Update: On Aug. 14, director of police and fire service in the city of Jackson, Elmer Hitt, confirmed the fire, which started near the front door, is arson. Details regarding the type of accelerant used, whether or not they have any leads and information regarding threats of violence toward the LGBTQ community are all “under investigation.”
Hitt said there is “still a lot of work left to do” and encourages the community to contact the department with any information. FBI Public Relations Officer Timothy Wiley said the Ann Arbor Resident Agency of the Detroit Field Office of the FBI is providing assistance to the Jackson Police Department in an attempt to determine if the arson was a hate crime.
Original story on Aug. 11:
A four-alarm house fire on Pringle Avenue in the city of Jackson around 1:17 p.m. yesterday suggests that discrimination against the LGBTQ community persists.
A Jackson Police Department press release said the incident involving the home of Nikki Joly, director of the Jackson Pride Center and his partner, Chris Moore, is being investigated as arson.
A firefighter on the ground thought it was “suspicious” how quickly the fire accelerated from the first floor up through the second floor and out the roof.
Director of police and fire service Elmer Hitt told MLive.com that an accelerant was used in the fire, which took more than three hours to put out.
Onlookers confirmed there were bags of evidence being collected and that a Michigan State Police accelerant detection dog was onsite following reports of the “smell of kerosene.”
A close friend, Karyl Baker, confirmed Joly was home mowing the backyard lawn when Moore called and asked him to bring her lunch at work. Not long after he left the house, the fire erupted.
Joly, an American Red Cross Worker, heard about the fire on an emergency scanner while at work. Baker said members of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church nearby, among others in the community, contacted them as well.
Their dogs, two German Shepherds, and three cats, died in the fire. Baker said the dogs’ bodies were taken to the local animal shelter by the fire chief so they were safe until Joly and Moore were able to get to them. The cats were unrecoverable.
Jackson Detective Holly Rose is interviewing neighbors, bystanders, firefighters – two of which were taken to Henry Ford Allegiance Health to be treated for injuries – and the couple themselves.
“Most of their neighbors absolutely loved them and adored them,” said Baker. “If this is arson, we don’t think this is the end of it by any means.”
Summit Fire, Blackman-Leoni Township Public Safety, Henrietta Township Fire and Jackson Community Ambulance were on the scene, all of which Baker said “were absolutely fantastic.”
Threats of Violence in Jackson
No arrests have been made at this time, and while police say there is no clear motive and ask the community “not to jump to conclusions” as the investigation is still underway, it’s hard not to when city officials speak to this as a hate crime on background.
A recent email obtained from the city confirms threats of violence toward the LGBTQ community one week before the pride celebration held on Aug. 5. It comes from Jackson Area Landlord Association’s President Robert Tulloch, who wrote in the email to members of Jackson’s city council, “I saw something on a site about marching to Blackman Park and raising a flag? I hope they are not planning to raise a gay flag. That is an in your face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response. This IS the queer agenda.”
Sources confirm efforts to advance pro-equality policies and the increasing visibility of the LGBTQ community in Jackson have been met with threats of violence from the beginning – when the pride center was opened in February, when the non-discrimination ordinance was passed in April, and when the city hosted its inaugural pride celebration last weekend.
Joly and Moore have been at the forefront of the fight for equality in the city of Jackson. City officials confirm their presence at several council meetings when anti-LGBTQ members of the community said they shouldn’t have rights. They have publicly been “damed to hell” and called “sodomites.”
Leadership from Mayor Bill Jors is noticeably lacking in the community. Jors has not yet responded to inquiries from BTL about the incident. At the last city council forum on July 26, when Jors was asked by an audience member, “What is the biggest mistake city council has ever made?,” Jors unequivocally said the non-discrimination ordinance. This kind of sentiment expressed publicly can attract the wrong response.
While there is no conclusive evidence yet regarding this incident, it raises suspicion and speculation by many members of the community. City officials who are responding are treating this with as much attention and caution as they can.
“While we are extremely glad that Nikki and Chris are unharmed, Equality Michigan is gravely concerned about the devastating fire at their home, which is being investigated as a possible arson. As director of the Jackson Pride Center, Nikki has been an unapologetic voice for LGBTQ equality in Jackson and across Michigan. Without him, the Jackson NDO would never have passed. We have offered any and all assistance that EQMI can provide to Nikki and Chris,” said Nathan Triplett, EQMI’s director of public policy and political action.
“It’s essential that this incident is being fully investigated and, if it is determined to have been arson, that the perpetrators be identified and apprehended. The high-profile role that Nikki and Chris have played in pro-equality efforts in Jackson in recent months and the proximity of this suspicious fire to Jackson’s first-ever pride festival raise serious concerns about the possibility that this may have been a hate crime. Equality Michigan has been in touch with officials in Jackson and law enforcement and will continue to monitor the investigation closely as it proceeds. No Michigander should fear for their safety or well-being based on who they are or who they love,” said Triplett.
Governor, Senators Response
Asked for comment, Gov. Rick Snyder’s deputy press secretary Tanya Baker said he cannot comment on a specific law enforcement investigation that is still ongoing, but points to a statement Snyder issued on Aug. 14 in response to Charlottesville, Virginia that is now inclusive of Jackson.
His statement reads: “History has shown time and again that hate begets hate and violence begets violence. On the other hand, unity and cooperation have shown how much we can accomplish when we respect our neighbors, embrace our differences and focus our energy on how we can all move forward and prosper together. Hate speech and violence are not welcome in Michigan – it’s not representative of who Michiganders truly are or of the future we want to build for our children.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said, “This is very disturbing news. Nikki and Chris were victims of a terrible and hateful act. Those responsible should be brought to justice immediately.”
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said, “Michigan’s LGBT families have the right to feel safe in their homes and their communities, and this kind of hatred and violence has no place in our state. While the investigation is still ongoing, it’s clear that Nikki and Chris have suffered a tremendous loss and my thoughts are with them and with members of Michigan’s LGBT community who are understandably shaken by this terrible action.”
How to Help
Friends of Joly said he and Moore are being taken care of, but help is needed. Baker said community members have been showing up to place rainbow flags on the porch of their home. They have rallied to organize a fundraiser for Joly and Moore. Baker said they are seeking clothes and household goods, as well as items for silent auction. Cash donations can also be made at http://unitedcenterforcaring.com.
Update: On Aug. 13, a friend close to the couple informed BTL that Joly and Moore don’t have insurance. They were on a land contract and their contents aren’t covered, nor is the money they’ve put into the house. “The outpouring of community support has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Baker pointing to a couple online fundraising efforts on the You Caring site. Around $5,500 has been raised so far. The goal of $50,000 would afford the couple a new home in their neighborhood. American television actress Rondi Reed and Michigan-native Rob Harmon, a professional hair stylist and makeup artist, have joined forces to raise money also. Click here for more information.