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MOVE jury urges no charges but condemns officials’ actions | 1988

Their actions, the report said, led to “an urban disaster of scarcely imaginable proportions.”

A Philadelphia firefighter walks down a burned out Osage Avenue days after the MOVE confrontation in May 1985.
A Philadelphia firefighter walks down a burned out Osage Avenue days after the MOVE confrontation in May 1985.Read morePhiladelphia Daily News

This story appeared in The Inquirer on May 4, 1988.

The MOVE grand jury yesterday exonerated Mayor Goode, top city officials and police of all crimes but excoriated them for their roles in the May 13, 1985, confrontation on Osage Avenue that ended in the deaths of five children and six MOVE members and the destruction of 61 homes by fire.

The 279-page report, approved by the grand jury by a 16-4 vote and released by District Attorney Ronald D. Castille, harshly criticized the actions of Goode, former Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond, and former Managing Director Leo A. Brooks before, during and after the daylong siege.

Their actions, the report said, led to “an urban disaster of scarcely imaginable proportions.” It called the MOVE episode “an epic of governmental incompetence.” It said city officials were guilty of “morally reprehensible behavior.”

Yet, in the end, after a two-year investigation, after hearing from 125 witnesses, after considerable wrangling among themselves, the 20-member grand jury concluded the following:

“Our investigation has revealed considerable incompetence and ineptitude. It has not, however, disclosed any actions which we believe warrant the filing of criminal charges.”

The grand jury report, a thick volume with a plain gray cover that sometimes offered a minute-by-minute breakdown of the events of May 13, was released by Castille at a 1:30 p.m. news conference crowded with aides and reporters and broadcast live by Philadelphia’s three VHF television stations.

The district attorney said the grand jury considered bringing charges as serious as murder and arson against the mayor and his top aides.

Castille said the grand jury and his staff had undertaken a painstaking and impartial investigation of every aspect of the MOVE case.

The facts, he said, revealed negligence and poor judgment by those involved - but no evidence that crimes were committed on May 13.

“The pain we suffer in the death of the children and the destruction of the neighborhood would seem to lead to the conclusion that crimes must have occurred on May 13,” Castille said. “Our society cannot condone prosecutions motivated solely by grief and rage.”

Reaction to the long-awaited grand jury report was quick and often negative.

Mayor Goode, portrayed in the report as a chief executive who showed ’'political cowardice” in his handling of MOVE, declined to comment on the many criticisms leveled at him by the grand jury.

But, asked specifically about the grand jury’s complaint that the behavior of the mayor and other city officials was “morally reprehensible,” Goode replied:

“I don’t have any comment to make on that, sir. To me this was a very tragic day in the life of this city - a day that for me will carry a pain for the rest of my life, a scar deep down inside of me. I’m not going to comment on how someone else described that day.”

Richmond, who spent most of yesterday reading the report, said last night that he felt a “sense of relief,” though he noted that a federal grand jury was still investigating the MOVE incident.

‘You had a whole row of houses roaring, the street actually melting under you, and gunfire on top of that,” he said. “Lay that on your decision-making process. You can’t transfer Osage Avenue into a classroom or courtroom setting.”

Attorneys for Sambor and Brooks said their clients would have no comment on the report.

However, members of the mayor’s MOVE commission, which issued its own sharply critical report in March 1986, expressed anger.

“I’m totally speechless,” said commission member Julia M. Chinn. “I can’t see how a report of this type can be given to the citizens of Philadelphia. We know 11 people died on May 13. How can they say no one should be penalized for it? . . . To me, I don’t see this as justice.”

Other MOVE commission members were particularly angered over the grand jury’s decision to exonerate two police officers who, after the May 13 incident, concealed the fact they used the explosive C-4 in trying to breach the walls and roof of the MOVE house at 6221 Osage Ave. They later lied to the grand jury about the C-4, according to the report.

“Frankly, I’m outraged and I think the people of this city ought to be outraged, too,” said William H. Brown 3d, who was chairman of the MOVE

commission.

“For us to allow our police officers to commit perjury, for the grand jury to make the judgment that ‘yes, there was perjury, but we are not going to recommend criminal charges,’ is adding another tragedy to the tragedy our city suffered May 13, 1985,” he said.

The grand jury said it was tempted to recommend the indictment of police Officer William Klein and Sgt. Edward Connor, both of whom have since left the force.

Their attempt to conceal that the C-4 came from an FBI agent and their lying before the grand jury were examples of “asinine behavior,” the grand jury said, but it did not recommend indictments of the officers.

“It would be a mockery of justice to punish these officers, who risked their lives in confronting MOVE while their superiors, the parties morally responsible for the entire debacle, went unscathed,” the report said.

The grand jury’s report also was criticized by Andino Ward, father of Michael Moses Ward - who as a 13-year-old known as Birdie Africa was one of two survivors of the confrontation from the MOVE compound. The other was Ramona Johnson Africa, now serving a prison term for her role in the events of May 13.

Birdie Africa had told the MOVE commission that police gunfire had kept some people from fleeing the burning MOVE house - a contention rejected by the grand jury, saying it had found no such evidence.

“My reaction is one of confusion and dismay,” Andino Ward said. “What the grand jury came up with made no sense. You can’t condemn individuals, on one hand, for what they have done and, on the other hand, say they are not guilty. There has to be some responsibility. . . . . Justice is blind, but in Philadelphia it appears to be very ignorant.”

Yesterday, some Osage Avenue residents - living in homes rebuilt by the city at a cost of $150,000 each - expressed disappointment over the grand jury report.

“That’s the worst whitewash I’ve ever heard in my lifetime,” said Wayne Renfrow, 42. “But it’s consistent with the actions of the city since this whole thing began.”

For anyone to be indicted, the grand jury said, there would have to be conclusive proof that the officials had an evil intent, that their decisions were reckless or grossly negligent compared to how a reasonable person would have acted in those circumstances.

But the problem they faced was how a reasonable person should act given the unprecedented and sometimes bizarre circumstances before and on May 13.

“We have concluded that, factually and legally, no prosecution is sustainable,” the report said. “To bring charges simply because our visceral reaction is that, given a disaster of this magnitude, someone must have acted criminally would be cathartic but improper.”

The grand jury differed with the MOVE commission’s conclusion that police firepower directed at the MOVE compound was “unconscionable.”

The grand jury report said that police did not use 10,000 rounds of ammunition, as the MOVE commission asserted. That was the amount of ammunition brought to the scene - at least 1,000 rounds of which were destroyed in that evening’s fire.

Police fired only after MOVE members began to shoot at them, the report said: “Gunfire was directed only at combatants and only while they fired on police.”

Sambor’s decision to drop what the report called a “satchel charge” - containing C-4 and dropped from the police helicopter onto the roof of the MOVE house - was designed to destroy the bunkers there. This came after an earlier police effort to breach the MOVE house’s walls with explosives had failed because of the heavy fortifications.

Next to Goode, the former police commissioner came under the harshest criticism of the grand jury. In this case, however, Sambor was trying to remove the bunker and create a hole in the roof so police could inject tear gas into the building, the report said.

“From the evidence, it appears that his intent in approving the charge was not to burn down the neighborhood, or even the house,” the report said. “He wanted only to destroy the bunker.”

When Sambor noticed smoke coming from the roof, he believed that fire might level the bunker and asked Richmond if his men could control the blaze after the bunker was burned, the grand jury said.

Richmond said he believed the fire could be extinguished with Squrts - high-powered water guns aimed at the roof - without endangering the rest of the MOVE house. That was about 6:15 p.m.

“Just before the Squrts were turned on, Richmond said that he looked at the MOVE house and realized ‘we had a problem on our hands,’ " the report said.

The fire had spread. Soon it was out of control. The only way to battle it was with firefighters, on the street and rooftops, using hoses. Gunfire from the MOVE house prevented that step from being taken. Osage Avenue had begun to burn.

The grand jury contested Goode’s statements that he ordered officials at the scene to put out the fire shortly before 6 p.m. It said a review of the evidence showed that his call came no sooner than 6:25 p.m.

The grand jury also contested the MOVE commission’s finding that as the fire roared, police gunfire behind the house prevented MOVE members from escaping.

“We reject any contention or conclusion that a pitched gun battle, of any sort, between the police and MOVE members occurred in the back alley,” the report said. “Such a finding is absolutely inconsistent with the vast weight of evidence presented to us.”

The grand jury said the extent of the gunfire in the back alley was ’'limited to between four to 10 rifle shots fired by an unidentified male MOVE member.”

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Maida Odom, Roy H. Campbell, Linda Loyd, Vernon Loeb, Hank Klibanoff, Fredric N. Tulsky, Dan Meyers, Daniel R. Biddle and Christopher Hepp.

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