There are some updates in the truly awful story of a man who burned an elderly woman to death in her elevator at 203 Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights this weekend. Jerome Isaac, 47, was arrested yesterday after he turned himself in, 8 hours after he killed 73-year-old Deloris Gillespie. Cops say that Isaac, who does not have a prior criminal record, claimed Gillespie owed him money ($2,000) — a matter over which he’d apparently been harassing her for a while. Gillespie, who was described by her son as “the mother of the community” and by a neighbor as a “community activist,” had hired Isaac to help clean out her apartment but fired him when she discovered he was stealing.
Thus inspired for his sick revenge, Isaac, whose face appears badly burned in arrest photos, took matters into his own hands. According to reports, Isaac had been waiting for Gillespie, “armed with a tank of fuel and a barbecue lighter, wearing white gloves and a surgical mask,” as she returned home from grocery shopping.
From the New York Times:
Mr. Isaac, 47, methodically set the woman aflame, burning her alive in the elevator of her building in Brooklyn on Saturday, only a few feet from her apartment door, the police said. He sprayed the flammable liquid in the woman’s face and over her cowering body, and then lighted a Molotov cocktail to ignite the fire.
The entire attack was recorded by the elevator’s security cameras; police remarked on the detached way Isaac committed the gruesome murder. Isaac fled immediately following the murder to his apartment just a few blocks away at 315 Lincoln Place, which he tried to set on fire — the New York Post says it’s unclear why — only managing to damage the door frame. Then he went to the rooftop of a neighboring building, fell asleep, and finally turned himself in at 12:30 a.m. at Transit District 32, admitting at first only that he’d set fires, and later, that he killed Gillespie.
The story that precipitated this horrible event, however, goes back a ways, to Gillespie, who had a reputation for helping people out, giving Isaac work helping to clean out her apartment, and according to some reports, allowing him to stay with her and giving him a key to come and go. When she caught him stealing, she fired him. He then started posting bills on her door. A neighbor mentioned that at one point she sealed her door with duct tape before leaving — perhaps related to concern over Isaac. The Post reports that relatives say Isaac had begun “a campaign of terror against Gillespie” — “harassing her, chasing her down the street and cursing at her,” and lurking outside her apartment.
While neighbors vary in their description of Isaac, who was frequently seen collecting cans in the neighborhood and was known as “the recyclist” — some say he “was never friendly”; others say “he didn’t seem crazy,” and that they wouldn’t believe him capable of this sort of crime (who would believe anyone capable of this?) — it’s evident that Gillespie died in a horrifying way, and that her murderer wanted her to feel intense pain. The New York Times quotes Vernon J. Geberth, a retired commander of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, as saying, “The worst way of dying is by fire, because every nerve ending is assaulted simultaneously in the most horrific way. You have someone with pent-up anger and rage that’s so intense they don’t only want to kill, they want to see the victim suffer.”
Ominously, Gillespie’s relative Dorinda Thomas told the Daily News, “She was desperately scared of [Isaac],” and “She knew that something was going to happen to her in that building. She knew this, and everyone around here knew this.”
Update: The Daily News reports that Isaac is being held without bail; his lawyer asked that he be held in protective custody but didn’t ask for a psychiatric evaluation or make an application for bail. Gillespie’s family had a message to prosecutors passed on from Councilwoman Letitia James — “No plea bargains.”
James also said, via the Post, that “Gillespie’s family will go through her belongings to find letters showing that Isaac had been harassing and tormenting her.”
Assistant DA Kenneth Taub said, “The evidence of this particularly heinous and brutal murder is beyond question.”
Previously: Police Question Suspect in Gruesome Elevator Fire Murder [UPDATE]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 19, 2011