NEW YORK — The weeping, cash-strapped relatives of a Brooklyn woman torched in the elevator of her apartment building said Thursday that she was a kindhearted woman who helped a homeless man and paid with her life.
Deloris Gillespie's children told reporters that the 71-year-old woman had hired Jerome Isaac to do some chores in her apartment.
And on Dec. 17, "he ended up killing her," said Gillespie's son, Everett Hayes, holding back tears.
"For someone to set someone on fire — that's ridiculous!" he said. "I mean, what is this country coming to?"
Hayes joined Gillespie's daughter, cousin and brother at a news conference in the offices of New York City Councilwoman Letitia James, D-Brooklyn, who has been assisting them in the days after Deloris Gillespie's death.
They sat side by side, with a smiling picture of Gillespie taped on the wall behind them.
A memorial service is scheduled for noon Friday at the First A.M.E. Zion Church in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
The family says they don't have enough money to pay for the service or other costs related to the death.
Jerome Isaac, 47, is charged with first-degree murder and arson in Gillespie's death. Police say he cornered her in the elevator as it opened on the fifth floor of her apartment building in the Prospect Heights neighborhood, then sprayed her with gasoline and set her ablaze as she screamed. Surveillance cameras captured Isaac wearing an exterminator's mask and gloves as he ignited her with a barbecue lighter.
He surrendered to police a day later, reeking of gasoline.
Isaac told police she owed him money. She had told neighbors the handyman was stealing from her.
Daughter Sheila Gillespie Hillsman said she helped the Manhattan medical examiner's office identify her mother's remains, so a positive identification could be made and a death certificate issued.
Hillsman, 47, traveled from her home in Gary, Ind., after getting the news and said the New York community responded with open arms to the family's grief.
"It's just been really hard but I've really received a lot of love from New York and I really appreciate it," she said. "I got a lot of hugs on the street."
James said a Manhattan hedge-fund manager who did not know Gillespie had come forward offering to donate $10,000 to pay for the memorial service and other expenses. But there was no such deposit so far in the fund that the politician set up to help the family; only $800 is now available, donated by friends and neighbors.
"If he wanted some publicity, he should have found it another way," Hillsman said.
"I'm tapped out," said Hayes, 49, of Stuart, Fla. "We're at the bottom now."
At the time of her death, his mother was still working as a clerk at a post office in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood.
A native of Bastrop, La., she had moved to New York as a young woman, settling in Brooklyn, where she attended a Baptist church while reaching out to anyone who was struggling in a neighborhood that has rapidly been gentrifying.
"Deloris was always aware that she was her brother's keeper," said her cousin, Tracey Gillespie, 45, also from Gary, Ind.