A lawyer involved in the ongoing tragedy over the 1985 MOVE bombing victims' remains said Friday night that bone fragments thought destroyed were in fact saved. Mayor Jim Kenney confirmed that the remains were found in the city medical examiner's office.
Thirty-six years ago, Philadelphia officials bombed an occupied rowhome in West Philadelphia, killing six adults and five children, during a police assault on a Black separatist group called MOVE. On Thursday, city officials admitted that some remains of the victims were discarded in 2017 without notifying the surviving family members.
City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley was forced to resign this week after he admitted to ordering the remains destroyed four years ago.
However, attorney Leon A. Williams told NBC10 that he learned Friday night through the family of the MOVE victims that the remains were not destroyed after all. A subordinate of Farley's in 2017 decided not to follow the commissioner's orders and saved the remains, Williams said.
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He said city officials called members of the Africa family, whose relatives died in the bombing in 1985, to let them know the remains were saved. Kenney confirmed that the remains were found in a statement late Friday.
"Late this afternoon, Medical Examiner’s Office (MEO) staff notified the Managing Director’s Office that a box labeled MOVE was located in a refrigerated area at their office," Kenney said. "After comparing the contents of the box to an inventory of bone specimens and fragments from 2017, they appear to be the remains thought to have been cremated four years ago."
Kenney added that "there are also clearly many areas for improvement in procedures used by the Medical Examiner’s Office."
The newest revelation was first reported by the Inquirer.
Mayor Jim Kenney asked Farley to resign after learning Farley had order the remains cremated sometime in 2017. City officials admitted Thursday that the remains, described as bones and bone fragments, had been stored at the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's office since the bombing.
"Instead of fully identifying those remains and returning them to the family, he made a decision to cremate and dispose of them," Kenney said in a statement of Farley's actions.
Kenney says he learned of the act Tuesday, then met with representatives of the victims' family.
"It's appalling," Kenney said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. "If I had known three years ago, it would have been handled differently."
Farley issued a statement later Thursday, apologizing for his decision. He said he was following procedure for handling specimens from autopsies after the investigation had been completed.
“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,” Farley wrote.
He added, "I believe my decision was wrong and represented a terrible error in judgment."
Kenney also placed Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Gulino on administrative leave pending an investigation. Dr. Cheryl Bettigole was appointed acting health commissioner. Kenney said he would start a national search to fill the position permanently.
The resignation comes on the 36-year anniversary of the MOVE bombing, one of the darkest days in Philadelphia’s history.
On May 13, 1985, the City of Philadelphia ordered the bombing of a home housing members of the revolutionary, back-to-nature group MOVE in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood following a standoff and shootout with police.
The bombing killed eleven people, including Phil Africa, 11, Tomaso Africa, 8, Delicia Orr Africa, 13, Katricia Africa, 13 and Zanetta Africa, 11. Sixty-one nearby homes were then burned to the ground as the fire spiraled out of control.
MOVE members recently learned that decades ago, the city medical examiner gave other human remains from the bombing site to Penn Museum for identification, sparking protests and outrage.
Kenney said he met with members of the Africa family and apologized for the way the situation was handled and “for how the City has treated them for the last five decades.”
“I also promised them full transparency into the outside review of this incident, as well as the handling — or mishandling — of all remains of every MOVE victim,” Kenney wrote.
A team investigating the incident will include people specifically approved by the Africa family, according to Kenney.
"Today marks 36 years since eleven Black Philadelphians — including children — were killed by their own government,” Kenney wrote in his statement. “We cannot rewrite history, but we pledge to use this recent revelation as an opportunity to pay dignity and respect to the victims, their families, and all Philadelphians who have suffered because of the MOVE bombing. We are actively engaging local stakeholders on appropriate and meaningful ways to commemorate MOVE, and we will share more on our plans in the coming weeks.”
Farley's statement offered more background for the decision.
“In early 2017, I was informed by Medical Examiner Sam Gulino, M.D. that, among unclaimed personal effects of the deceased, a box was located containing materials related to autopsies of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing. In the box were bones and bone fragments, presumably from one or more of the victims,” Farley wrote in his statement.
Farley said he believed the investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years ago and authorized Gulino to follow procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments because he didn’t want to “cause more anguish for the families of the victims.”
Farley wrote he has reconsidered his actions amid recent reports regarding the remains of the victims at the Penn Museum and elsewhere.
“I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them.”
Farley grew up in northern New Jersey and received his undergraduate degree from Haverford College. He was appointed by Kenney to be the city's top health official in February 2016. He was a major proponent of one of Kenney's biggest accomplishments: the sugary beverage tax.
Farley became the city's public face of the coronavirus pandemic, showing up daily on Zoom press conferences along with Kenney during the height of the outbreak. He continued to hold video press briefings twice a week through last week.
He recently weathered another disastrous decision, but just barely. Kenney refused to ask for his resignation earlier this year, despite calls for Farley to be fired, after the health department gave thousands of vaccine doses to a private entity without any oversight or background checks. Farley's top deputy resigned amid the fallout from the city's relationship with the group called Philly Fighting COVID, which was run by a Drexel University student.
Kenney said at Thursday's press conference that he "was not happy" following the Philly Fighting COVID debacle, but he didn't ask for Farley to resign then because the city had just begun rolling out the COVID vaccine and he didn't want a search for a new health commissioner to interrupt that.
Farley had previously worked six years as New York City's health commissioner from 2009 to 2014 during Mayor Mike Bloomberg's tenure. His signature achievement there was restricting smoking in public places and raising the age to purchase cigarettes to 21.