daughter, recently married his longtime girlfriend, Chris Moore, a consultant for a medical firm. He had worked as a nursing aide but retired because of a form of glaucoma that impairs his vision.

He spends most of his time volunteering, with the pride center, the Red Cross, a church food pantry and neighborhood cleanups.

“If there’s a cause he’s always there,” said Terri McKinnon, a former treasurer of the pride center. “He goes out of his way to help anybody and everybody. We’re lucky to have him.”

Joly’s most passionate work involves gay rights, said acquaintances.

Shortly after the opening of the pride center, Joly tried to recruit Shane Stephens as an intern. The center was open limited hours and located in a single room in the church basement.

Despite the modest surroundings, Joly had grandiose plans, said Stephens.

“You could tell he was proud,” said Stephens. “He couldn’t stop talking about it. He talked a mile a minute about all the things they had done and wanted to do.”

Public face of campaign

In 2016, some Jackson residents mounted yet another bid for a nondiscrimination ordinance. The law would prohibit bias in employment, housing and public facilities.

Joly became a fixture at City Council meetings, repeatedly touting the benefits of the ordinance, said acquaintances. He sought support from local organizations, not just gay rights groups but anyone who might be sympathetic.

In a community where many gays remained in the closet, Joly was willing to be the public face of the campaign, giving speeches, talking to the media.

“He put himself right out there in a town where that’s maybe not safe,” local activist Cindy Eby said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of hate in this town. He seemed fearless in the face of it.”

As support for the ordinance grew, so did opposition. When the council voted on the measure in February 2017, 700 people attended the meeting, which had to be moved to a local theater to accommodate the crowd.

Before the meeting, Joly counseled his charges. He knew what was coming. During the campaign, foes had written vile things about him and his appearance on social media.

Turn the other cheek, he told supporters. Don’t give the mayor, who opposed the ordinance, an excuse to boot them from the meeting.

At the end of the six-hour meeting, the council voted 5-2 to pass the law.

“Simply put, Jackson might have waited another decade for a nondiscrimination ordinance without Nikki,” said the Rev. Cindy Landrum, a gay activist. “Nikki decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

While Joly was stoic in public, he could be abrupt, even combative in private, said acquaintances. He was headstrong, unwilling to have his views challenged by others.

He also could be deceptive, Shelton and James said in the police investigative report.

One year after the pride center opened, Joly broke it away from the church. Unknown to church officials, Joly had secured nonprofit status for the center, Shelton told police.

Shelton said she felt betrayed because she was the one who secured the original funding for the center by applying for several grants.

“Shelton and James both described Nikki as very deceptive and stated that when it comes to Nikki there are ‘layers of manipulation,’” police detective Aaron Grove wrote in the report.

Shelton declined to elaborate on the matter with a reporter.

'Be very, very angry'

No one was home as flames leaped from the house Joly shared with Moore. But the home wasn’t unoccupied.

A neighbor, knowing the couple had pets, kicked in the front door but it was too hot to go inside, police said. When firefighters tried to open the back door, it was blocked by the body of a dog.

All five animals died: two German Shepherds and three cats.

Traces of gasoline were later found in five rooms on the first floor of the two-story, wooden-frame house, according to the police report.

Police interviewed resident Robert Tulloch, asking his whereabouts at the time of the fire. He said he was making a deposit at a bank drive-thru, which was confirmed by the investigator, according to the police report.

Two weeks before the blaze, Tulloch had written an email to the city manager and council objecting to plans to raise a rainbow flag at a city park as part of the pride festival.

“That is an in your face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response,” wrote Tulloch, according to a police report.

“It was orchestrated. They wanted to find someone to blame,” Tulloch told The Detroit News.

Meanwhile donations rolled in for Joly and Moore.

The church hoped to raise $10,000 but quickly sped past that amount. By the time St. Johns and other groups were done they had collected $58,000, they said.

In a Facebook post two days after the fire, Joly exhorted supporters not to respond to the blaze by threatening violence.

“Yes, be angry, be very angry,” he wrote. “Use that anger to force good! Use that anger to make change.”

Tracking down the leads

Despite the attention on Tulloch, police had another suspect in mind. They quickly zeroed in on Joly, according to the police report.

Joly told them that, on the morning of the fire, he bought $10 of gas at a Marathon station so he could cut his grass. He began to mow, but it got too hot so he stopped with the backyard half done.

He went to work at the church and got a call from Moore at 1:02 p.m., said the report. Moore had forgotten to pack her lunch so asked Joly to bring it to her at work. The couple share one car.

Joly returned home, which was two miles away, went inside for a minute or two, and left, he told police.

The fire was reported by neighbors at 1:16 p.m.

The sequence of events would have made it difficult for anyone but Joly to set the fire, Grove said in the police 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,” wrote Grove.

Joly told an insurance company investigator the arsonist must have been in the home at the same time he was, according to the report.

Lab tests by police found traces of gasoline on the clothes Joly was wearing on the day of the fire, said the report.

Two weeks after the fire, Joly was questioned for four hours by a city police detective and two FBI agents.

During the interview, he drooped his head, staring at the floor, not looking at his interlocutors, according to the report. He didn’t admit setting the fire and didn’t deny it, either.

'It hurt, and it still does'

It took 13 months for an arrest to be made in the case.

Police had tried to charge Joly earlier, but prosecutors wanted more evidence, according to the police report.

During the long investigation, rumors swirled through Jackson. Just as the city had been divided over the nondiscrimination law, it was split over who was responsible for the fire.

Joly’s arrest hasn’t necessarily settled the issue.

Some residents refuse to entertain the notion he could be guilty.

“There’s no path for me to believe it could ever be true,” said Elody Samuelson, a bisexual who raised money for Joly after the fire. “There’s no way he did it, not a bit, not a chance.”

But some onetime supporters are beginning to waver. Especially after Tulloch obtained a copy of the police report through a public records request and posted it on a website.

Jeff Graves, a drag queen who put on a show to raise money for Joly, said he was alarmed by details of the investigation. If Joly is found guilty, Graves said he will try to get the donations back.

“I feel as though I was used for a money scam,” Graves said. “It hurt and it still does.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

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