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Investigation of MOVE bombing remains found in coroner’s office yields few answers

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An independent investigation into Philadelphia’s handling of the remains of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing failed to answer many of the questions it raised last year.

It remains unclear why — or for how long — a box of remains was kept in a basement storage shed near the city’s coroner’s office until its discovery in 2017. The investigation was also unable to determine why the remains were not returned to the police. families of the victims.

It is also still unclear why the city employee who was instructed to cremate the remains in 2017, did not do so.

The detectives were unable to answer these questions, in part because they were unable to speak to several key witnesses who allegedly provided this information, according to their reports released Thursday afternoon. The investigation, ordered by Philadelphia officials, did not have the authority to issue subpoenas. All interviewees spoke voluntarily.

The Kenney administration has engaged law firms Dechert and Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads to investigate how the city dealt with the MOVE bombing last year.

In May 2021, former health commissioner Thomas Farley resigned after acknowledging that he had ordered the box of remains to be cremated after its discovery. He issued this directive without notifying family members or other city officials. A day after Farley stepped down, city officials revealed that the remains had not been cremated.

Farley’s resignation came just weeks after the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University apologized for harboring bones of a MOVE bombing victim at the Penn Museum for decades. The remains, which were used for instruction, have since been released to the victim’s family.

“The events of 2021 exposed shortcomings and shortcomings in the city’s procedures, and the lapse of decades since the first mishandling of the victim’s remains exacerbated the problems we faced and had to try.” unravel,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

“While I know the reports didn’t answer every question we have about the remains we found last year, I remain hopeful that we can offer family members some extra comfort and closure after they review the report and we discuss our next steps with them.” have discussed. “

The researchers also made 16 recommendations to improve medical examiner policies and practices, with an emphasis on racial equality. Among them: changing the manner of death listed on the death certificates of the 11 MOVE victims from accidental to manslaughter.

The Ministry of Health said it would accept any of the recommendations. They also include developing formal policies for documenting and archiving, as well as the preservation of specimens and personal effects.

The researchers also advised the medical examiner to develop policies regarding interactions with family members during death investigations, and to be transparent when bones, tissues or organs are preserved for long-term investigation.

“Some changes are already underway, while others could be more challenging due to financial or logistical constraints,” said Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole. “In addition to the changes recommended by the investigators, we are committed to working with the families of the victims to find a respectful plan for how to handle the remains and we will be in touch in the near future.” to start those conversations.”

The researchers advised the city to make “a concerted, inclusive effort” to educate people about the MOVE bombing, including its victims, and the effects it had on the Cobbs Creek neighborhood. They urged the city to institute a physical commemoration of the event, alongside the historical marker erected in 2017.

The MOVE bombing escalated over years of tension between the MOVE organization, a black liberation group, and the city. On May 13, 1985, police prepared to arrest MOVE members in their Osage Avenue row house following complaints from neighbors. A lengthy conflict ensued. It culminated when police dropped C4 explosives from a helicopter on the house, destroying dozens of terraced houses in the area. Of the 11 dead, five were children.

Lionell Dotson, whose sisters Katricia and Zanetta Dotson were killed in the bombing, said the investigation shows the city is trying to gas the victims’ families.

“During this process, Mayor Jim Kenney and the City of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania have asked us to trust them,” she said. “But this report makes it clear that they simply cannot be trusted.”

The researchers said their job of setting up a chain of custody for the remains of the MOVE victims was “doomed from the start” because of the way the bombing site was handled. A crane was used to excavate debris and bodies, damaging the victims’ remains and complicating efforts to determine exactly where the bodies were found. It also resulted in the mixing of remains and bones. Officials from the Office of Medical Examiners had not been on the scene initially, losing the opportunity to properly retrieve and treat the remains.

The records and documents kept by the medical examiner’s office were incomplete, inconsistent and sometimes contradictory, the researchers noted. The documentation did not include an inventory of the contents or an assessment of the remains, making it “impossible” to trace every time anyone handled the remains. And there were no logs detailing the release of remains for burial or cremation.

“As a result, we cannot definitively conclude which remains, if any, were released to the respective victims and were actually buried or cremated between May 1985 and September 1986, when the victims’ last remains were reportedly released formally to the families” , the researchers wrote.

The box of remains discovered in 2017 was marked “PROOF EVIDENCE” and was found in a basement storage shed of the medical examiner’s office. It contained several bones, bone fragments and suspected tissue fragments. Because researchers couldn’t find any data on the location of the remains of MOVE victims from September 1986 to January 2017, they couldn’t determine how long it had been there.

“However, it is clear that the box and its remains were there much earlier than when they were found in early 2017,” researchers wrote. “In addition, we don’t know why the box was in the basement storage room, which is usually used to store excess personal belongings, nor do we know who decided to put it there or when it was put there. Finally, we can’t determine why the remains were preserved … and not returned to the next of kin.”

The researchers said they were unable to identify the remains or draw firm conclusions with any scientific certainty.

The research consisted of two parts. Dechert investigated how the city dealt with the MOVE remains from 1985 to the present. Montgomery, McCracken, Walker, & Rhoads reviewed medical examiner policies and practices and examined the transfer of remains to anthropologists in Penn in 1986.

The investigators found that only one existing file of MOVE victims was transferred from the coroner’s office to the Penn anthropologists. It remains unclear why an assistant medical examiner asked the anthropologists to examine the remains, as they had already been cleared to be released for burial. They are believed to belong to Katricia Dotson.

The remains were preserved for decades by the anthropologists at the Penn Museum, the researchers said. Sometimes they were examined by other scientists. On several occasions they were used for educational purposes, including as part of an online course open to the public.

After this came to light in the media last year, Penn officials attempted to return the remains to the coroner’s office, but city director Tumar Alexander recommended contacting the MOVE victims’ families and asking for help. do whatever they want, the researchers said. † The remains were returned to the family in June 2021.

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