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. Mayor Jim 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…