Philadelphia says it found MOVE victims’ remains top official ordered destroyed

In this May, 1985 file photo, scores of rowhouses burn in a fire in the west Philadelphia neighborhood. Police dropped a bomb on the militant group MOVE's home on May 13, 1985 in an attempt to arrest members, leading to the burning of scores of homes in the neighborhood. (AP Photo, File)

In this file photo, scores of West Philly rowhouses burn in a fire after police dropped a bomb on the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985. Eleven people were killed, including five children. (AP Photo, File)

The remains of MOVE bombing victims, thought to have been cremated and disposed of four years ago, have been found, Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.

On Friday, Medical Examiner staff told the Managing Director’s Office that a box labeled MOVE was discovered in a refrigerated section of the Medical Examiner’s Office. Upon a comparison of that box with bone specimen and fragments from 2017, it appears to be the remains former Health Commissioner Farley thought were cremated.

The news came just one day after Farley resigned from the top post of the city’s health department over his decision to order the 2017 remains destroyed instead of returning them to the Africa family. The announcement came on the 36th anniversary of the 1985 MOVE bombing, when the City of Philadelphia dropped explosives on the Black liberation group’s West Philadelphia headquarters, killing 11 people and destroying more than 60 homes.

Africa family members came to the Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday to review documents from the 1985 bombing that were found in the mishandled boxes. Kenney said he personally told the family that the box had been found. Once the investigation is complete, the city will return the remains to the family, according to their wishes.

Less than a month ago, news also broke that a set of remains, thought to be 12-year-old Tree and 14-year-old Delisha Africa who were killed in the bombing, were used by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for decades and studied by their anthropology and archaeology departments, without the Africa family’s knowledge. Farley said the reports about the universities’ mishandling of the bombing victims’ remains caused him to reconsider his unilateral decision years earlier.

Kenney announced Thursday that Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Gulino has also been put on 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,” Kenney said. The administration hopes to bring closure to the victims’ families, he noted. Investigators will have several questions to answer, including who the remains belonged to and why the Medical Examiner’s Office held on to them for more than 30 years.

“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 in a statement. “There are many unanswered questions including why the remains were not cremated as Dr. Farley directed. There are also clearly many areas for improvement in procedures used by the Medical Examiner’s Office.”

In an Instagram post reacting to Farley’s confession and resignation, Mike Africa Jr. wrote: 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.”

Social justice organizers and surviving members of the MOVE family march down the 6200 block of Osage Avenue on May 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Social justice organizers and surviving members of the MOVE family march down the 6200 block of Osage Avenue on May 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Farley said in his own statement that, in early 2017 Gulino informed him that a box was discovered containing 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.”

Kenney said this policy of disposing of remains for investigations will be changed.

“The investigation of this incident and the handling of the remains of all victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing will continue,” Kenney said in a statement on Friday. “I pledge full transparency to the family of the victims and I hope that this latest discovery can give them some level of solace.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal