It was 31 years ago on May 13, 1985 at 5:20 pm that a state police helicopter took off from the command post’s flight pad at 63rd and Walnut Streets, flew a few times over 6221 Osage Avenue, and then hovered 60 feet above the two-story house in the Black middle-class residential West Philadelphia neighborhood.
Lt. Frank Powell, chief of the city’s Bomb Disposal Unit, was holding a bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4 added, which was concocted by fellow unit member Police Officer William Klein.
After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse- and with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor- Powell at precisely 5:28 p.m. tossed the bomb onto a bunker on the roof. This was followed shortly thereafter by a loud explosion and then a large bright orange ball of fire that reached 7,200 degrees.
As a result, he, the Mayor, the Police Commissioner, Fire Commissioner William Richmond, City Managing Director Leo Brooks, and many police officers committed, in the words of Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (better known as the MOVE Commission) member Charles Bowser, a “criminally evil” act that led to the death of eleven human beings, including five defenseless children, the destruction of 61 homes, and the incineration of thousands of family photos, love letters, heirloom jewelry, inscribed Bibles and Korans, and many other irreplaceable mementos.
As told to me by Mr. Bowser, my mentor and author of the tell-all book entitled Let The Bunker Burn, five of the city’s most influential Black political leaders met at the Mayor’s home before dawn on May 13, 1985 in response to the Mayor’s invitation and warning that “I’m going to make a move on the MOVE house … (this) morning.”
This was in connection with what Goode described as complaints from Osage Avenue neighbors and as outstanding arrest warrants. But it should be noted that those neighbors had attempted to stop the police siege of their Osage community as soon as they realized what was developing. In fact, as the five influential Black leaders watched the TV broadcast of the military-like assault unfolding with preliminary shots and tear gas fired, two of them repeatedly urged the Mayor to call it off. In particular, City Council President Joseph Coleman, sitting at the Mayor’s kitchen table, told him the 500-strong police action was “excessive” and State Senator Hardy Williams, standing near the kitchen entrance, said “Why don’t they just back up and relax? Nobody’s going anywhere.”
More than 500 cops fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition in less than 90 minutes- in a middle-class Black residential neighborhood. And don’t tell me this warlike firearm assault and incineration were not racist simply because the Mayor and the Managing Director were Black. It’s the victims that make it racist! Furthermore, Powell, the bomb-dropping cop, was white. Moreover, Klein, the bomb-making cop, was also white.
As insightfully stated by Bowser, “Goode and Brooks did not shoot ten thousand bullets into that house. They did not put military explosives into the bomb. They did not decide to let the bunker burn. And they did not shoot at children trying to escape the fire. I know none of that would have happened in a white neighborhood and so do you.” That’s exactly why the MOVE Commission pointed out in one of its final official comments that none of this would have ever happened “had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.”
I must explain what Bowser meant by “military explosive.” Tovex TR2 was a commercial explosive invented in the 1960s as an option to dynamite, and its purpose was to dig trenches through rock in order to lay pipes. The “TR” is the abbreviation for trench, and the “2” refers to the second DuPont Company item in its trenching products.
The company’s Explosive Products Division was located only about a half hour from Philly in Delaware. But not one fire or police official ever cared enough to contact DuPont and ask what could happen if TR2 is used in a residential neighborhood. If they had asked, DuPont would have told them that it had been designed exclusively for and had been used exclusively for underground purposes. And the last time I checked, everyone in the Osage community lived above-ground.
It gets worse. As horrifically explosive as TR2 was, Klein fired things up even more. Exercising his independent judgment, he decided that TR2 wouldn’t be strong enough to breach the bunker. Accordingly, he unilaterally placed a 1 ¼ pound block of C-4 on top of the two sticks of Tovex- despite the fact that the US Army in 1979 had ended distribution of C-4 to all police departments throughout the country. But, as documented in an October 22, 1985 letter from a special agent who headed the FBI’s Philadelphia Office, approximately 30 blocks of C-4 had been delivered to the city by an FBI agent without the city requesting it and it was offered as a proposed solution during discussions about an anticipated confrontation with MOVE.
And it got worst. The children, and some of the adults, were shot at or shot and killed by police as they were fleeing the flames and surrendering. The police covering the alley leading from the rear of the MOVE house had automatic weapons and shotguns.
No one ever claimed MOVE had automatic weapons or shotguns at the scene, and no automatic weapons or shotguns were found among the ashes. Police Officer William Stewart, a 28-year veteran of the department and a firearms instructor at the academy, was asked by investigators “Did you hear gunfire at this time …,” meaning around 7:30 p.m. when people were fleeing the MOVE house from the alley in the rear. With his lawyer present, he responded “Oh yes, automatic fire.” And when asked “Who was firing those weapons…,” he replied, “Police officers.
All the stakeout officers were running into the alley. They all had Uzi machine guns.” Strangely, though, 16 days later, he told the MOVE Commission that he never heard any police gunfire in the alley. But Fire Department Lt. John Vaccarelli and Fireman Joseph Murray, who were veterans of the Vietnam War and who were in the vicinity of that very same alley, said they did in fact hear automatic fire when the MOVE members were running away from the flames. In fact, Vaccarelli pointed out that he saw at least three MOVE members in the yard next to the alley. This was corroborated by Police Officer James D’Ulisse.
And why does the official report by the city’s own Medical Examiner provide proof from the autopsies of six of the 11 dead- namely 7-year-old Tomasa, 9-year-old Delicia, 10-year-old Phil, 11-year-old Netta, 13-year-old Tree, and 25-year-old Rhonda- that they did not die inside from the flame-fire but died outside from gunfire?
If, as the police later testified under oath, these victims died from the flames that exceeded 2,000 hellish degrees inside the house, why was Tomasa’s long hair still long? Why was Phil’s body not burned?
Why was Netta still wearing her white blouse with red trim? Why were Tree’s pubic hair and blue jeans still intact?
And why did Delicia’s body and Rhonda’s body have in them metal fragments consistent with shotgun pellets as noted by an FBI ballistician?
You think maybe they were fatally hit when they all were being shot at while trying to run from the flames and surrender?
Even MOVE Commission Chairman William Brown stated “I firmly believe that more people got out than Birdie and Ramona and that’s something that still nags at me. I believe that someone, someday will deliver a deathbed confession…” And the Commission itself noted in Finding Number 28 of its official report that “police gunfire in the rear alley prevented the escape from the fire of some occupants of the MOVE house.”
Also, Detective William Stevenson, who was assigned to take contemporaneous notes during the entire confrontation, wrote that Sgt. Donald Griffiths, a commander on the scene, “from stake-out is in the rear of Osage Avenue, 6221 … and is pointing to an area that he states, ‘I dropped an adult male from the MOVE property who fired at me when the female and child escaped.’” And Battalion Chief John Skarbeck said he had overheard a police sergeant say “Something to the effect that I got one back there or I shot one back there …” But Sgt. Griffiths later testified that he had been misquoted and that what he really had said was that people had “dropped out of sight” at that particular time and place. Yeah. That was actually his testimony.
The overkill police presence, the military-style assault, the malicious bombing, the callous burning, and the evil shooting at fleeing victims were not just “grossly negligent” and “unconscionable” as the MOVE Commission officially noted in Findings Number 15 and 18. They were also murderous. And justice demands the prosecution of each perpetrator because there’s no statute of limitations for murder.
If it were your family, your neighborhood, your home, your property, and your memories- and even if it wasn’t- wouldn’t you agree? If you would, attend the “Never Forget” forum on May 13 at 6 p.m. at Abiding Ministries Church, 57th Street and Washington Avenue. Free admission. For more info, call (215) 387-4107.
Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD900AM. His “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.