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DETROIT —When Nikki Joly's Jackson home burned down in 2017, some thought the fire was a hate crime against the transgendered, gay-rights activist who had fought for a local anti-discrimination ordinance.
But now, instead of a victim, the 54-year-old is accused of being the perpetrator.
The Michigan case is gaining national attention alongside the situation involving Jussie Smollett, another alleged hate crime victim who became the accused. Authorities concluded the attack on Smollett was a hoax.
“Real hate crimes are on the rise,” Graham Cassano, associate professor of sociology at Michigan's Oakland University, said Monday. “But, as these crimes increase and become publicized, it’s not surprising to me that people would take the opportunity to use this to their advantage and fabricate hate crimes.”
Authorities accuse Joly of setting fire to his own home and killing his pets, two dogs and three cats. He has been charged with first-degree arson, and a hearing has been set for March 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court.
"We determined it pretty quickly to be an arson," Elmer Hitt, Jackson’s director of police and fire services, said Monday. "We investigated it over, what probably was a year’s time before the prosecutor ended up issuing charges.”
Two cases with unexpected twists
Initially, some in the community perceived the blaze to be a hate crime, Hitt said. Investigators considered that, too, but ruled out the possibility as evidence that pointed to Joly came to light.
Declining to offer a motive for the house fire, Hitt acknowledged that some in Jackson were probably rattled — perhaps in a similar way to the Smollett case — by the police investigation's unexpected outcome and charge. Joly was named 2018's Citizen of the Year by the Jackson's newspaper, the Citizen Patriot.
In the higher-profile hate crime case that turned on its head last week, Smollett, a 36-year-old actor on the drama TV series "Empire," alleged to Chicago police he had been a victim. Smollett was arrested on charges that he set up the assault.
Smollett, who is black and gay, said masked men yelled racial slurs, attacked him, put a rope around his neck and made references to President Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again."
But, Chicago police said, their investigation found evidence that Smollett staged the crime, possibly to portray himself as a victim and boost his salary as an actor, and lied to police.
Tearing up at the thought of his dogs
Joly, a transgender man, was touted as Jackon's 2018 citizen of the year by the local newspaper and described as an activist who had endured slights and still re-energized a movement.
He tried to "pass an ordinance in Jackson protecting people against discrimination because they are gay, because they are transgender, because they aren't as some say they should be," according to the newspaper.
The long profile described the Detroit native as someone who had been on his own since his adoptive parents ousted him at 15, had been sexually assaulted, and subjected to "insulting gender questions" and "refused service in bars or restaurants."
Joly, the article said, was "born female," but "prefers a masculine pronoun," and has long "been activist-minded even if it was not always openly."
It also mentioned the fire on Aug. 10, 2017, in which his home was burned down.
In the profile, Joly said that he was "really in shock for quite a while." He teared at the thought of his dogs, who perished in the blaze, the article said, and organized a weapons training course at a gun range to fight fear.
A few months later, Joly was charged with setting the fire.
Terrible for those 'facing real hate crimes'
In the Joly case, police suspicion was based on a timeline of events, phone records, physical evidence and witness statements. Joly had the "means and opportunity to start the fire," according to a report published by Mlive.com in October.
Security camera video showed Joly filling a gas can before the fire, the Mive article said. Gasoline was on his clothing, per the report, and a witness smelled gas on him. Photographs seemed to be missing from the walls, and Joly received $50,000 in donations after the fire.
Joly's attorney, Andrew Abood, challenged the police conclusion.
"What they have is a coincidence and a coincidence is not proof beyond reasonable doubt," Abood said, per Mlive. "They are trying to convict on circumstantial evidence and theory when they have no direct evidence in the case."
Still, Cassano said, when presumed victims of hate crimes are actually the perpetrators, "it's terrible for social movements in general" and terrible, specifically, for people "facing real hate crimes."
In 2018 alone, the civil rights advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, tracked 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. as a result of fatal violence. So far this year, the group identified one death.
The most recent stats from the FBI showed 7,106 hate crimes in 2017, up 17 percent from the year before. Of those crimes, nearly 60 percent of the victims were targeted because of race and ethnicity and nearly 16 percent because of sexual orientation.
"When someone comes along and fabricates a hate crime, it calls into question people who have really experience these things," Cassano said. "It's absolutely awful. It really, to my mind, is incomprehensible."
Wilfred Reilly, an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University in Frankfort who has studied fake hate crimes, wrote that the fact that Smollett’s case is being alleged a hoax "shouldn’t surprise anyone."
Reiley didn't mention the Joly case but made the case in an opinion piece for USA Today and a book "Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War," that "a great many hate crime stories turn out to be hoaxes."
The professor said he found more than 400 confirmed hate hoaxes, and he concluded that "what hate hoaxers actually do is worsen generally good race relations, and distract attention from real problems."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Gay rights activist set fire to his own home in fake hate crime, Michigan police say