Jerome Isaac appeared in court with the left side of his face badly burned and peeling. He said nothing. He was held without bail, and his lawyer requested solitary confinement for the 47-year-old, as well as medical attention.
Surveillance video from the elevator shows the attack.
According to the criminal complaint, Isaac sprayed Delores Gillespie with gasoline as she stood in the elevator that had just opened to the 5th floor of her apartment building. 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, then backed out of the elevator and tossed the flaming bottle in, authorities said.
Gillespie died from burns to her body and smoke inhalation, according to the criminal complaint.
Isaac has no criminal record, but that does not mean he is not highly dangerous, Assistant District Attorney Kenneth Taub said.
"I know this is the defendant's first offense, but the depravity of this particular single act is beyond my description," he said.
Isaac's next court date is Friday.
After Isaac fled the building, he went around the corner and set his brother's apartment door on fire, according to the complaint.
Police believe Isaac then hid on a nearby rooftop for hours before he surrendered to police, reeking of gasoline.
According to police, he said he burned Gillespie because she owed him $2,000 for some odd jobs he had done for her.
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 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.
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.
Holguin said the fire melted the elevator door.
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.
He remembered Gillespie as nice but sometimes a little off. "At least with me, some days she'd be very, very pleasant, and then the next time, she would almost ignore me," he said.
Gillespie also went through a period this year where she would place duct tape over her apartment door whenever she left, Holguin said.
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela and Colleen Long contributed to this report.