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‘I Am Very Sorry for the Needless Pain’: Philadelphia Says Remains of MOVE Victims Thought to be Destroyed Have Been Found

Just days after it was reported that the remains of several unidentified victims of the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing were destroyed and discarded by the city without the knowledge or consent of living relatives, the city’s mayor now says they were found, NBC News reported. The victims were members of a Black organization called MOVE.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney made the announcement on Friday, May 14, shortly after the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, was forced to resign. Farley had admitted to improperly cremating the “bone fragments” of the victims without ever contacting their families — a move Mayor Kenney said lacked empathy.

The mayor said the remains were found Friday afternoon in a refrigerated area of the medical examiner’s office after they were said to have been destroyed in 2017. “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 explained. 

The families have reportedly been informed of the latest discovery. Kenney said that “Once the investigation is complete, the City will return the remains to the victims’ family in accordance with their wishes.” He added, “I am relieved that these remains were found and not destroyed, however, I am very sorry for the needless pain that this ordeal has caused the Africa family.”

On the morning May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police showed up to serve arrest warrants and perform an eviction at the row house that served as MOVE’s headquarters in the Osage Avenue neighborhood in West Philadelphia. The police contingent encountered resistance from the group, leading to an hours-long exchange of gunfire that culminated with the police dropping bombs from a helicopter on the roof of the house. The blast and resulting fire killed 11 members of MOVE, the Black liberation group founded by John Africa, who promoted a “back-to-nature” lifestyle. Five of those victims were children ages 7 to 14. The inferno from the MOVE house would spread the length of an entire city block and destroy 61 homes in the predominantly Black neighborhood. 

Apologies have since been issued for the event, including a formal apology from Philadelphia’s City Council in November 2020. Reportedly, every member of the council, except for councilmember Brian O’Neill, approved the statement. The resolution was sponsored by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the district where the bombing occurred.

“This is very important to me,” Gauthier told The Philadelphia Tribune. “This is my district. Everybody remembers that image of Osage Avenue burning. I remember thinking it was a horrible thing.”

Earlier this month, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton also faced backlash after using the pelvis and femur of a Black teen killed in the blast in an exhibit for an online forensic anthropology class at Princeton. The remains were held at the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for decades. Neither of the school obtained consent from the child’s surviving relative to use her remains for teaching and or research purposes.  

The remains were ultimately turned over to a West Philadelphia funeral home, Alan Mann, a former University of Pennsylvania anthropologist and Princeton emeritus professor at the center of the controversy, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

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