Sep 26, 2006

Father grieves as cold case simmers

Monica Yant Kinney
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 26, 2006

September is a cruel month for Jack Gilbride. Within 30 short days, he mourns a murdered son and a wife whose death two years later was hastened by her own pounding grief.

The ambush killing of former MOVE member John Gilbride is not the only unsolved homicide in Burlington County. But given all the publicity before and after the shooting, it's the hottest cold case for miles.

Last week, Prosecutor Robert Bernardi declined my request to talk about the mystery of a suburban dad killed amid a custody fight with an urban cult, MOVE.

Jack Gilbride, John's father, has long struggled with whether to hold back to respect the legal process, or speak out in the hope it sparks a tip to give his family closure.

Yesterday, on the eve of another anniversary with no news - in spite of a $20,000 reward - he turned up the volume ever so slightly.

Gilbride says he speaks to investigators every two weeks. From those talks, he believes they have long ago ruled out the theories that John was killed because of drinking, gambling or another woman. Ditto for the far-out suggestions he was the target of a government rubout or mob hit.

As for the victim's well-documented disputes with MOVE? That cannot be dismissed.

"The investigators know where the responsibility for John's murder lies," Jack Gilbride asserts. They just don't know with whom it lies.

A murder mystery

John Gilbride was found dead at 12:08 a.m. Sept. 27, 2002, in his car in the parking lot of the Ryan's Run apartment complex in Maple Shade.

The 34-year-old US Airways baggage supervisor had just returned home from work. The car radio was still on, the engine still running.

Gilbride was in the midst of a vicious, four-year custody battle, but his ex was no ordinary scorned woman. The woman he left was Alberta Wicker Africa, the widow of MOVE's spiritual founder, John Africa, and matriarch of the volatile Philadelphia cult.

Leaving MOVE was one thing. Trying to take a MOVE child from the family was a declaration of war.

"John knows that my belief would never allow me to just hand him over my son like that," Africa testified in a Philadelphia Family Court hearing 17 days before the murder - the very same hearing in which Gilbride testified that a MOVE supporter had threatened to kill him.

In the two weeks before Gilbride's murder, MOVE fortified its West Philadelphia house, demonstrated in South Jersey, accused him of being a child abuser, vowed to defy the court order granting him time alone with his boy and - perhaps prophetically - posted a Sept. 17, 2002, Internet alert warning of "dangerous developments" in the custody case and urging supporters to do "whatever it is their power to do to avert this government assault."

In the end, MOVE got its wish to keep Gilbride at bay: He was killed mere hours before he was to have his first unsupervised visit with his son.

Timing is everything

Early on, Bernardi said the custody fight was one of several leads investigators would explore. Later, he acknowledged interviews with MOVE members provided no real insight.

"There is still this problem with the timing of this homicide given what was pending in the custody dispute," the prosecutor said in 2003. "Is that a coincidence, or is there something more to it?"

For the father, timing is everything.

"I'm very sure this wasn't a random killing," Jack Gilbride told me. "Someone had to know he'd be that place, at that time."

Just like now, Jack Gilbride is easy to find sitting in church pews every September at two Masses said for his fallen family: one for the son who died fighting for his boy, and one for the sorrowful mother who followed hers.