What Happens When a Local Hero Becomes a Suspected Hoaxer?

Nikki Jolly, an LGBTQ activist from small-town Jackson, was charged with arson when his house burned down under mysterious circumstances
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Firefighters in Jackson, Michigan, work to douse the stubborn fire that razed Nikki Joly’s home on Aug. 10, 2017. Investigators found accelerant residue in five locations and determined the fire was intentionally set and later charged Joly with arson. // Photograph courtesy of AP/Jackson Citizen Patriot

Nikki Joly spent the morning of Aug. 5, 2017, in downtown Jackson checking on last-minute arrangements. The city’s first Pride parade would kick off at noon, and Joly, the event’s founder and director, was grand marshal. That was fitting: For months he’d served as the face of a bruising, ultimately successful battle for a local LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance, then gone on to orchestrate the parade. In less than a year, Joly, a soft-spoken 52-year-old transgender man with no prior history of social activism, had become the highest profile LGBTQ activist this rural south-central Michigan county had ever seen.

Leading up to the event, he still doubted anyone would show up. “At various points,” he said, “I may have had visions of walking back downtown by myself.” He first saw the blur of rainbow flags and costumes when he approached St. John’s United Church of Christ, the parade kickoff point — more than 1,000 people had shown up to line the route.

A white Jackson Police Department SUV led the procession. Joly, carrying a large rainbow flag and wearing a white T-shirt and loose jeans, walked close behind, followed by the parade’s other grand marshal, Karyl Baker, who rode atop the back of an open cherry-red Camaro convertible wearing short purple hair and her sash. Baker is a middle-aged lesbian who grew up in Jackson but left for fear of being openly gay there; decades later, riding down the town’s main drag like a prom queen ranked among the proudest moments of her life, she said. 

Yet she was also terrified. Days earlier the City Council had received a menacing email from Robert Tulloch, president of the Jackson Area Landlords Association, warning that the parade was “an in-your-face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response. This IS the queer agenda.” A local Baptist preacher had also allegedly made comments condoning the killing of LGBTQ people, and rumors had spread of a possible sniper on the roof of the Consumers Energy building, Jackson’s tallest structure. “Yep, I’m going to get shot here,” Baker recalled thinking, “but it’ll be worth it.”

No violence came that day. The celebration, down to the Miss Jackson Gay Pride drag pageant, went off largely flawlessly; at one point a RuPaul impersonator in leopard print led the crowd through a “drag queen workout,” inspiring Joly to bend and snap along. “Jackson Pride!” one speaker marveled. “How many of you thought this day would never come?” 

Five days later Joly called Baker and told her his house was on fire. Baker rushed to Pringle Avenue and found the two-story wooden-frame home already engulfed in orange and black, smoke and flames gushing out the roof. Baker joined Joly and his wife, Christina Moore, who were watching the blaze from across the street. Even there the smell of gasoline was overwhelming. “We assumed it was arson right from the start,” Baker said. “Like, OK, is this what they meant? Is this payback?”

The police would ask a different, equally troubling question: Did Joly set the fire himself?

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One afternoon this spring I called a number listed for a house in Macomb County. An elderly woman answered, and I asked if she was related to someone named Nikki Joly.

“I might be,” Jeanette Joly responded. Her husband’s father had a second wife, she said, who might have had a daughter named Nicole. But Jeanette’s voice dripped with hesitation. Was she sure she didn’t know another Nikki Joly?

“Oh, wait a minute, maybe I did. We had a daughter whose name was Nikki as well.” Jeanette continued, “We had a daughter who left us and basically left all the things that we lived by. So we really didn’t know her.” Jeanette quickly ended the call, and I was never able to reach her again.

Nikki Joly was born in Detroit and raised female. The child bounced around foster homes before being adopted at age 6 by Jeanette and George Joly, who lived in Clare, a rural town smack in the middle of the Mitten, and raised Nikki and two adopted boys as strict Jehovah’s Witnesses. By Joly’s own account, he never fit their expectations — a rambunctious child who despised anything feminine, especially the dresses young Nikki was forced to wear to church. Gender identity was never discussed, Joly said; homosexuality, of course, was considered a major sin. 

At 15, Joly left the family home and began couch-surfing with friends. Three years later, after graduating high school, Joly enlisted in the Army and relocated to Fort Dix, New Jersey. As a new soldier, Joly, who was still identifying with his birth sex, quickly found a supportive crowd and began dating a female soldier. “We were not out,” Joly said — it was the early 1980s and the military enforced a ban on same-sex relationships — but the two were happy nonetheless, frequently spending leave time together. “Everything just kind of started falling into place.”   

Within months Joly’s military career would end. One night a higher-ranking male officer, after driving Joly to his residence, beat and “had sex” with Joly, according to military criminal records, resulting in the offender being knocked down three pay grades. Decades later Joly would attribute the rape to homophobia, telling the Jackson Citizen Patriot in 2017 that the assailant “had decided he was going to change me.”

 It didn’t work, of course, but the sexual assault resulted in a pregnancy and an honorable discharge, Joly said. (The military report did not indicate Joly’s discharge status.) Soon he would return to central Michigan to raise a daughter, Amanda, embark on a nursing career, and embrace his masculine identity. “Just came back,” Joly said. “Went back to work. Went to school.”

Around 2012, he moved to Jackson with Moore, a brown-haired woman with gentle features from small-town Georgia who also worked in healthcare. The two met through mutual friends and had known each other for years; once they began a serious relationship — the two pledged themselves married in 2009, years before the state would recognize their union — they built a seemingly typical small-town life together, with visits from grandchildren and a house full of baked goods and pets. One Easter they dressed Tripp, a beloved German shepherd, in a pair of fuzzy brown bunny ears. The couple legally married after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed gay marriage in 2015 because Joly was still considered female by the state. At the small indoor ceremony, the groom wore a simple black suit and tie, and the bride sparkled in an elegant silver dress. 

Jackson, however, was still a difficult place for a queer couple. A once prominent railway hub and factory town, with an auto industry that predated Detroit’s assembly lines, the town began shedding jobs and population in the mid-20th century. The area, especially rural Jackson County, remains blue-collar and firmly white, Christian, and conservative: In both 2016 and 2020, Republican Donald Trump won it by about 20 points. “Jackson is the weirdest place I’ve ever lived,” said Barbara Shelton, a longtime resident and former state House candidate. “They are like 20 years behind everybody else.”

Local anti-LGBTQ sentiment also occasionally made the news. In 2000, when Jackson High students started a gay-straight alliance, Bishop Ira Combs, a Pentecostal pastor, held a news conference to oppose it; in 2007, Spring Arbor University, a local Christian college, drew national headlines for firing an associate dean who came out as transgender. More quietly, local LGBTQ residents sometimes faced explicit harassment or housing, job, and business discrimination; Joly recalled silently suffering coded comments upon entering stores and one occasion when he and Moore, new to town and looking for a burger, were flatly ignored by multiple servers at a local bar. “I’d walk in with my wife, and I guess I look the part of what they would call dyke or whatever.” 

Still, the couple found their place. Moore took a job at a local nursing center. Joly, who suffers from glaucoma that blinded his right eye, gave up professional nursing but found purpose as a volunteer for the Red Cross. He joined the organization’s Disaster Action Team, and traveled to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and other weather disasters. Other times he stayed closer to home, assisting local families who had suffered house fires. 

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One Sunday in August 2016, some 100 LGBTQ people and allies gathered at Cascades Park, a popular picnic spot with a large fountain and grassy areas surrounded by white pine trees. The event was a church service, but really it was a coming out party: While most of Jackson’s 113 Christian churches still opposed homosexuality, three LGBTQ-inclusive congregations hosted the event to show support. “It was good to see movement in the faith — movement for change,” said Universalist Unitarian minister Cynthia Landrum, one of the organizers. “We said, ‘Let’s do a service celebrating this.’” 

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Nikki Joly (right) and his wife, Chris Moore, speak at a fundraiser after their home was destroyed by a fire that Joly is now accused of setting. // Photograph courtesy of AP/Jackson Citizen Patriot

Among the attendees was Derek Dobies, a tall, bespeckled and baby-faced city councilman who is straight. A former Eagle Scout, Dobies, then 30, was a rising Democratic star who had worked as an aide to multiple state senators and served as the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s campaign manager. In 2011, he’d been elected to Jackson City Council and proved a strong ally: Over the next few years, when a local group twice pushed for a city nondiscrimination ordinance, or NDO, to protect LGBTQ housing and employment rights, Dobies had supported the efforts but failed to convince his fellow councilmembers. Inspired by attending the Cascades Park service, he vowed to try again. 

In the ensuing weeks, Landrum persuaded other pastors to join the cause, and other activists began recruiting local businesses. But it was Joly, named director that fall of the nascent Jackson Pride Center, who became the face and relentless driving force of the effort, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing phone-banking teams, and leading rallies. Previously unknown to many in Jackson’s LGBTQ community, he now emerged as a natural leader for the burgeoning movement, with a personality that could be at turns patient and cajoling or demanding and fiery. “My impression was that Nikki had been cut loose upon this world to change Jackson,” said the Rev. Daniel Kidder-McQuown of the Arbor Grove Congregational Church, who supported the movement. “He was a fireball.” 

The effort landed a major coup in November when Consumers Energy, the county’s second-largest employer, announced its support. Opponents, led by the area’s conservative Christian churches, also began lining up, arguing the effort was part of a larger LGBTQ threat to the rights of Christians and business owners. “Discrimination is a funny thing,” said the Rev. Timothy Nelson, a local Catholic priest and leading opponent, “and it can go both ways.” 

The matter reached a crescendo one night in January 2017 when Dobies finally succeeded at putting the NDO on the council’s agenda. So many people showed up for the meeting that it was relocated from City Hall to the town’s largest venue, the historic Michigan Theatre. That night more than 500 people filled the theater, and dozens of supporters gave impassioned speeches arguing for the law. The crowd remained mostly silent, waving their hands instead of clapping. At the beginning of the meeting, then-Mayor Bill Jors, a Republican who opposed the NDO, had sensed potential chaos and banned applause.  

The City Council voted 4-3 in favor, the first of two successful votes required for the proposal to become law. “I just believed what I was doing was the right thing,” said City Councilman Freddie Dancy, who had once opposed the effort on religious grounds but changed his mind after deep conversations with his pastor. Yet the debate was far from over: Even as she voted in favor, another councilmember, Arlene Robinson, said she was still concerned about legal ramifications for the city and might change her vote at the next reading, scheduled for two weeks later.  

At 5 p.m. on Feb. 7, an hour and a half before the second vote, 200 supporters crammed into the basement of Jackson’s First Congregational Church. At one point Joly, wearing glasses and a dark suit jacket with a white shirt and skinny rainbow tie, spoke of the historic nature of the moment and the need for concrete steps toward justice. “This is our civil rights movement,” he told supporters. “This is our time.” Moments later the group marched four blocks through a light rain to the Michigan Theatre. 

“There was a sense that we were at a turning point,” Landrum said, “changing the course of history for this town” — but also, she added, a deep uncertainty over what would come next. 

What came next was extraordinary: an engrossing, unfiltered demonstration of one community’s reckoning with both its own identity and the larger forces of social progress — as if decades of America’s culture wars could be crammed into one marathon small-town council meeting. Over six hours, with nearly 700 in attendance, more than 150 Jackson-area residents of all ages and stripes walked up to a podium set up in an aisle of the theater, with 88 speaking in favor and 66 against. 

Residents referenced past traumas and hate crimes, their LGBTQ relatives, the Golden Rule, Christian persecution, bathrooms, wedding cakes, Sodom and Gomorrah, gay recruitment, Maya Angelou, Thomas Jefferson, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Civil Rights Act, the Constitution, Sharia law. The new ordinance, they argued, was a powerful symbol of equality that would bring Jackson into the modern era. Or it was a reactionary, Big Government stick-in-the-eye that would drive people away. The Bible came up frequently. At one point a half an hour in, a local Baptist pastor, citing Leviticus, asserted that “homosexuals are not a race of people that deserve minority status.”

Joly approached the podium next. “Those of you who choose to stand behind me may come up now while I’m speaking,” he began in a soft, deliberate voice, prompting about a dozen people to walk down the aisle to the podium and form a human wall behind him. “Since folks are going to mix religion with their politics,” he went on, “if your religion requires you to hate, you’re doing it wrong. Religion is about love.” When he finished, hundreds of hands shot up, frantically waving their approval. 

The ordinance passed 5-2 — the Joly-led activism brought another vote to their side. Joly, hugging supporters in the aisle, had tears in his eyes. Days later the Jackson Pride Center held a grand opening, moving into the expansive red-brick St. John’s Church, and Joly delivered another speech. Soon he threw himself into a different mission: winning council approval for — and then diligently planning — Jackson’s first LGBTQ Pride festival. 

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The festival took place on Aug. 5, a Sunday. Four days later, on Thursday morning, Joly dropped Moore off at work, returned home, smoked a cigarette on the porch, and pulled out his mower to cut his yard. Around 11:30 a.m., he drove a half-mile to a Marathon station and bought more cigarettes, a drink, and a 5-gallon can of gasoline. He returned home and began mowing but soon stopped, leaving the job unfinished. He left the mower outside and drove to St. John’s to do some paperwork. 

At 1:02 p.m., Moore called Joly to ask him to run back home and bring her the lunch she had forgotten. He would later tell investigators he was inside their home for about 90 seconds, just enough time to grab Moore’s leftover pasta from the refrigerator and check on Tripp and Nettie, the couple’s German shepherds. The dogs were happy in their kennels, Joly later told investigators. 

The first 911 call came in at 1:16 p.m. A woman across the street had been outside and smelled smoke, then noticed flames around Joly’s front porch. She ran toward the blaze, thinking of the dogs, only to  find two other neighbors were already there, kicking down the front door.

Joly, meanwhile, delivered the pasta with a kiss. He was driving home when Bobby James, the church’s office manager, called and told him his house was on fire. On the phone, Joly burst into tears, James would later tell police. Once he made it to Pringle Avenue, he ran toward his burning house screaming, “The dogs! The dogs! The dogs!”

Joly was too late. The first fire team had arrived at 1:20 p.m. to find the burning house was already “fully involved,” according to an incident report, with the home’s ground floor consumed by the inferno. Some flames had also climbed the walls up to the attic; clouds of thick black smoke choked the neighborhood. Assistant Fire Chief Chris Ermatinger walked to the rear of the house, intending to open the back door for ventilation. The door was unlocked but would only open halfway. When Ermatinger looked down, he saw the dead body of a German shepherd. 

Two crews entered the house and began attacking the blaze — one on the ground floor, one upstairs — but after nearly an hour, Ermatinger called a retreat; the house was too hot, and firefighters’ oxygen tanks were depleted. 

That afternoon firefighters would discover four more dead animals: the other dog and the couple’s three cats. The ground floor crew also reported something strange: They had started their attack at the front of the house, where the fire was concentrated, but as they moved toward the back, they noticed certain spots they had already extinguished kept reigniting, forcing them to turn around and try again. A state police investigator arrived with a K-9 trained to smell accelerants and began combing through the wreckage even as crews worked to put out the last flames. The police dog hit on five different locations, all on the first floor, including a clothes hamper in the bathroom and a pile of boxes in the kitchen. Another investigator also noticed that no pictures were hanging on any walls.

Within hours the region’s LGBTQ community sprang into action, offering Joly and Moore food, clothes, a place to stay. Soon, the charred front porch filled with rainbow flags — and money also poured in. One Ann Arbor church gave $2,500, and St. John’s donated an initial $13,000. Two online crowdfunding campaigns brought in more than $20,000. Everyone suspected arson, and many in the local LGBTQ community believed Joly had been targeted because of his activism. Some feared they, too, might now be in danger. Others were furious.

“It’s time to take to the streets,” one resident told Between the Lines, metro Detroit’s main LGBTQ publication. “We’ve been complacent for too long.”

Joly pleaded for calm, writing on Facebook that he was “devastated that someone could do something like that with my babies in there. Please do not threaten violence. Yes, be angry, be very angry. Use that anger to force good! … Love will win!” He also bought a gun.

On Aug. 15, more than 200 people attended an evening fundraiser at St. John’s, with supporters raising another $20,000 in a silent auction to help Joly and Moore buy a new home. Joly expressed gratitude, then urged the group not to be scared. “Tomorrow we begin rebuilding,” he declared, and a chant rose from the crowd: “Love wins! Love wins!”

Eight days later, when Joly arrived at St. John’s for his volunteer job, James, the office manager, asked how he was doing, according to a police report.

Joly’s reply was surprising.

“I’m the No. 1 suspect,” he responded. 

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For months after that, the outpouring of goodwill and civic concern continued. The Jackson City Council quickly passed a resolution condemning hate crimes, and progressive advocates pointed to the arson to bolster their arguments for adding LGBTQ protections to Michigan’s civil rights law. A state LGBTQ group honored Joly and Dobies, the pro-NDO councilman, at a Detroit awards gala. Joly was also invited to Scottsdale, Arizona, for a leadership conference and appeared on a panel about diversity at Jackson College. That October, Joly and Moore bought a new house, paying $45,000 for a five-bedroom, one-bathroom home a block from the site of the fire.

Dobies also rode a wave of good political fortune. Earlier that year, conservative activists, incensed over the NDO movement, had collected the necessary signatures to force a recall election on his council seat. Dobies decided to forgo the recall and run for mayor. His campaign, bolstered by the LGBTQ community, progressives, and unions, raised $45,000 — a record for a Jackson mayoral candidate and more than his 11 opponents combined. The NDO was the race’s defining issue. Jors, the incumbent, had twice voted against it, arguing the ordinance was an unnecessary intrusion on local businesses. But the week before the vote he seemed to claim credit for it, telling a local TV reporter he was “the first mayor to allow that process to happen.”

Dobies won by 10 points. “Tonight vindicates that the city views diversity as a strength,” he crowed at the victory party, held inside a local brewery. The mayor-elect also pointed to his wrist, which was adorned with a bracelet given to him by Joly. “I wore it every day throughout the campaign,” he told supporters, “to remind me who we were fighting for.” 

On New Year’s Eve, the Jackson Citizen Patriot named Joly its 2018 Citizen of the Year. “He knows that he is a target,” a friend, Kim Cwynar, told the paper. “And that is a hard way to live.”

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Holly Rose, a veteran Jackson police detective, had been assigned to the Pringle Avenue arson case before the flames were out. She spoke briefly with Joly and Moore the afternoon of the fire and returned the next morning to knock on neighbors’ doors. 

The following week, according to a detailed investigation report, Rose and an FBI agent met with Joly again at the local police headquarters. The detective spoke cordially, asking about the home’s insurance, Pride, threats Joly had faced, his schedule on the day of the fire. Joly answered the questions. The insurance was in their landlord’s name, he explained. Pride had gone well, except for a minor incident with a drag queen. There were threats, but they had been directed at the City Council, not at him personally. The day of the fire, Joly had stopped mowing because it was too hot, he told Rose. Then he had gone to St. John’s. Then he returned home briefly to retrieve Moore’s lunch. 

Rose also questioned Moore, who emphasized the vicious anti-LGBTQ hate that had been swirling around town. Moore also pointed a finger at Tulloch, the landlord association president who had sent menacing emails protesting the Pride festival. Rose noted Moore’s comment in her report: “If [Tulloch] set it, he wouldn’t do it himself, he wouldn’t dirty his hands.”

Rose followed up on that. Tulloch, interviewed at his home, acknowledged the threatening email but insisted he didn’t know where Joly lived. The 76-year-old added that at the time the fire began, he was at a Farmers State Bank in Munith, a 25-minute drive from Pringle Avenue, and later provided Rose with a deposit slip. 

The detective also spoke to Joly’s landlord, Stephen Carlson, who relayed that Joly had been a delinquent renter. In June 2015, Carlson and Joly had entered a rent-to-own agreement for $57,000 in which Joly provided a $5,000 down payment. After that, though, he only made one monthly payment and fell deep into arrears. When Carlson initiated eviction proceedings the next year, he was met in court by a St. John’s representative who offered a deal where the church would help Joly catch up on rent. By August 2017, when the fire occurred, Joly had, in fact, caught up. Carlson, who received a $60,000 insurance payout for the Pringle Avenue house, had an alibi for the arson; a Meijer credit card statement showed he’d been out running errands that day.   

A week after their first interrogation, Joly and Moore returned to the police station. For four hours Joly, grilled by an FBI agent, remained impassive, rarely speaking except to deny involvement. Rose then took over and, according to her report, directly accused Joly of setting the fire. The suspect just stared at the ground. 

The investigators also questioned Moore again. She denied a conspiracy but described a car break-in several weeks earlier where Joly’s house key had been stolen. Perhaps someone had broken in? The detectives also tried lying, telling Moore that Joly had already confessed. “Chris said she would never believe it,” Rose noted. 

More than a year later, Jackson police arrested Joly. The charge was first-degree arson, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison; prosecutors later added multiple counts of animal torture and killing. The once-feted activist spent a night in county jail before being released on $25,000 bail. Joly, police would later say, had always been the main suspect. The FBI had also quickly shuttered its hate crimes probe even as activists and supporters, oblivious to that fact, for months kept insisting Joly had been targeted for his gender identity.

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By the time he was arrested, Joly’s relationship with Jackson’s LGBTQ community had already begun to fray. Seven months earlier, in February 2018, St. John’s church had abruptly announced that the Jackson Pride Center was relocating out of the church building. Church officials told MLive it was an amicable parting — Joly simply sought more autonomy for the organization. In reality, it was an ugly split. 

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In a Dec. 11, 2018, file photo, Nikki Joly (right) appears for a preliminary examination in Jackson County District Court in the arson case against him. // Photograph courtesy of AP/Jackson Citizen Patriot

Although Joly served as the Pride Center’s first director, the organization had been founded by Barbara Shelton, the former state House candidate, who worked with the church and secured various grants. In the aftermath of the fire, Joly changed, Shelton said. He became more combative, and at one point accused church members of hating gay people. In what felt to church officials like a coup, he then secretly registered the Jackson Pride Center name with the state and formed a new board. 

“I don’t know if it was the stress, but he was just a lot angrier, and I think Nikki had a lot of anger toward the church,” Shelton added. 

The news of Joly’s charges landed with a shock. Many friends and neighbors stood by the activist — “To be honest, I thought it was bullshit. I thought it was them taking the easy way out,” said Baker, the 2017 Pride co-grand marshal — but others were infuriated, or even embarrassed, that they might have been scammed by Joly. Many also feared irreparable damage to the community’s reputation and, especially, the city’s LGBTQ progress. “I was really, really scared that was going to be all undone,” said Travis Trombley, a gay Jackson resident. 

The Jackson Pride Center sent mixed messages. In a statement, the organization called Joly “a strong voice within the community” who “helped lay the foundation on which we continue to build on as an LGBTQ community” — while also asserting that he had not been officially affiliated with the center since mid-August 2018, just a few weeks earlier. “You learn about damage control real quick,” Baker said. 

City Hall also distanced itself, with a spokesperson declaring that Joly had no “official ties” to the municipality. Mayor Dobies, who less than a year earlier had credited Joly at his election-night party, has never made public statements about the arson charges and did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. 

Still, for months, the story seemed contained to Michigan. Then, in January 2019, the actor Jussie Smollett, who is gay, claimed he’d been assaulted in Chicago by two masked men yelling homophobic slurs. Smollett’s story quickly fell apart, but the topic of hate crime hoaxes suddenly dominated the national discourse. 

Media outlets around the world discovered Joly’s case and invariably linked Joly and Smollett, prompting new headlines from the Associated Press (“Gay rights activist accused of setting own home on fire”) to the tabloid The Scottish Sun (“Blazing Idiot”). Right-wing culture warriors also did their best to transform the small-town activist into a global pariah. Pamela Geller, a blogger known for propagating Barack Obama birther conspiracy theories, accused Joly and Smollett of attempting to start a new Reichstag fire, the 1933 German parliament blaze that Hitler used as propaganda shortly before establishing concentration camps. On Fox News, before more than 3 million viewers, Tucker Carlson sneered at Joly in between segments on “Comrade Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. 

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In March 2019, Joly, who later stopped cooperating for this story, said the attention had been brutal. His email and social media accounts had flooded with vulgar, bigoted hate mail and death threats. In response to the backlash, he lowered his profile, stepping down from his volunteer role with the Red Cross and maintaining distance from the Pride Center. But he was otherwise attempting to keep up normal routines; that day he had gone to the dentist, worked in the yard, lunched with a friend. He and Moore had also taken in a new puppy, another German shepherd. 

But Joly was obviously weary. “Even the positive things in my world have been twisted and colored with a negative slant,” he wrote to me in a Facebook message. 

He also said he was ready for his criminal case to be done. But as the fourth anniversary of the fire approaches this month, the legal case remains unresolved after stalling for years over an evidence issue. In early 2018, police had executed a search warrant on Joly’s tablet and found an email from Joly to his lawyer describing how one neighbor had “secured the gas can” and another “has the mower.” One of the neighbors, Joly added in the email, also believed he saw someone on the porch immediately before the fire but was being ignored by police. 

Detectives then used the email to track the items down, which Andrew Abood, Joly’s defense attorney, subsequently argued amounted to a violation of attorney-client privilege. In March of this year, a state appeals judge finally agreed, ruling that the gas can and mower are inadmissible. No trial date has been set.  

 Still, the prosecution’s case appears strong. Barring an earlier break-in that went unnoticed, even a generous interpretation of the day’s 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 seen,” wrote Aaron Grove, a Jackson detective who took over the case from Rose, in a 2018 report. 

A neighbor also told police that ahead of the fire, Joly made a comment about potentially expensive home repairs; one fire investigator commissioned by Carlson’s insurance company also told police he found it strange when Joly commented that the person who set the fire must have been inside the residence at the same time Joly was.

 Abood maintains that Joly had no motive to burn down the house and kill his pets. “They have a case based on coincidence, and not on facts, and coincidence certainly isn’t beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. He added that Joly was “a hardworking, salt-of-the-earth-type person” who had gotten caught up in a larger, contrived narrative — “sort of a poor man’s Jussie Smollett sort of thing. And the thing about Smollett is that he brought that on himself, right?” 

 The suspect also maintains his innocence. “I know what I did and didn’t do,” Joly told me in 2019.

 In Jackson, opinion remains sharply divided. Trombley, the resident who worried about the charges’ impact on LGBTQ progress, said liberals tend to believe Joly and conservatives cry, “‘Lock him up,’ that kind of thing — only using the wrong pronouns.” On Facebook earlier this year, Jors, the ex-mayor, posted: “I gave her plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the hate she claimed Jackson has toward LGBTQ community. She never [provided] any, so she manufactured it herself.”

 The region’s LGBTQ community remains conflicted. “It’s hard,” Baker said, “because I was a friend. I don’t know if he did it or not. I hope he didn’t. I don’t really think he did. My inclination is that he didn’t.” 

 But the progress Joly fought for has not, despite fears, been reversed.  Dobies — now nearing the end of his second two-year term and not seeking reelection — has been a forceful advocate, pushing county commissioners to expand LGBTQ employment protections. He’s appointed two city LGBTQ liaisons and celebrated four consecutive Pride festivals, including with a virtual event last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, the city also raised its first transgender flag.

 The nondiscrimination ordinance that conservatives once warned was a mortal danger to the city’s social and economic fabric has generated little drama since its passage. 

“To be honest,” said Nelson, the Catholic priest who staunchly opposed it, “I can’t discern any difference.” 


This story is featured in the August 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition

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