Nov 15, 2022

After the mishandling of MOVE remains, families aren’t sure what’s buried in their loved one’s graves

“We were particularly struck that the five child victims of the MOVE bombing were buried in unmarked graves,” investigators looking into the handling of remains of the MOVE bombing victims wrote.

A view of the markers placed on the graves of three children killed in the MOVE bombing at the Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pa. The graves have been unmarked for decades until the recent installations of temporary markers.

Aubrey Whelan
Philadelphia Inquirer 
Nov 15, 2022

The plastic sign is small, about the size of an index card, easy to miss among the gravestones in Collingdale’s Eden Cemetery.

“In Loving Memory,” it reads, followed by three names — Phil, Tomaso, and Delisha Africa — and the day they died: May 13, 1985.

The day that Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the heavily fortified home headquarters of MOVE, a Black liberation group with a back-to-nature message that for years clashed with Philadelphia police. This sparked a fire that razed entire city blocks and killed 11 people inside, including five children — Phil, Tomaso, Delisha, and two sisters, Katricia and Zanetta Dotson.

For years, their shared graves had no marker at all.

Last year, a team of independent investigators began probing Philadelphia’s handling of the remains of the bombing victims. The investigators concluded that the victims’ remains were mishandled and in some cases never returned to families.

“We were particularly struck that the five child victims of the MOVE bombing were buried in unmarked graves,” investigators from the law firms Dechert and Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads wrote in their report. They suggested Eden and the city work with families to install a more formal memorial.

It was a simple recommendation. The cemetery took the interim step of adding small, temporary signs with the children’s names above their plots in the historic Collingdale burial ground.

No further progress has been made in the months since the report recommended memorializing the MOVE bombing’s youngest victims.

Two of the children’s relatives, and attorneys representing MOVE members, called the factors involved as tangled as the legacy of the police brutality that took their loved ones’ lives. The violence they suffered returned to the public eye in 2021 after a revelation that the Medical Examiner’s Office had failed for decades to properly account for the bodies of those who died.

The issues are ongoing, families say: Investigators still have been unable to find any records detailing what remains had been released to families from the Medical Examiner’s Office in 1985 and 1986, according to the report. Now, loved ones are left wondering what was buried in their relatives’ plots.

“We don’t know what remains are there,” said Janine Africa, whose son was believed to be buried in the unmarked grave, in a phone interview last Thursday. “The conversation has changed so many times. So we just hold on to our beliefs; we’re not letting them pull us back and forth and all around with this.”

‘We weren’t consulted about anything’

Janine Africa said she had no say in the funeral arrangements for her son, Phil, who was 11 years old when police blew up his Osage Avenue home.

Janine was in prison at the time, along with eight other members of MOVE. She was convicted of third-degree murder in the death of police office James Ramp, killed in a shootout in 1978 at a MOVE house in West Philadelphia. All nine have maintained their innocence.

After the 1985 bombing of the MOVE headquarters, Janine Africa and several other then-imprisoned MOVE mothers weren’t able to plan funerals or burials, or even hear many details about what had happened with their children’s remains.

“We weren’t consulted about anything,” she said.

A MOVE lawyer, Gerald Ford Africa, handled burials for Phil and fellow children Tomaso and Delisha Africa. Although he was in contact with Janine and other mothers, he wouldn’t discuss certain matters with them, for fear their communications in prison were being monitored, Janine said.

Phil, Tomaso, and Delisha were buried in a single plot in Eden in 1986. At the time, Gerald Ford Africa told reporters that the MOVE organization had no money to claim the bodies of the three children and that their burials had been delayed by a city investigation into the bombing.

Remains of Katricia and Zanetta Dotson, two sisters also killed in the bombing and buried at Eden, are in a plot elsewhere in the cemetery, under a large tree, covered by a thick carpet of fallen leaves.

Even a temporary marker for their grave wasn’t visible when a reporter from The Inquirer visited last week.

‘The mental anguish is unbearable’

The children’s grave sat unmarked for years. Gerald Ford Africa, the owner of Phil, Tomaso, and Delisha’s plot, could have given permission for a grave marker, according to cemetery officials. But he died in about 2017, Janine Africa said.

Janine was released from prison in 2019. Two years later, she learned that the city Medical Examiner’s Office had kept the remains of MOVE victims for nearly four decades — bones and tissues, forgotten in a box and never released to families.

The remains were found in 2017, and nearly destroyed — then-city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley ordered them cremated, without notifying victims’ families.

In 2021, Farley revealed his decision to Mayor Jim Kenney and other high-ranking city officials and resigned.

Days later, the box was rediscovered in cold storage: A staffer in the Medical Examiner’s Office had disobeyed the cremation order.

Janine Africa said she was horrified, but unsurprised. “It just follows the pattern that they have always done with us. They showed they have no love for this organization or our children,” she said. “The bomb in 1985 says it all.”

Cemetery officials said in an email that the families can contact Eden if they’d like to place a marker on their graves now. But Janine Africa is now not even sure she wants a permanent marker installed above her son’s grave, because it might not be his.

Lionell Dotson was 8 when his sisters, Katricia and Zanetta, died. He would like to mark their grave. It was unclear who owned his sisters’ plot, and the report was the first time he learned that their graves were unmarked, he said.

Portions of his sisters’ remains were among those stored at the Medical Examiner’s Office. Anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania who were called on to identify MOVE victims’ remains also kept a portion of Katricia Dotson’s remains for decades, even using them as a teaching aid in online classes.

Last week, Dotson sued both the city and Penn in the matter.

Earlier this year, the city returned remains of both Katricia and Zanetta to him, a small comfort. Now, he says, he hopes to memorialize his sisters in Eden as well.

But like Janine Africa, he’s unsure what’s buried at his sisters’ grave site.

“Who is saying that anything is in those coffins at all?” he said in a phone interview. “The mental anguish and distress is unbearable.”

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