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Brother of two MOVE bombing victims sues city, Penn over the mishandling of their remains

Lionell Dotson, whose older sisters, Katricia and Zanetta, were killed in the bombing, said he’s seeking justice for his family.

Lionell Dotson hugs the cremated remains of his two sisters, Katricia and Zanetta Dotson, who died in the MOVE bombing, inside the Ivy Hill Crematory in August.
Lionell Dotson hugs the cremated remains of his two sisters, Katricia and Zanetta Dotson, who died in the MOVE bombing, inside the Ivy Hill Crematory in August.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The brother of two young girls killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing — whose remains languished for decades at the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office and the University of Pennsylvania — filed a lawsuit Monday against the city and the university for keeping the remains from him and his family.

The suit, filed in Common Pleas Court, accuses the city of tortious interference with a dead body and Penn of inflicting emotional distress and of tortious interference with a dead body.

Lionell Dotson, whose older sisters, Katricia and Zanetta, were killed in the bombing, said he’s seeking justice for his family — including his mother, Consuewella Africa, who died of COVID last spring, shortly after it was revealed that her daughters’ remains had not been returned to the family.

“It means a great deal to me. My sister can’t speak for themselves, my mother can’t speak for herself,” he said. “I’m the voice for the voiceless.”

» READ MORE: Philly releases reports on city’s mishandling of MOVE bombing victims’ remains

The suit is seeking punitive damages in an unspecified amount from the city and Penn.

“We look forward to the discovery process — I’m not sure the city does, or UPenn, but we do,” said Bakari Sellers, one of Dotson’s lawyers. He said his client’s rights have been “trampled on.”

Identifying those killed in the MOVE bombing

Dotson was 13 and living with his grandparents when he learned that his sisters, along with three other children and six adults, had been killed after police dropped a bomb on MOVE’s Osage Avenue headquarters amid a standoff with the Black liberation group. The resulting fire killed all but two people in the house and destroyed blocks of surrounding rowhouses in West Philadelphia.

In a city-commissioned report released earlier this year, independent investigators from two prominent local law firms found that the medical examiner’s office did not send staff to the scene to ensure bodies were recovered properly, leaving city workers to dig up debris and bodies with cranes — jeopardizing future forensic investigations.

For months, medical examiners and anthropologists debated over the identities of the remains. Some of the bones — belonging to a body the medical examiner’s office labeled as “B-1″ — were sent to Alan Mann and Janet Monge, two Penn anthropologists for help with identifications. (Monge is suing The Inquirer, Penn, and other organizations over their characterization of her handling of the MOVE remains.)

» READ MORE: Penn anthropologist sues Inquirer, Penn, and others over criticism about her handling of MOVE victim remains

The Dotsons, like other victims’ families, eventually received remains to bury. They believed they had laid their loved ones to rest.

But in 2021, the Dotsons were shocked to learn that the Penn anthropologists had kept, and in some cases displayed in online lectures, the B-1 bones for more than three decades.

Other members of the forensic team investigating the remains had identified the B-1 bones as belonging to Katricia Dotson.

But the lawsuit alleges that Monge and Mann disagreed with them, contending that the bones instead belonged to an unidentified, much older woman, and, along with then-assistant medical examiner Robert Segal, “determined to disprove the findings” of the other investigators. The suit alleges Penn kept Katricia’s bones for “further evaluation,” but never made any significant progress toward identifying them.

The suit also contends that at least one bone fragment of Katricia Dotson’s is either still at Penn or was misplaced.

Lawsuit seeks to hold city, Penn accountable

A Penn spokesperson declined to comment on the suit. The university said in a statement in September that it has returned “any known MOVE remains” in its possession to MOVE members.

“Penn treated the remains of Katricia Dotson as laboratory specimens rather than human remains despite the fact that Penn knew she had living next-of-kin,” the lawsuit reads.

The suit also mentions Penn’s acquisition of the Morton Skull Collection, amassed by a white supremacist physician and containing the skulls of more than 1,000 people, including some people who were formerly enslaved, and at least 13 Black Philadelphians whose remains were unethically obtained, including some stolen from graves.

Daniel Hartstein, a lawyer for Dotson, said he cited the Morton Collection as an example of scientific racism — similar to, he says, the treatment of Katricia Dotson.

“If Katricia Dotson had been a 14-year-old white girl, would they have been holding the remains? I think the question is very disturbing,” he said.

The suit also contends that the city medical examiner’s office acted negligently in its treatment of another set of MOVE victims’ remains, found in a box in the office in 2017. Then-health commissioner Thomas Farley elected to cremate the remains without telling families, but a staffer disobeyed the cremation order.

Farley resigned over the matter in the spring of 2021, and shortly after, the box was found intact in cold storage.

The city declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation.

Dotson received remains belonging to both his sisters from the city this August. He says he’s comforted to have his sisters’ remains with him.

“They may be little, but it’s big to me. With the help of my legal team and myself, I did not let them get discarded and forgotten,” he said. “I talk to them as if they were here — to tell them how much I miss them, how much I wish I could have done things with them. All the things they got cheated out of.”