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Philly health commissioner resigns over cremating MOVE victims without telling family; Kenney apologizes

“Instead of fully identifying those remains and returning them to the family,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement, Thomas Farley “made a decision to cremate and dispose of them.”

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley in March 2021.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley in March 2021.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Update: Philadelphia found MOVE remains in cardboard boxes in a storage room, Kenney says

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned Thursday after admitting that he arranged for the cremation and disposal of remains from victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing found about four years ago in the city Medical Examiner’s Office, but without identifying the remains or notifying family members.

Mayor Jim Kenney said he asked for Farley’s resignation after learning this week of the health commissioner’s actions in 2017.

“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,” he said.

Medical Examiner Sam Gulino, who Farley said disposed of the bone fragments at his direction, was also placed on administrative leave “pending a full investigation,” the mayor said. Kenney appointed Cheryl Bettigole, the current director of the health department’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, acting health commissioner.

Farley’s resignation came on the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, in which 11 people, including five children, were killed in West Philadelphia. It also came hours before about 200 community members gathered at the intersection of Cobbs Creek Parkway and Osage Avenue — the site of the bombing — to mark the anniversary in a previously scheduled event.

» READ MORE: On the anniversary of the MOVE bombing, fresh pain and calls for accountability on Osage Avenue

Farley’s disclosure represented the second controversy in less than a month over mishandling of the MOVE victims’ remains. In late April, the Penn Museum arranged to return bone fragments from one girl killed in the bombing after the remains had for decades been shuttled between researchers and staff at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.

Kenney said the incident involving Farley was unrelated to that case.

But city officials had few details about it. They said they did not know how many victims’ remains were in the city’s possession when Farley authorized their cremation or how they were disposed. Managing Director Tumar Alexander said he and Farley “talked about that,” but said he couldn’t remember whether he had specifically asked Farley where the remains went.

In a statement to The Inquirer, Farley called his decision “a terrible error in judgment,” one that he reconsidered in the wake of the news reports regarding Penn and Princeton.

“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 … dispose of the bones and bone fragments,” Farley said. “I made this decision on my own, without notifying or consulting anyone in the managing director’s office or the mayor’s office, and I take full responsibility for it.”

The May 1985 deadly police bombing followed a standoff at the compound occupied by the Africa family that formed MOVE, a West Philadelphia-based activist organization. The ensuing fire destroyed more than 60 homes across a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Kenney said he met Thursday with members of the Africa family and apologized for the city’s actions. He said the city announced the information at their request.

“It has been years now this family has been abused, not listened to, not taken seriously,” Kenney said. “These are all human beings. I try to think about my own family, if they had been treated like that in postmortem. How angry, sad, confused, and traumatized I would be.”

Kenney said his administration has hired the Dechert LLP law firm to investigate the incident, and at the request of the Africa family will allow their own lawyers to take part in the investigation.

Farley said it was standard procedure for the Medical Examiner to retain certain specimens in case they are needed for subsequent investigations. “After the investigations are complete, these specimens are disposed of, without notifying anyone,” he said.

But Kenney also said he would consider changing city policy for handling remains, noting that it is “not uncommon for remains to be disposed of in this manner, and it’s wrong.”

Michael Coard, a lawyer for the Africa family, said Kenney’s apology seemed genuine and sincere, but noted that MOVE has been “victimized by the system.” He also said the four family members who met with Kenney on Thursday were outraged and confused.

“They don’t really trust the city. That starts with the mayor’s office,” Coard said. “So we will have our people at the table actively involved in the investigation to make sure that nobody is hiding anything.”

Standing Thursday at the site of the bombing, Mike Africa Jr. said there were “a lot of thoughts” running through his mind about the revelations.

“Before we get to those,” he said, “we have to say their names.”

He then proceeded to list the names of the 11 people killed, and shared his memories of them.

Kenney said he had not spoken directly with Farley about the MOVE victims’ remains. The mayor said he learned of the incident Tuesday evening — hours after he and Farley held a virtual news conference announcing plans to lift coronavirus restrictions.

He had appointed Farley as the city’s health commissioner in 2016, at the start of his first term. Farley previously served as health commissioner in New York City, where he led efforts under former mayor Michael Bloomberg to limit the size of sugary drinks, and he helped Kenney push for a tax on soda and sweetened beverages in Philadelphia.

Last year, Farley became the face of the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, speaking at daily briefings.

Thursday marked the second time this year that a controversy involving the city health department attracted national headlines; Farley apologized in January for the city’s failed vaccine partnership with Philly Fighting COVID, a group of self-described group of “college kids.”

The new questions over the MOVE victims’ remains surfaced last month when an opinion piece published in the Inquirer brought to light that a Penn anthropologist had been in possession of part of a pelvis and femur believed to be from Tree Africa, one of the youngest to die that day.

The anthropologist who had the remains, Alan Mann, had been hired by the Medical Examiner’s Office in the 1980s to identify the bones, but had been unsuccessful in doing so. In the intervening years, the remains moved between Penn and Princeton, where Mann later worked.

At Princeton, they were used as a “case study” in a forensic anthropology class taught by Janet Monge, a colleague of Mann’s. Videos of that class were made available online, sparking protests by MOVE and other advocates. Reached Thursday, Mann said he hadn’t been aware the city had any other MOVE remains aside from those given to him.

Penn has since apologized for separating the remains from the Africa family, and helped to facilitate their return to members of MOVE. Late last month, Mann turned the remains over to the Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia in preparation for their final resting place, at the discretion of the Africa family.

Meanwhile, Christopher Woods, the director of the Penn Museum, has said an independent investigation has been opened into why the two universities kept the remains for decades.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, the activist who wrote the Inquirer op-ed last month, said Thursday that news of the city’s mishandling of the remains was cause for Kenney to resign.

“I am absolutely horrified at what else we will find out, because the layers of this are so complex,” they said. “The ‘sorrys’, the fake apologies are not enough. This is violence. This is generational violence. I am disgusted.”

City Council held a moment of silence Thursday morning to commemorate the anniversary. Council voted last year to apologize for the bombing, marking the first time the city issued an apology. After Kenney’s announcement Thursday, several Council members issued statements condemning Farley’s action and citing it as an example of racism that persists within government and institutions.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke said the disposal of the remains was “unconscionable, unacceptable, and outrageous.”

“Institutions across the country are struggling to explain their conduct in possessing and handling the remains of peoples of color over many decades,” Clarke said. “Our city should and must hold itself to a higher standard of care.”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes the neighborhood destroyed in the MOVE bombing, attended Thursday’s remembrance event and called for “a full accounting” of the mishandling of the remains.

“The original incident was horrible. It’s one of the most atrocious acts that have ever happened in the country,” Gauthier said. “And now to know that there was further disrespect of a Black life through the way that these remains were handled. It’s just utterly disgusting.”

Staff writers Ellie Rushing, Vinny Vella, Sean Collins Walsh, and Anna Orso contributed to this article.