Mayor Kenney provides 'next steps' in mishandling of MOVE bombing victim remains

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Sunday, May 16, 2021
MOVE bombing victims remains thought to have been found: Officials
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The remains of the MOVE bombing victims that Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney thought to have been cremated and disposed of, have been found, according to officials.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says an independent investigation is underway following the mishandling of human remains belonging to victims of a 1985 bombing of the headquarters of a Black organization.

Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement late Friday saying that the remains of MOVE bombing victims thought to have been cremated in 2017, under orders from Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, were located at the medical examiner's office that afternoon.

Among the 11 slain when police bombed MOVE's headquarters, causing a fire that spread to more than 60 row homes, were five children.

"I am relieved that these remains were found and not destroyed, however I am also very sorry for the needless pain that this ordeal has caused the Africa family," Kenney said, adding that "many unanswered questions" surround the case - including why Farley's order wasn't obeyed.

Kenney compelled Farley to resign Thursday, the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, after consulting the victims' family members. At the time, the mayor said Farley's decision to order the cremation and disposal of the remains, without notifying the decedents' family members, lacked empathy.

"We are getting to the bottom of many different disturbing questions, including why these remains were held for decades, and why they were still held after being directed to be cremated. The remains can finally be returned to the next of kin and handled respectfully moving forward. I am committed to continuing to work closely with the Africa family and their representatives as this investigation continues," said Kenney on Sunday.

Kenney says the following is underway:

  • "As I've said previously, it is abundantly clear that improvements are necessary related to the operations of the Medical Examiner's Office (MEO). We will be engaging experts in this field and are reviewing best practice, especially as it relates to racial equity. An overhaul of MEO policies and procedures is certainly on the table."
  • "We are engaging diverse stakeholders related to how the MOVE bombing is commemorated in our city over the long term. This latest unfortunate incident will not be in vain if we use it as a catalyst for finally doing right by the victims of the MOVE bombing and their families."
  • "We are initiating a national search for a permanent Health Commissioner and will continue to support Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole as she steps into the role on an interim basis. This recent development does not change anything relative to Dr. Farley's resignation."

In a statement released by the mayor's office Thursday, Farley said that he was told by the city's medical examiner, Dr. Sam Gulino, that a box had been found containing materials related to MOVE bombing victims' autopsies. The box turned out to contain bones and bone fragments.

It is a standard procedure to retain specimens after an autopsy ends and the remains are turned over to the decedent's next-of-kin, Farley said - but "not wanting to cause more anguish," he ordered their disposal on his own authority, without consulting other top city officials.

After recent reports that local institutions had remains of MOVE bombing victims, Farley said he reconsidered his actions. Kenney said Farley told him about his order late Tuesday, took responsibility and resigned from the $175,000-a-year job he'd held for five years.

Gulino was also placed on leave pending an investigation.

An attorney for the victims' family members, Leon A. Williams, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that city officials, including Kenney, had notified the family Friday.

Kenney's statement said the family members and their representatives were able to ask the medical examiner's office questions and he pledged to turn over the remains once the investigation was complete.

"There are also clearly many areas for improvement in procedures used by the Medical Examiner's Office," he wrote.

Late Thursday, dressed all in white, MOVE members read a minute-by-minute account of the bombing and the confrontation that led up to it: Philadelphia police, attempting to serve warrants on four members and evict the rest of the Black back-to-nature group, dropped a bomb from a helicopter, igniting fuel for a generator stored on the roof.

Members on Thursday recounted alleged comments from the city emergency officials directing first responders to let the house burn. Fire department leaders later said they were scared their firefighters could face gunfire if they attempted to get to the home in the middle of the block. The fire quickly spread, displacing more than 250 people.

The city appointed a commission to investigate the decisions that led to the bombing, and in 1986 it issued a report calling the decision to bomb an occupied row house "unconscionable." MOVE survivors were awarded a $1.5 million judgment in a 1996 civil lawsuit.

City officials claimed at the time that neighbors had filed complaints, saying there were issues with sanitation, vermin and noise at odd hours. But documents gathered by the commission and in the research into the bombing showed city officials, including the mayor, had designated the group as a terrorist organization. Group members maintained they had been targeted since the 1978 eviction attempt where a police officer was killed and called the complaints explanation a lie.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.