Jerome Isaac, 47, said nothing during the brief hearing in Brooklyn criminal court, where he was ordered held without bail in the death of Deloris Gillespie. His lawyer requested solitary confinement and medical attention but did not speak outside court.
Isaac was often seen at her apartment doing odd jobs, and told police he set her on fire because she owed him $2,000, authorities have said.
Isaac has no prior criminal record, but that does not mean he is not highly dangerous, Assistant District Attorney Kenneth Taub said. He told authorities where they could find the gasoline.
"I know this is the defendant's first offense, but the depravity of this particular single act is beyond my description," he said.
Surveillance video from the elevator shows Isaac dressed somewhat like an exterminator, holding a canister sprayer, wearing white gloves and with a dust mask atop his head. The sprayer was full of gasoline, prosecutors said.
According to the criminal complaint, Isaac doused Gillespie with gasoline as she stood in the elevator, which just opened to the fifth floor of her apartment building in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn. She crouched and cowered, grocery bags draped off her arms.
Isaac pulled out a barbecue-style lighter, authorities said, 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, authorities said.
Gillespie died of burns and smoke inhalation, according to the criminal complaint.
Isaac fled the building, then went around the corner and set his brother's apartment door on fire, according to the complaint.
Visibly burned, Isaac then hid on a nearby rooftop in the winter cold for hours before he surrendered, reeking of gasoline, police said.
When Jaime Holguin, who lives on the same floor as Gillespie, saw surveillance pictures of the attacker he said, "Oh, my God!"
Holguin, the manager of news development for The Associated Press, said the man looked like someone who had lived with Gillespie for about six months last year and appeared to have been helping her out. After seeing post-arrest pictures of the suspect, Holguin was certain Isaac was the man who worked for Gillespie.
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 disheveled" and pushing a cart full of aluminum cans.
Gillespie's funeral is planned for after Christmas, according to City Council member Letitia James, speaking on behalf of the family, which she said has requested privacy.
She had four children - one daughter and three sons, according to James - and regularly attended a Baptist church near her home.
Residents were evacuated and kept away from the six-story building for hours Saturday night as police investigated. On Sunday, the fifth floor was a mess, with a melted elevator door and a layer of water on the floor.
Holguin said he and his girlfriend had taken the elevator on their way out of the building shortly before the attack. They didn't see anyone on the floor with them but did notice an odd smell, as if someone was painting, he said.
Holguin said police told them later that the assailant was already in the building and perhaps had hidden on another floor when they left their apartment.
Isaac's next court date is Friday.
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
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