It was 34 years ago on May 13, 1985 at 5:20 p.m. when 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 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 approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor- Powell at 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 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 that May 13 date 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 said were complaints from Osage Avenue neighbors and what he also said were (alleged) arrest warrants from a judge. But it should be noted that those neighbors had attempted to stop the police siege of their 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 over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in less than 90 minutes in a racist assault on a Black community. Yes, it was definitely racist! Powell, the bomb-dropping cop, was white. And Klein, the bomb-making cop, was white. As insightfully stated by Bowser, “I know none of that would have happened in a white neighborhood and so do you.” Even the entire MOVE Commission confirmed this by pointing out in one of its final official comments that this would not have occurred “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 state. 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 for and used for underground purposes only.
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 bricks 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. 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.
The official report by the city’s own Medical Examiner provides proof from the autopsies of six of the 11 dead- namely Tomasa, Delicia, Phil, Netta, Tree, and Rhonda- that they did not die inside from flame-fire but died outside from gunfire. If, as the police later testified, 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 bright 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? Even MOVE Commission Chairman William Brown stated “I firmly believe that more people got out than Birdie and Ramona.... I believe that someone, someday will deliver a deathbed confession.…”
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 because murder in Pennsylvania is defined in 18 Pa.C.S. 2502(a), (b), and (c) as a “criminal homicide” with malice. Criminal means illegal. Homicide means the killing of a human. And “malice” means wanton disregard for life. It also means evil intent. Accordingly, the City of Philadelphia murdered eleven persons, including five children.
Say their names: Tomasa (seven-years-old), Delicia (nine-years-old), Phil (ten-years-old), Netta (eleven-years-old), and Tree (thirteen-years-old) along with adults CP, Conrad, Frank, John, Rhonda, and Teresa.
Never forget. Always avenge.