Health commissioner Thomas Farley resigned on Thursday after acknowledging he ordered the remains cremated and disposed. But the city found the remains in a basement office on Friday.
The remains of the MOVE bombing victims that Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration previously announced it had cremated and discarded without notifying their relatives were never destroyed, city officials acknowledged Friday night, the latest twist in a saga that cost the city health commissioner his job and exacerbated tensions over the treatment of Black Philadelphians.
The revelation came after city officials learned that a subordinate apparently disobeyed Health Commissioner Thomas Farley’s order in 2017 to dispose of the remains, said Leon A. Williams, an attorney for the family of the MOVE victims. Kenney said in a statement late Friday that he had personally informed the family of the discovery.
“”I am relieved that these remains were found and not destroyed, however I am also very sorry for the needless pain that this ordeal has caused the Africa family,” Kenney said. “There are many unanswered questions including why the remains were not cremated as Dr. Farley directed. There are also clearly many areas for improvement in procedures used by the Medical Examiner’s Office.”
Farley, the city’s top health official since 2016 and the most prominent administration official during the coronavirus pandemic, resigned Thursday after acknowledging he had ordered the remains cremated and disposed without notifying the Africas.
But the remains were unexpectedly found in a box during a search Friday in the basement of the Medical Examiner’s Office, according to a city employee with knowledge of the office’s operations but not authorized to publicly discuss them.
That person said a ranking staffer initially declared the office could hold onto the remains until next week, but another employee insisted the office address the issue immediately. The Africa family was then brought in.
Questions left unanswered Friday included whose remains were in the box and why the city had held them for so long. Most remains from the infamous 1985 bombing in West Philadelphia — which led to the deaths of 11 people — were released from the Medical Examiner’s Office in 1986 and buried at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County.
Farley, who directed Medical Examiner Sam Gulino to dispose of the remains in 2017, said he had acted unilaterally and did not disclose that decision to other city officials until this week. Upon hearing the news, the mayor said he asked for Farley’s resignation, placed Gulino on administrative leave and hired the Dechert law firm to investigate the incident.
That investigation will continue, Kenney said Friday night, and the city will return the remains to the victims’ family.
Earlier in the day, Kenney had offered new details on the case: He said that two cardboard boxes had been discovered in storage at the Medical Examiner’s Office as staff members cleaned out space four years ago in preparation to move into another building. One box “with the word MOVE on it” had remains and the other had documents, he said. The remains were “partial bone fragments” or perhaps teeth, according to the mayor.
The mayor said he would change the city’s policy for disposal of remains. But what that policy allows remained unclear.
In a statement to The Inquirer Thursday, Farley said it was standard procedure for medical examiners to retain “certain specimens” from autopsies in case they were needed for further investigation. They are later disposed of “without notifying anyone,” he said.
Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said that the Medical Examiner’s Office has no written policy for handling remains. She said the administration was working to determine whether there was a policy for handling the unique situation of remains that are more than 30 years old and considered specimens that could be used for DNA identification. Gamble said the office has “numerous unidentified remains” from different cases.
”This entire incident has shown us that there are areas for improvement in the Medical Examiner’s Office’s policies and procedures,” she said in a statement.
The announcement of Farley’s resignation Thursday came on the 36th anniversary of the bombing, which followed a police standoff with the activist group and started the fire that killed 11 people, including five children, and razed more than 60 homes in their neighborhood. It also came weeks after another scandal involving remains of a MOVE victim; the Penn Museum arranged last month to return bone fragments from one girl — believed to be 14-year-old Tree Africa — who died in the bombing. Those remains had for decades been shuttled between researchers and staff at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.
Farley said that the news involving Penn and Princeton had caused him to reconsider his actions.
The news of Farley’s actions and resignation drew sharp criticism and attracted national headlines; community members and elected officials cited it as an example of systemic racism and city officials struggled to explain where or how the disposal occurred.
“People treat their pets better than these folks have been treated in death,” Kenney told reporters after an unrelated news conference Friday afternoon, hours before the announcement that the remains had been found.
Kenney met with the Africas on Thursday and vowed to work with the family, which he said had been disrespected by the city for years, as his administration investigated the incident. The city’s first apology for the bombing came last year, when City Council voted to apologize and make May 13 an annual day of remembrance.
“I understand their distrust,” Kenney told reporters Friday. “And I understand there’s no reason to trust me on their part.”
Given the impact of the MOVE bombing, some questioned how Philadelphia’s health commissioner could have made such a decision without consulting other city officials.
“MOVE was such a momentous event in all of our lives,” said Mark Zecca, who worked as a senior attorney in Philadelphia’s legal department from 1992 until 2012. “And I think it should be instinctive that anybody at a commissioner level would know to check with the law department before destroying anything that could be evidence with that matter.”
Farley, who previously worked as New York City’s health commissioner, was hired by Kenney in 2016 to lead Philadelphia’s department. In an interview last year, he told The Inquirer his experiences working in public health roles in Louisiana following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, in New York during the spread of the swine flu, and in Philadelphia during the coronavirus pandemic taught him important lessons.
“It’s very important to be very honest with people, so that you are trusted,” he said.
Staff writers Ellie Rushing, Erin McCarthy, and David Gambacorta contributed to this article.