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Philadelphia official ousted in fallout from 1985 police bombing targeting activist group

Philadelphia's top health official was compelled to resign Thursday after the city's mayor said he learned human remains from the 1985 bombing of the headquarters of a Black organization had been cremated and disposed of without notifying family members.

Health official resigns for role in cremating victims of bombing targeting MOVE activist group

File photo shows row houses burning in a west Philadelphia neighbourhood fire after police dropped a bomb on the militant group MOVE's headquarters on May 13, 1985, killing 11 people and destroying 61 homes. (The Associated Press)

Philadelphia's top health official was compelled to resign Thursday after the city's mayor said he learned human remains from the 1985 bombing of the headquarters of a Black organization had been cremated and disposed of without notifying family members.

Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement that Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley decided to cremate and dispose of the remains of the MOVE bombing victims several years ago. 

In a statement released by the mayor's office, Farley said that in early 2017 he was told by the city's medical examiner, Dr. Sam Gulino, that a box had been found containing materials related to MOVE bombing victims' autopsies.

"In the box were bones and bone fragments, presumably from one or more of the victims," Farley said. 

In this May 14, 1985, file photo, smoke rises from the ashes of a West Philadelphia neighbourhood the morning after a police bombed the headquarters of the radical group MOVE left, leaving 11 people dead and 61 homes destroyed. (Peter Morgan/The Associated Press)

It is a standard procedure to retain specimens after an autopsy ends and the remains are turned over to the decedent's next-of-kin, Farley said. 

"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 follow this procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments," Farley said.

The decision was his alone, and other top city officials were not consulted, he said. 

After recent reports that local institutions had remains of MOVE bombing victims, Farley said he reconsidered his actions and notified higher-ups. 

"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 wrote.

'Decision lacked empathy'

Philadelphia health commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, shown here on Feb. 3, 2021, was forced to resign on May 13, 2021 for his decision to cremate and dispose of the remains of victims of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Kenney said Farley's decision lacked empathy. Gulino has also been put on leave pending an investigation, Kenney said. 

Philadelphia police attempting to serve warrants on four members and evict the rest of the Black back-to-nature group from its headquarters in the city bombed it, igniting fuel for a generator. The fire spread to more than 60 row homes. Among the 11 slain were five children. 

Kenney said he informed family members about what officials did with the remains. Thursday is the 36th anniversary of the bombing. 

"Today, I had the opportunity to meet with members of the Africa family and apologize for the way this situation was handled, and for how the city has treated them for the last five decades," Kenney said.

MOVE members took the surname Africa after the group's founder, John Africa. 

Kenney said Farley took responsibility and resigned. The city has hired a law firm to investigate.

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