The brother of two Black teenagers killed in Philadelphia’s 1985 MOVE bombings is suing the city and the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, claiming his sisters’ remains were mistreated and hidden away for more than three decades, court documents show.
The civil complaint, filed Friday by attorneys for Lionell Dotson, alleges emotional distress for his family. His sisters, Katricia, 14, and Zanetta, 13, died in the bombings, whose flames shone some 37 years ago on TV screens across the nation.
On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Police fired thousands of bullets, then dropped military-grade explosives on a row house affiliated with the Black liberation group MOVE following years of tensions between police and the group, which emerged in the early 1970s and became known for holding demonstrations against war and police brutality.
After city officials decided to evict the group, a morning shootout erupted, and the deadly bombing followed, with an entire city block burned to the ground and 61 homes destroyed. Eleven people were killed, including five children – and all the victims were Black.
The city issued an official apology in November 2020 and previously has paid money to victims and survivors, including when a federal jury in 1996 awarded $1.5 million to a survivor and relatives of two victims.
Dotson’s lawsuit says his family had believed the remains of Katricia and Zanetta were buried in December 1985. But additional remains from the scene were still at the medical examiner’s office being investigated, and some had even been sent to the Penn Museum – an archaeology museum that is part of the private, Ivy League University of Pennsylvania – for “further evaluation,” according to the court document.
“The Penn Museum utilized the remains over the course of time on multiple occasions, including exhibiting for various individuals and groups for fundraising activities and being used as props,” alleges the complaint, which seeks monetary relief for damages in an amount to be determined by the court.
The remains were kept at the Penn Museum for almost 36 years, according to the complaint.
A Penn Museum spokesperson said, “We are unable to discuss pending litigation.”
Last year, Philadelphia’s then-health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, resigned after announcing that in 2017 he had suggested some newly located remains of the MOVE bombing victims be cremated and disposed of.
However, when the medical examiner’s office launched an investigation in 2021 into the MOVE victims’ remains, it found that the remains had never actually been cremated in 2017 and were in a box “in a cold storage room,” the complaint says.
Four months ago, the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office positively identified some of the remains allegedly found in the cold storage unit as Katricia and Zanetta, and in August, the remains were finally released to the family, Dotson’s attorney Daniel Hartstein told CNN.
A spokesperson for the city of Philadelphia said, “As this is pending litigation, we’re unable to comment.”
Farley, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, later apologized for instructing that the discovered remains be disposed, explaining he had done so because he believed the investigation into their deaths had long been completed.
“I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them,” Farley said at the time.
CNN has reached out to Farley and other doctors related to the case for comment.