How the Philly Medical Examiner’s Office desecrated MOVE victims’ remains for 36 years

Recent revelations of the office’s desecration of the MOVE bombing victims’ remains are the latest chapter in a long history, starting from the moment the fire went out.

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Protesters march outside Penn Museum, with one sign prominent that reads,

Protesters demonstrated in April outside Penn Museum over its handling of MOVE bombing victims' remains. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters, a rowhouse at 6221 Osage Avenue, remains one of the largest stains on Philadelphia history. City officials killed 11 people, including five children, after police dropped explosives on the home via helicopter and authorities let the fire burn. Thirty-six years later, four surviving mothers of the youngest victims say even in death, their children can’t find peace.

On two recent occasions, Janine, Janet, Sue, and Consuewella Africa said they were shocked to learn how human remains of their family members were treated and kept from them via a muddled chain of custody.

The mothers, who were all in prison at the time of the bombing, said they didn’t even know the fire left any remains at all, until the recent news broke.

“The way that they burned our house down, I didn’t even know there would be any bones left because that’s how bad that inferno was,” said Sue, who lost her son Tomaso in the fire. “When … somebody said there was remains, I was shocked.”

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An anthropologist with ties to the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University used the remains believed to belong to either Delisha Africa, Janet’s 12-year-old daughter, and Tree Africa, Consuewella’s 14-year-old daughter, for an online forensics course, WHYY’s Billy Penn reported in April.

The following month, city officials separately revealed that the remains of some MOVE bombing victims had been in a box at the Medical Examiner’s Office until former Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley ordered them cremated and disposed of in 2017 without telling the Africa family. Farley made his actions public in May and was forced to resign by Mayor Jim Kenney.

The following day, Medical Examiner staff told the Managing Director’s Office the remains had not been cremated. Which victims these remains belong to remains unclear.

The stunning reversal marked the latest chapter in a long, well-documented history of the Medical Examiner’s Office’s desecration of the MOVE bombing victims’ remains, starting from the moment the fire on Osage Avenue went out.

The details of that complicated history have been largely forgotten by most Philadelphians, with much of that information, including the findings of a 1985 special commission, not digitized for a wider public view.

This has led to calls for a second commission.

“I think a second commission could pull together some of the living history and memory and present it to the city in a way that people can start to understand what really happened,” said Shannon McLaughlin Rooney, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation at Temple University on how media covered the bombing and how the day is remembered.

‘Unprofessional’ retrieval, storage of victims’ remains

The 11-member Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, which was formed about a week after the bombing, brought on a slew of law enforcement experts to investigate the leadup to the bombing and aftermath, and hired a pathologist known for his work identifying remains of a Nazi war criminal.

The pathologist, Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, found that the Medical Examiner’s Office made a series of missteps, from recovery to examining the remains. Hameli’s report described an overworked and underfunded department where morale among staff was low.

The MOVE commission’s March 1986 report on the bombing said the office’s performance was “unprofessional and violated generally accepted practices for pathologists.”

The day before the bombing, then-Health Commissioner Stuart Shapiro told Medical Examiner Marvin E. Aronson “something big may happen” and he “should be on alert,” and that Shapiro would personally supervise the Health Department’s role, documents from the commission’s investigation show.

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Two days after the bombing, Shapiro took charge of the case and removed Aronson from the investigation.

Shapiro, who was not himself a pathologist, brought in and oversaw his own pathologists to work on the case. He also allowed media to enter the morgue as autopsies were in progress. When commission investigators asked Shapiro about what motivated the decision to bump Aronson, Shapiro shared doubts about the ME’s commitment to the job.

Under Shapiro’s watch, the office originally misstated the number of victims, and failed to identify five of the bodies, according to the commission’s report.

When MEO pathologists arrived on the scene of the bombing, they failed to coordinate with the other agencies collecting evidence at the site, the commission found, leading to at least three different methods of cataloging evidence. Pathologists allowed a “crane with a bucket” to dig debris while bodies were still in the rubble, allowing for additional bone fractures post mortem. Not only did the digging allow for the destruction of “physical and medical evidence,” it allowed for the dismemberment and commingling of body parts and animal remains, according to the report.

The MEO continued to mishandle the remains once they were back in the laboratory.

The report found the lab wasn’t clean enough or “conducive to disciplined, scientific examination.” Storage was also an issue. The recommended temperature to store bodies was 34 to 36 degrees, but the remains of MOVE bombing victims were stored at 56 degrees, which accelerated their decomposition, and allowed fungus and mold to grow.

There were deficiencies in the actual examination of the remains as well. The MEO didn’t take tissue samples for toxicology tests in a timely manner, “rendering them practically useless in determining the cause of death in most of the cases.” Finally, the office didn’t capture ammunition and other metallic fragments from six of the bodies because staff didn’t take lateral X-rays, despite having the equipment available. These exams were important in determining whether the victims were killed in the 90 minutes police fired at least 10,000 rounds into the home before dropping the explosives or the carbon monoxide from the fire.

Incomplete burials and an unrecognized spokesperson

Tomaso Africa’s mother Sue was in solitary confinement at SCI Muncy prison when the bombing took place.

She told WHYY News she remembers learning of her 10-year-old’s death in a quick exchange that lasted less than a minute. A guard opened her cell and told her Tomaso had died, she said.

“Trying to get a reaction out of me, trying to level me, trying to, you know, take everything from me and said in the worst way possible,” Sue recalled.

Delisha’s mother, Janet Africa, and Phil’s mother, Janice Africa, described similar exchanges regarding their children, with no follow up from any city authority. The women said because they were in solitary confinement, no one could call them or visit. No city official reached out to express condolences or to apologize.

The women said it’s hard to remember exactly how many months had passed when they were taken from prison to the county jail in Philadelphia, where they met with a lawyer. Also there was Gerald Ford Africa, a man who was quoted in media reports as the MOVE members’ spokesperson  with “power of attorney.”

In an interview this month, Janine said they agreed to let Gerald “handle certain things,” but the women don’t remember giving him any authority to make decisions over the remains.

“We had no remains of our children,” said Sue. “It wasn’t even up for discussion.”

The mothers went back to prison. Reporting at the time outlined at least three separate burials for bombing victims.

First to be buried, on May 23, according to Gerald, was Rhonda Harris Africa, one of the six adults killed. Three other MOVE members — Theresa Brooks Africa, Raymond Foster, and Conrad Hampton Africa — were buried by June 5 that year. At the time, three children and two adults remained unidentified, with remains belonging to two other people, Tomaso and Frank James Africa, waiting to be claimed at the morgue.

In December 1985, an Associated Press dispatch said two of the children’s remains, Zanetta and Katricia Tree Africa, had been claimed by an uncle and buried.

On the first anniversary of the bombing, the AP reported the remains of three children remained unclaimed at the morgue, said to have belonged to Tomaso, Phil Africa, and Delisha Orr Africa. At the time, Gerald said MOVE didn’t have the funds to bury the children, although that account could not be confirmed by living MOVE members.

Dr. Robert Catherman, the acting medical examiner at the time, told the AP, ″The city has been after [MOVE members] to get those bodies out, and nothing has happened.”

Tomaso, Phil, and Delisha were laid to rest at Eden Cemetery in Delaware County in September 1986, according to a report in The Philadelphia Daily News. These were supposed to be the final remains from the fire to be buried, until the recent revelations that some of Delisha and Tree’s remains may have been left behind.

The deputy city solicitor at the time said the city had reached out to the next of kin to make funeral arrangements for the children and “the mothers had given power of attorney to Gerald Ford Africa and the Hankins Funeral Home.”

‘We are the mothers, we speak for ourselves’

The fire that destroyed the MOVE headquarters and more than 60 other homes on Osage Avenue made identifying the remains of the victims a difficult task. According to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, three FBI fingerprint experts and a forensic dentist from New Jersey were called in to help, as were University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Alan Mann and his assistant Janet Monge.

Mann and Monge were the pathologists brought to the morgue to help the MEO identify the bodies. The commission later brought in Hameli, who, in addition to detailing the flaws of the Medical Examiner’s Office, helped identify the remaining victims. He believed two sets of remains belonged to Delisha and Tree Africa. Mann strongly disagreed with those findings, which were debated among a handful of pathologists. Those remains stayed with him and later Monge for continued study.

Monge continued investigating to confirm the identity of the remains from 2016 through 2019, according to Penn.

In April, 36 years after he began studying them, Mann finally returned the remains. After initially denying he had them, he delivered a set of bones to the Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Tribune reported. The funeral director did not return multiple requests for comment.

The mothers, however, say the remains have not yet been returned to them.

A university spokesperson said the firm it hired to investigate why the Penn Museum held the remains for so long is still completing its work. Leading that investigation is Carl E. Singley, who served as counsel in the original MOVE commission.

Separately, the City of Philadelphia is investigating circumstances regarding the bone fragments and organ specimens that had not been destroyed by the Medical Examiner’s Office, contrary to former Health Commissioner Farley’s order. City officials are vowing changes in that office.

Despite promises to make things right, the four Africa women say they have still been overlooked as next of kin.

The city confirmed officials did not reach out to the mothers after Farley’s resignation, instead contacting a handful of other MOVE members and two attorneys. The city has since apologized to the women for the oversight, a spokesperson said, which didn’t take into account the attorneys they coordinated with don’t represent the whole Africa family.

“We are the mothers, we speak for ourselves,” said Janet Africa.

After writing to the city and Penn, the women have met with Christopher Woods, director of the Penn Museum, and have received an invitation to meet with Mayor Kenney.

The mothers said they plan to be more directly involved in conversations regarding remains moving forward. But with their children long gone, there’s only one thing they say could bring them a sense of justice: the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner. His supporters, including the mothers, maintain Abu-Jamal’s innocence and say he was framed by police because of his vocal backing of MOVE members who were already clashing with police in the late 1970s.

“Of course, if they have remains for us and they say the remains are there, of course we will take the remains and deal with those remains according to our beliefs that’s taught to us by John Africa,” said Sue. “But what we want from the City of Philadelphia to prove that they’re going to do right by the MOVE organization — we want justice for Mumia.”

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