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Police: Michigan gay-rights activist set fire to own home in fabricated hate crime

When Nikki Joly’s Jackson home burned down in 2017, some believed 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 as the American public draws parallels to the situation involving Jussie Smollett, where the victim in an alleged hate crime 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 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 are accusing Joly, who was named Citizen of the Year by the Jackson Citizen Patriot last year, of setting fire to his own home and killing his pets, two dogs and three cats. He has been charged with first-degree arson.

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.”

Unexpected twists

Hitt said that initially, some in the community perceived the blaze to be a hate crime. Investigators considered that, too, but ruled out the possibility as evidence that pointed to Joly came to light.

Hitt declined to offer a motive for the house fire, but acknowledged that some people in Jackson were probably rattled — perhaps in a similar way to the Smollett case — by the police investigation’s unexpected outcome and charge.

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.

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