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Questions persist over Philly’s mishandling of MOVE remains

Relatives of the victims say they have not been allowed to see the box found in the basement of the medical examiner’s office or told whose remains it may hold.

Philadelphia Health commissioner Thomas Farley resigned at the request of Mayor Jim Kenney after acknowledging he ordered the remains cremated in 2017.
Philadelphia Health commissioner Thomas Farley resigned at the request of Mayor Jim Kenney after acknowledging he ordered the remains cremated in 2017.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

More than a month has passed since revelations that Philadelphia officials had mishandled, misplaced, and ordered the cremation of remains of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing. But questions linger and answers are scant.

Relatives of the victims say they have not been allowed to see the box found weeks ago in the basement of the medical examiner’s office or told whose remains it may hold.

A longtime employee of the office says there may have been more materials related to the bombing stored there and recalled seeing at least one box of MOVE remains on a list of items to be cremated.

And the Kenney administration has acknowledged that “many disturbing questions” have emerged, but been unwilling to discuss or unable to answer even some basic ones, including how the remains were found and why or how they were initially ordered to be cremated and disposed.

“We will not be able to answer this question until the investigation is complete,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email — a response repeated three times in the same message to questions posed by The Inquirer.

Without elaborating, the spokesperson said Africa family members “have been told generally” about the contents of the box found last month. But Mike Africa Jr., who lived in the Osage Avenue house that police bombed 36 years ago, killing 11 people — including children he grew up with — said he’s not even been assured it held human remains.

“I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “When it comes to anything they say, I’m skeptical.”

The episode has also brought a new spotlight upon the medical examiner’s office, which lost its accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners in 2003 and has since struggled to hit the benchmarks to regain it. Counterparts in other big cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago have maintained their accreditation, but the Philadelphia office’s dilapidated building in University City and its crushing workload — its pathologists on average handle 20% more autopsies and related exams a year than recommended — are among the reasons that keep it from qualifying.

The city’s longtime medical examiner, Sam Gulino, was placed on administrative leave, and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley was ousted last month after Farley told Mayor Jim Kenney that, without notifying relatives, he had quietly ordered the box of MOVE bombing remains cremated and destroyed in 2017 — an order, the city discovered last month, that was never carried out. Neither Farley nor Gulino has responded to inquiries or spoken publicly since the scandal broke.

In response to The Inquirer’s questions, Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble wrote that the administration hopes to hire more pathologists “to help ease the workload” — especially with the city on track for a record murder rate — and will again seek accreditation from the national medical examiners association. “Although,” she wrote, “we recognize that that process begins with the development of written policies and procedures and will take time to complete.”

Others are skeptical about real changes. The longtime employee, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the internal workings of the office, said the debacle was consistent with how it operated for years — with practices changing regularly, depending on who was in charge.

“We knew who these [remains] belonged to,” the staffer said. “We should have reached out.”

A legacy of mistakes

The mishandling of the Africa family’s remains began almost immediately after the fire on Osage Avenue was extinguished in May 1985. Before the year was out, the medical examiner at the time, Marvin Aronson, resigned over the case.

The bombing came as police attempted to evict the Africas, a Black liberation and activist group whose activities and fortified home had stirred an endless string of complaints in their West Philadelphia neighborhood. Eleven Africa family members, including six children, were killed in the blaze. The fire destroyed more than 60 homes.

In findings a year later, the MOVE Commission that investigated the bombing slammed the medical examiner’s office for not immediately securing the scene after the fire was extinguished, leaving the Fire Department and police to excavate the ruins, destroying crucial evidence and damaging remains of victims in the process. City pathologists, outside consultants, and anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania disagreed on the identities of the remains.

Bodies were not returned to their family members for months. The last of the MOVE children were not buried until more than a year after the bombing — and the office initially gave the funeral director the wrong remains.

“My grandmother went to the ME’s office and the morgues. She went to funerals for people,” Mike Africa Jr. said in an interview this month. “My understanding was that everyone was buried. I had no idea that parts of them were in a lab, in a jar, in a bag, in a box.”

(Earlier this year, activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad reported that those anthropologists, including one from Penn who later became a professor at Princeton University, saved some bones of children killed in the bombing, displaying them during online lectures watched by thousands.)

For other members of the Africa family, information on the bombing and the victims was scarce. At the time, Africa’s father was one of nine MOVE members serving long prison sentences after being convicted in the 1978 shooting death of police officer James Ramp during a standoff.

“The family members left [after the bombing] were mostly in jail,” Mike Africa Sr. recalled. “We hardly got any information from anyone directly.”

He said he was skeptical that Kenney’s promise to investigate the handling of his family’s remains would yield any meaningful results, pointing out that no one was ever criminally charged for the bombing.

“This administration seems to be repeating the same thing,” he said. Asked how he felt about the latest revelations, the senior Africa added: “How I feel is how any feeling person would feel. The difference is, [the city] doesn’t think we were feeling people.”

Cremation as a policy

The medical examiner’s office has endured its share of scandals over the years. In the 1990s, the mother of a gunshot victim claimed the office was sending brains from cadavers at the office to the University of Pennsylvania so they could be studied in anatomy courses — without alerting relatives of the deceased.

For years the office also sent unclaimed bodies to a funeral-director training program at Northampton County Community College so students there could learn embalming. The practice was halted after a family filed a lawsuit. In 2001, four office employees were convicted of stealing more than $90,000 in credit cards and other personal items from the dead.

City records show the office last year had 52 employees, six of them pathologists, and an annual operating budget of $6.3 million. Traditionally, unclaimed or unidentified corpses were buried in potter’s fields. But the office began turning to cremation for such bodies as a standard practice in the mid-1980s, when it ran out of room both in its building and in potter’s fields.

“I was very surprised that the policy of cremating remains was the norm — because that certainly stops any further investigation using scientific techniques,” said Tom McAndrews, a former state police corporal who is a national expert on solving cold cases, and was shocked to learn that the policy existed at all. “You’re destroying the remains.”

According to the longtime staffer, every pathologist in the office vigorously objected to the practice, and the city says it halted it in 2008, the year Gulino arrived.

Greg McDonald, a former assistant medical examiner at the office and now the dean of the School of Health Sciences at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the office retained tissue samples, X-rays, and blood before cremation. But McAndrews noted that even saving samples might not be enough, especially as technology advances and new sources of evidence and DNA emerge.

McDonald left the office more than a decade ago but said even then the medical examiner building was in significant disrepair, the office short-staffed, and pathologists swamped.

“We wanted to get certified when I was there,” he said. “But between the infrastructure being dilapidated and not having a big enough pool of qualified people to man those positions — between those two, that oftentimes is what hinders an office from getting accredited.”

Accredited offices must cap pathologist workloads at 250 autopsies a year. Last year, Philadelphia pathologists performed the equivalent of 279 to 315 autopsies a year, the city says.

McDonald said he wasn’t personally aware of MOVE victims’ remains stored at the office during his tenure. But, he added, there was one crucial difference between the MOVE victims and the thousands of unidentified bodies that ended up there: who they were, and the family they belonged to, was no mystery.

Looking for an apology, and action

In a news conference last month, Kenney said that after learning of the box with MOVE remains in 2017, Gulino had given the city’s top health official a choice: cremate and dispose of them, or notify the family. In his only statement on the matter, Farley, the former New York health commissioner Kenney hired in 2016, said he ordered them cremated because he believed the MOVE investigation was long over and he wanted to spare the Africa family additional pain.

He said the office did have a practice of destroying tissues that had been retained in an autopsy once an investigation is over. That practice mirrors one recommended by the national association. It says medical examiners should typically retain those tissues for up to 12 months, and there’s no obligation to notify a family.

A decision like Farley’s — what to do with bone fragments or bones like the kind found in the box in 2017 — is one generally left to individual medical examiners, said James Gill, a forensic pathologist, medical examiner and president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Often, bone fragments sent to a medical examiner’s office are remains of victims of mass casualty events and can be difficult to identify, and contacting family members about additional remains long after the event itself can retraumatize loved ones, said Gill, who worked on the recovery of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Some families get very upset when you call them up and say, look, we found more remains. In New York, they asked families, ‘If we find more remains, do you want us to let you know?’ Some families said ‘No.’ ”

The Africa family wasn’t given that choice, one McDonald said they deserved.

“If you have an idea as to who the next of kin may be, you would not cremate [remains] until the next of kin is notified, and their wishes abided by,” McDonald said. “I would certainly not have the remains cremated. Especially without notifying next of kin.”

Mike Africa Jr. said he would “love” to believe that Kenney’s subsequent apology, and promises to unearth the truth of what happened at the medical examiner’s office, are genuine. But the legacy of the bombing — and all the years after — is hard to overcome.

He says his father likes to say “An apology without action is meaningless.” After the events of the last year the younger Africa decided to adjust it to “an apology without action is manipulation.”

“Unless [Kenney] can prove he is sincere,” he said, “that’s what I’m running with.”