Michigan arson case gets second look with alleged Smollett hate crime hoax in spotlight

The case of a Michigan transgender activist charged with setting his home ablaze -- with five pets inside -- and lying about it is getting renewed attention amid similar hoax allegations leveled at "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, highlighting high-profile instances in which cops preparing to investigate a hate crime end up investigating the supposed victim.

When Nikki Joly’s two-story home in Jackson, Mich. went up in flames in August 2017, it grabbed the attention of local newspapers and other concerned citizens in the community, some of whom initially worried the fire could have been intentionally set and may have been a hate crime against the outspoken gay rights campaigner.

More than a year later, however, the 54-year-old Joly faces a charge of one felony count of first-degree arson for the Aug. 10, 2017 fire that destroyed his home and killed his two German shepherds and three cats.

At the time, coverage of the case was almost entirely limited to local media.

Then, the Jussie Smollett story broke.

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The 36-year-old Smollett is accused of orchestrating an elaborate hoax via two “bogus” hate crimes – one employing an alleged attack, and one involving a threatening letter and mysterious (but ultimately harmless) white powder – all in order to secure a pay raise. He was charged in Chicago with felony disorderly conduct last week and remains free on bail.

But Joly’s attorney is pushing back on the comparisons to Smollett, saying the case against the transgender man was never touted or investigated as a hate crime.

Elmer Hitt, director of police and fire services in Jackson, told Fox News on Tuesday that some in the community – as well as the police investigators – considered the possibility the fire may have been a hate crime, it's just that, ultimately, the investigation led them to look at the blaze as arson.

“It was investigated as arson with the potential, initially, of it being a hate crime,” Hitt said.

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Joly’s attorney, Andrew Abood, told Fox News that throughout the investigation and recent court proceedings, Joly never claimed the fire was a hate crime.

“There is no comparison. In [the Smollett] case, two people were paid by the actor. Our client never said it was a hate crime,” Abood said when reached over the phone on Tuesday. “We have maintained all along and he asserted through four hours of interrogation with the FBI that he did not start the fire."

But authorities disagreed. Joly was arrested and charged in October, shocking his supporters.

“It’s embarrassing,” Travis Trombley, a gay resident who fought for an anti-discrimination ordinance that Joly championed for years in Jackson, the Detroit News. “How do you do it to the community you have put so much effort into helping?”

Joly had been touted for his relentless 18-year effort to pass the local anti-discrimination law designed to protect members of the LGBT community and minorities in Jackson.

“There is no space for hate and ultimately, love will win," Joly told MLive in an extensive profile last year after he was named Jackson’s Citizen of the Year. "I believe that, 99 percent of the time."

Yet, only months after that profile, officials say Joly traded love for a lighter, starting the fire at the home he shared with his longtime partner, Chris Moore.

No one was home at the time and traces of gasoline were later found in five rooms on the first floor.

A neighbor, identified in a police report as Robert Tulloch, was among the first people interviewed after the fire.

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According to the Detroit News, Tulloch was questioned about his whereabouts because he had sent a threatening letter to the city manager and council objecting to plans to raise a rainbow flag at a city park as part of pride events planned for later that month.

“That is an in-your-face declaration and will be met with a violent response,” the email read in part, police said.

However, Tulloch’s whereabouts at the time of the fire – he was making a deposit at a bank drive-thru – were confirmed and he was cleared.

As they investigated further, Jackson police began to zero-in on a new suspect: Joly.

According to the Detroit News, Joly told police he bought $10 worth of gasoline the morning of the fire to mow the lawn. When it got too hot to continue, he stopped and went to work at St. Johns United Church of Christ, where the Jackson Pride Center was located.

While at work, Joly received a phone call from Moore, who said she had forgotten her lunch at home and wondered if Joly could bring it over to her.

That call was at 1:02 p.m., police said.

Joly told police he returned to the home and went inside for a minute or two before leaving again. The fire was first reported by neighbors at 1:16 p.m.

Police Det. Aaron Grove wrote in his report the sequence of events made it difficult for anyone but Joly to set the fire.

“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 [seen],” he wrote.

Two weeks after the fire, Joly was interviewed by city police and two FBI agents. He didn’t admit to setting the blaze, but didn’t deny it either, the Detroit News reported.

Hitt declined to offer a motive for the house fire, saying it would be made public by the prosecution at trial.

A police investigation report, however, suggests a possible reason for the arson could have been Joly’s apparent frustration with the recent lack of controversy and protests surrounding gay rights in Jackson after the passage of the non-discrimination law, the Detroit News reported.

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Abood told Fox News on Tuesday that police are basing their case against Joly only on coincidence, on a “hunch.”

“It is simply a matter of coincidence and that is tantamount to a hunch and certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome in the Smollett and Joly cases, experts said when presumed victims of hate crimes are actually the perpetrators, it is “terrible” for social movements, specifically for people “facing real hate crimes.”

“Real hate crimes are on the rise,” Graham Cassano, associate professor of sociology at Oakland University, told the Detroit Free Press on 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.”

Cassano added: "When someone comes along and fabricates a hate crime it calls into question people who have really experienced these things. It's absolutely awful. It really, to my mind, is incomprehensible."

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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.