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Woman set on fire in elevator over debt

19 December 2011, 11:27

New York - As Deloris Gillespie went up the elevator to her fifth-floor Brooklyn flat, carrying groceries, a man was waiting. His face was one her neighbours later recognised, and that she surely must have.

Surveillance video from inside the small elevator shows that he looked something like an exterminator, with a canister sprayer, white gloves and a dust mask, which was perched atop his head like a pair of sunglasses. The sprayer was full of flammable liquid.

When the elevator opened on Saturday afternoon, the man sprayed the 73-year-old woman, who turned around and crouched down to try to protect herself, New York Police Department spokesperson Paul Browne said.

The attacker sprayed Gillespie in the face and continued to spray her "sort of methodically" over her head and parts of her body as her bags of groceries draped off her arms, Browne said.

Then, Browne said, the attacker pulled out a barbecue-style lighter and used it to ignite a rag in a bottle. He waited a few seconds as Gillespie huddled on the floor. Then he backed out of the elevator and tossed the flaming bottle in.

Suspect handed himself in

Neighbours in the Prospect Heights building quickly reported a fire, but had no idea that a woman was being burned alive.

Overnight, a 47-year-old man stinking of gasoline went into a police station and implicated himself in Gillespie's death, Browne said. The suspect, Jerome Isaac, told police he set her on fire because she owed him $2 000 for some work he had done for her, Browne said.

Jaime Holguin, who lives on the same floor as Gillespie, saw surveillance pictures of the attacker and said, "Oh, my God!"

Holguin, the manager of news development for The Associated Press, said the man in the surveillance pictures looked like a man who had lived with Gillespie for about six months last year and appeared to have been helping her out. He was certain Isaac was the man who worked for Gillespie after seeing post-arrest pictures of the suspect.

Gillespie's arrangement with Isaac appeared to have ended by early 2011, but months later Holguin started seeing the man nearby on the street, looking "a lot more dishevelled" and pushing a cart full of aluminium cans.

Melted elevator door

Browne said that after setting Gillespie ablaze, Isaac set another fire at his own apartment building nearby, then hid on a roof before turning himself in to police.

Isaac, from Brooklyn, was arrested on Sunday on murder and arson charges. The Brooklyn district attorney's office had no information on whether he had an attorney.

Residents were evacuated and kept away from the six-story building for hours Saturday night as police investigated.

On Sunday, Holguin said, the fifth floor was a mess, with a melted elevator door and a layer of water on the floor.

- AP

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