Philly Health Official Departs after Admitting Cremating, Disposing of MOVE Bombing Victims without Informing Families

Rowhouses burn after local officials dropped a bomb on the MOVE house, home of a black liberation group, in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. AP Photo

By Savannah Dewberry and Leah Timmerman

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney Thursday announced the departure of Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, who disclosed this week that several years ago he had found remains of the victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing and had them cremated and disposed of without notifying the victim’s families.

“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,” said Kenney.

Thursday is the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombings, when the Philadelphia government approved the killing of its own citizens.

On May 13, 1985 the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a satchel bomb, a demolition device typically used in combat, on the home of the MOVE organization after long standing tensions. Eleven people were killed, including five children and 61 additional homes we also destroyed.

MOVE was a political and religious organization that was anti-government, anti-technology, and anti-corporation. The founder of the organization, John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, was killed in the bombing. The two survivors were Ramona Africa, then 29, and Birdie Africa, then 13.

Kenney reportedly met with the Africa family before the news of Farley’s actions were announced, and offered a public apology to them in his press release.

“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,” said Kenney. “I am profoundly sorry for the incredible pain, harm, and loss caused by that horrific day.”

Kenney also promised full transparency on the investigation into this incident, as well as having the Africa family approve individuals working on the case. Philadelphia law firm Dechert LLP will be conducting the administrative review.

Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Gulino has been placed on administrative leave while awaiting further investigation, and Dr. Cheryl Bettigole has been appointed Acting Health Commissioner in the meantime.

Farley was appointed commissioner in 2016, and had previously been commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It is not clear what his motives were behind the incident.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner also issued a statement on the incident.

“The city’s explanations raise numerous questions about what the Medical Examiner’s Office and Health Department have been doing in our names,” said Krasner. “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,” added Krasner.

“We cannot rewrite history,” said Kenney. “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.”

Savannah Dewberry is a student at the University of San Francisco. She is pursuing a Media Studies major with a minor in Journalism. Savannah Dewberry is an East Bay native and currently lives in San Francisco.

Leah Timmerman is a 4th year Politcal Science and American Studies major at UC Davis. She is originally from Los Angeles, California.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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