Philadelphia’s top health official was compelled to resign Thursday after the city’s mayor learned partial human remains from the 1985 bombing of the headquarters of a Black organization had been cremated and disposed of without notifying family members.
Mayor Jim Kenney said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley made the decision regarding remains of the MOVE bombing victims several years ago.
The announcement of Farley’s ouster came by design on the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, after Kenney consulted victims’ family members. Among the 11 slain when police bombed the organization’s headquarters, causing a fire that spread to more than 60 row homes, were five children.
A lawyer who accompanied MOVE members to a meeting with Kenney, Michael Coard, described their reaction as “outraged, enraged, incensed, but mostly confused.”
In a statement released by the mayor’s office, Farley said that in early 2017 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.
“In the box were bones and bone fragments, presumably from one or more of the victims,” Farley said.
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.
“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.
The decision was his alone, and other top city officials were not consulted, he said.
After recent reports that local institutions had remains of MOVE bombing victims, Farley said he reconsidered his actions and notified higher-ups. Kenney said Farley told him about what occurred late Tuesday, took responsibility and resigned from the $175,000-a-year job he’d held for five years.
“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,” Farley wrote.
Kenney said Farley’s decision lacked empathy. Gulino has also been put on leave pending an investigation, Kenney said.
“I had the opportunity to meet with members of the Africa family and apologize for the way this situation was handled, and for how the city has treated them for the last five decades,” Kenney said in a statement. MOVE members adopted the surname of the group’s founder, John Africa.
Kenney later told reporters that he had a long and difficult meeting with victims’ family members and agreed to publicly disclose the matter on the bombing anniversary at their request.
Coard said MOVE, a group that members describe as a family and an organization, plans to respond to Kenney after deliberating among themselves about what they consider to be a just result. A lawsuit is possible, Coard said.
“They had a lot of questions about why this happened, questions about, is this standard operating procedure? Questions like, who made the ultimate decisions?” Coard said. “It’s one thing to lose a box of remains. It’s another thing to intentionally destroy a box of remains. Who does that?”
He called it the “ultimate desecration.”
“Obviously it’s going to be someone they’re familiar with, but they want to know, hey, was this my mother, father, sister, brother, niece, nephew? Who was this?” Coard said.
Kenney said the remains had been kept in a storage room. The volume of remains was unclear, and Kenney said he hoped to determine where and how they were disposed of. The city has hired a law firm to investigate and has agreed to include lawyers for the victims’ families in the process.
Late Thursday, a crowd gathered at an intersection near the block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia where the bombing happened. 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 from its headquarters, 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.
As Mike Africa Jr. addressed a group gathered to commemorate the 36th anniversary of the bombing, he described getting the call from city officials who wanted to talk about the destruction of the remains that MOVE members had not known existed.
He said the news came a month after the group had learned the remains of two children killed in the bombing had been given to an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and used in teaching lessons without the permission of family members.
Some in attendance Thursday shouted “shame,” and “grave robber.”