Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley resigns over mishandling of MOVE bombing remains

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Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley speaks at a press conference ahead of the opening of the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center in North Philadelphia on April 9, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley speaks at a press conference ahead of the opening of the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center in North Philadelphia on April 9, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated 6:40 p.m.

Thomas Farley has resigned as Philadelphia’s health commissioner due to his involvement in the mishandling of remains of the victims in the 1985 MOVE bombing.

His departure comes less than a month after news broke that a set of remains, thought to be 14-year-old Tree and 12-year-old Delisha Africa, were held at both the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for decades and studied by their anthropology and archaeology departments, without the Africa family’s knowledge. The children were inside the MOVE headquarters when the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the West Philly home, killing 11 people and destroying 61 homes in the neighborhood.

Farley’s resignation, which is effective immediately, was announced on May 13, the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing.

In a statement late Thursday afternoon, Mayor Jim Kenney said he learned of a “very disturbing incident” that happened during the first term of his administration in 2017, where Farley had learned of remains found by the Medical Examiner’s Office that belonged to the bombing victims. Upon discovering them, Farley had the remains cremated and disposed of, rather than returning them to the family.

“This action lacked empathy for the victims, their family, and the deep pain that the MOVE bombing has brought to our city for nearly four decades,” Kenney said in a statement.

Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the director of the Health Department’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, has been appointed acting health commissioner. Kenney said the city will conduct a national search to fill Farley’s role for the remainder of his administration.

Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Gulino has also been put on administrative leave, pending the results of an investigation. The city has retained law firm Dechert LLP to conduct a full review to “present a complete picture that’s been missing for far too long” to bring closure to the victims’ families, Kenney said. The investigation will have several questions to answer, including how many remains were cremated, who they belonged to, and why the Medical Examiner’s Office held on to them for 30 years.

In a separate statement, Farley said that in early 2017, Gulino told him that a box was discovered among unclaimed personal items of the deceased, which contained materials related to the autopsies of the MOVE bombing victims. In that box, bone and bone fragments were found that are assumed to be from one or more of those who died in 1985.

Farley said that it was standard procedure for autopsies by the Medical Examiner’s Office to retain “certain specimens” for possible future investigations, prior to releasing the remains to the family. After investigations are completed, the specimens are disposed of, without the knowledge of anyone outside of the Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized Dr. Gulino to follow this procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments,” Farley said. “I made this decision on my own, without notifying or consulting anyone in the Managing Director’s office or the Mayor’s office, and I take full responsibility for it.”

“I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them.”

During a press conference Thursday evening, Kenney said this policy of disposing of remains for investigations will be changed.

Kenney said he met with members of the Africa family earlier on Thursday prior to publicizing Farley’s resignation. He said he apologized for the mishandling of their relatives’ remains, and for how the City of Philadelphia has treated MOVE for the last 50 years. The Africa family also requested that Kenney announce this revelation Thursday — on the anniversary of the MOVE bombing.

“I cannot imagine that it means much, but I also offer a formal apology to the Africa family and members of the Movement on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, not just for this disgraceful incident, but also for how administration after administration has failed to atone for the heinous act on May 13, 1985 and continues to dishonor the victims,” Kenney said. “I am profoundly sorry for the incredible pain, harm, and loss caused by that horrific day.”

The mayor said the team investigating will review the handling — and mishandling — of all remains of every person who died in the MOVE bombing. Individuals involved in the investigation will be approved by the Africa family.

“Today marks 36 years since 11 Black Philadelphians — including children — were killed by their own government. We cannot rewrite history, but we pledge to use this recent revelation as an opportunity to pay dignity and respect to the victims, their families, and all Philadelphians who have suffered because of the MOVE bombing,” Kenney said. “We are actively engaging local stakeholders on appropriate and meaningful ways to commemorate MOVE, and we will share more on our plans in the coming weeks.”

Kenney’s statement was his office’s first public apology for the 1985 MOVE bombing. Last year, 11 city councilmembers, who responded to a request by Billy Penn, signed a letter in support of a formal Council apology resolution.

At the time, the mayor said he wouldn’t participate.

“[W]e have no plans to formally apologize again to anyone,” Kenney said last May. “Council’s free to do what they want, and I’m not complaining to them, but I’m not participating.”

When asked by a reporter what had changed since then, Kenney said, “I have not seen that quote. … I could not participate with City Council because I am not a member of City Council. I don’t have a vote. I said I didn’t have a complaint that they were doing that and I’ve apologized to the family directly.”

A MOVE Day of Remembrance was already scheduled, prior to Thursday’s disclosure. The event started at 5 p.m. at 6221 Osage Ave., the location of MOVE’s former headquarters, and attendees plan to march to Malcolm X Park.

On Instagram, Mike Africa Jr., posted a screenshot of Kenney’s emailed statement, with the caption: “On May 13th 1985 Philly police bombed my family. Today May 13th 2021 they told us more members of our family’s remains were in a drawer and instead of turning them over to us the[y] incinerated them. These rotten perpetrators need to be held accountable for their crimes against my family.”

Several other city officials have released comments regarding the MOVE remains. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the news was “shocking” and puts the work of the Medical Examiner’s Office in doubt.

“The city’s explanations raise numerous questions about what the Medical Examiner’s Office and Health Department have been doing in our names,” Krasner said. “That the remains of people killed by their own government were stored for decades and destroyed so quietly, with no disclosure to surviving relatives, raises numerous questions for city leaders, residents, and agencies including the District Attorney’s Office to consider. Was forensic examination with new science possible before destruction of the remains? What might new forensics have told us? Too many questions remain on accountability that were not answered in the aftermath of May 13, 1985. We have even more questions now.”

City Councilmember Helen Gym said in a statement that the city must commit to reparations for the Africa family and the West Philadelphia community.

“The trauma that Dr. Farley caused to the family of these young victims is shameful and unacceptable,” Gym said. “The sins of our racist history continue to be perpetuated on grieving and traumatized communities, and apologies alone are not enough. On the 36th anniversary of the MOVE Bombing, we must commit to a process of reparations for the family and the community of West Philadelphia, who continue to grieve and continue to be traumatized by the actions of our city.”

During the press conference, Kenney addressed Farley’s role leading Philadelphia through the last 14 months of the pandemic. As vaccination rates increase and positive cases go down, the mayor said he doesn’t think Farley’s departure will have much of an impact.

“It will impact it some because I think he did a good job when it came to the vaccine and getting stuff distributed, but the people who are doing a lot of the work are still there, and I don’t really expect much of a hiccup or a delay in the vaccine rollout,” Kenney said.

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