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Philadelphia Seeks Causes of MOVE Disaster : A Second Look at an Urban Nightmare

October 20, 1985|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — A gray, misty dawn was breaking over the narrow row houses as Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, clad in a flak jacket and baseball cap, crawled on his stomach to an open doorway and bellowed through a bullhorn.

"Attention MOVE," Sambor called. "This is America!"

With those words at about 5:30 a.m. last May 13, a daylong urban nightmare began. At its climax, a state police helicopter swooped over the house under siege at 6221 Osage Ave. and dropped a makeshift bomb onto a roof littered with tarpaulins, timber and three gasoline or kerosene cans.

The resulting inferno engulfed a neighborhood and shocked the world. The toll: 11 dead, including four children; 61 homes destroyed, up to 260 people left homeless.

Behind Sambor during the assault were about 500 heavily armed police whose only written tactical plan was scrawled on a single 4-by-6-inch file card. Against them was MOVE, a bizarre "back-to-nature" cult that had turned from trying to free animals from the zoo to terrorizing their middle-class neighbors with brutal beatings and loudspeaker death threats against the mayor and the President.

It was disaster on many fronts:

--Top-level communications broke down so badly that Mayor W. Wilson Goode sat crying in his office as water hoses were turned off and the fire raged unchecked three miles away.

--Planning was so poor that the commanding official, Managing Director Leo A. Brooks, first learned police were evacuating 300 neighbors in preparation for the assault from a radio news report while driving on I-95 through Baltimore.

--Control was so loose that the police commissioner says he did not know his officers came armed with an anti-tank gun and .50-caliber and .60-caliber heavy machine guns, nor that a bomb squad sergeant had thrown explosives and demolished the wood and brick fronts of four adjoining homes.

--Intelligence was so faulty that police did not know MOVE had fortified the house and a rooftop bunker with thick tree trunks cut in a nearby park, railroad ties stolen from nearby tracks and steel sewer plates plucked from surrounding streets. Nor did police know the number of children inside.

--And coordination was so weak that neither the mayor nor the district attorney apparently knew that police had possessed arrest warrants for two MOVE leaders in June of 1984. Eleven months later, similar warrants against four Move members were cited as justification for the police assault.

Disturbing Questions

What happened? Could bloodshed have been avoided? Who is to blame? Disturbing new questions, as well as answers, have emerged after eight days of detailed testimony by 37 witnesses before an 11-member Special Investigation Commission appointed by Goode. Eight more days of hearings are scheduled.

While the full story may never be known, the testimony paints a picture of the nation's fifth largest city in crisis, its leaders paralyzed, its residents terrified, its police apparently out of control.

The tangled roots of the crisis date back at least six years.

By then, MOVE dogma had evolved from demonstrating for animal rights in pet shops and zoos to advocating anarchy and practicing armed insurrection. Members wore their hair in long dreadlocks, went without bathing and adopted the surname "Africa."

On Aug. 8, 1978, police stormed MOVE's first headquarters to put an end to health and housing code violations.

Fought Back

MOVE members fought back from windows of the barricaded Victorian house about 30 blocks east of Osage Avenue, firing carbines, rifles, shotguns and semiautomatic pistols. The gun battle left officer James J. Ramp dead and eight police and firefighters wounded. Nine MOVE members later were convicted of murder. Their house was bulldozed to rubble.

Neither side forgot the day.

By 1980, Goode was the city's managing director under then-Mayor William J. Green. In the next two years, Goode met quietly about 15 times with MOVE members who demanded that he free their jailed comrades and replace their house.

Goode said he was powerless. But he continued to meet with MOVE after being elected the city's first black mayor in 1983. He even offered through an intermediary, he said, only four days before the assault this year, to go secretly to the MOVE house to negotiate. The offer was refused.

"They indicated if we wanted to come take them, come take them," Goode said.

Welcomed at First

Some residents in the mostly black, well-kept Osage Avenue neighborhood at first welcomed MOVE when it took over a two-story row house in mid-1983. Inez Nichols bought winter coats for the members' ill-clad children, and set out loaves of bread when she saw them eating from garbage cans. "Our children played with their children," she said.

The welcome soon turned to terror.

MOVE members hung raw meat in the trees to attract animals, and spread feces and garbage in the yard to draw vermin. They fenced off a shared back alley, and blocked a sewer drain.

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