In 2017, prominent Michigan LGBT activist Nikki Joly, a transgender man, was the victim of an apparent hate crime: An unknown arsonist burned down his house, which had two dogs and three cats trapped inside. Some presumed the act was retaliatory—a response to Joly's successful campaign to persuade the government of Jackson, Michigan, to adopt an anti-discrimination law, for which a local newspaper declared him "Citizen of the Year."
Now the police finally have a suspect in custody: Joly.
Police have long suspected that Joly set the fire himself, though it took a while to collect sufficient evidence. According to The Detroit News:
Joly told [police] 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.
Joly didn't own the house, and thus did not collect any insurance money from it. He did receive more than $58,000 in donations, however. He may have suggested to friends that he was upset about the diminished attention being paid to his advocacy in the wake of the anti-discrimination law's passage—a possible motive, according to the police.
The authorities investigated a second suspect—a man who was angry about the anti-discrimination ordinance—but determined that he could not have been at the scene of the crime during the window of time in which the fire was set.
Just because Joly has been charged does not mean he is guilty, of course. He is entitled to due process and a presumption of innocence. Many in his community refuse to believe he could have played a role in the fire, given that it killed his five pets. Other former supporters of Joly's now believe they were duped, however.
"I feel as though I was used for a money scam," said Jeff Graves, a drag queen who helped solicit donations for Joly after the house burned down. "It hurt and it still does."
News of this suspected hate crime hoax comes amidst the unraveling of the Jussie Smollett attack: The Empire actor claimed he was assaulted by two men, racist homophobes, who shouted "this is MAGA country" as they doused him in bleach and put a rope around his neck. Police now suspect Smollett hired the men to fake the attack, and have charged the actor with felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.
The existence of two high-profile hate crime hoaxes—neither of them yet proven in a court of law—should not be used to discredit every alleged hate crime. But this news does provide a timely reminder that many stories are more complicated than they first seem. Self-described victims should be greeted with support and sympathy, not automatic belief that they must be telling the truth. Sometimes, they're not.