Who was John Africa?
When the plastic body bag was lugged in, its contents were labeled "F" - the sixth letter of the alphabet - for it was the sixth such bag to be delivered from the scorched rubble on Osage Avenue. Body "F" was slid from the bag onto a metal gurney and into the blaze of bright lights that flooded the morgue. There was so little to work with - no arms, no head, no clues to indicate for sure just who this man had been.
Pulled from the smoldering ruins of two city blocks that burned to the ground on an evening last May, while Philadelphia and much of the world watched in astonishment, the body would be scrutinized for months before it would finally be given a name - John Africa.
Somehow, it seemed appropriate that this visionary leader of MOVE, this phantom-like fugitive, should be as much a mystery in death as he was in life. His corpse both baffled forensic science and carried on the John Africa mystique. It permitted John Africa's supporters in MOVE to argue that John Africa died a martyr and that he lived on, still directing his revolution.
It was the final stop of a bizarre odyssey for John Africa, one that carried an illiterate, diminutive man from the obscurity of Mantua to the leadership of an incendiary cult that twice stymied the government of the nation's fifth largest city. In the end, after the Police Department's disastrous assault on MOVE's Osage Avenue compound, at least 11 lives would be lost, a close-knit West Philadelphia neighborhood would be leveled, the once- sparkling reputation of the city's first black mayor would be sullied, and nothing would remain of John Africa but a charred torso on a metal gurney in a brightly lighted morgue loaded with just the sort of technology John Africa abhorred.
To the end, he was a furtive, elusive figure. Always before, when the growing tension between MOVE and law-enforcement authorities erupted into confrontation, John Africa wasn't there. For four years, he had eluded the prosecutors who were tracking him, and when they finally caught him and tried him, he was acquitted. Then he disappeared, only to reappear as remains on a gurney.
Who was this man, John Africa?
A failure in school, a failure in marriage, unpromising as a child yet a potent leader as a man, John Africa was a violent clash of contradictions. He was unafraid of defying authority and provoking the police, yet he refused to cross a bridge without a life preserver handy. He glorified the peace and beauty of nature and railed against modern civilization, yet he led a group whose members began hoarding handguns and rifles and bombs.
He had an IQ of 79 and could barely read and write, yet he spun a web of philosophy that filled hundreds of pages. He was a magnetic, mesmerizing man, and words rolled from deep within his bantam chest with a resonance that one prosecutor likened to "an old Shakespearean actor's voice," yet in his later years, he lived like a hermit, zealously shrinking from any public role. He was described as a calm and gentle sort by almost all who met him, yet his estranged wife said he twice struck her and she once filed charges against him for assault and battery. He would walk around an insect on the sidewalk, yet police were told he ordered his followers to savagely beat their own parents - orders his nephew carried out twice.
His warmth was an invitation to stray dogs, children and troubled adults, and he eagerly embraced the weak and downtrodden whom modern society had pushed aside. But behind the kindly manner - and ever-present sunglasses - was a sharp judge of character and a shrewd manipulator, a skillful dissembler who could adopt a thousand guises to achieve his ends. At one point, he singlehandedly divided a progressive housing cooperative, exploiting and confounding the best intentions of a group of university-educated idealists. And later, when he stood trial on weapons and conspiracy charges - his only court appearance as the leader of MOVE - he won over a federal jury and outwitted a Harvard-trained prosecutor who thought he had an unbeatable case.
Eventually, perhaps blinded by self-righteousness and a sense of infallibility, John Africa would lead his followers into a cul-de-sac, a series of ever-escalating confrontations with neighbors and the City of Philadelphia. And finally, last May, it would all blow up, with bullets flying, a bomb dropping and fires raging. Later, in the ashes, investigators would find at least 11 bodies, including those of five children - hostages of a man who said he loved them, innocent casualties of a conflict they were too young to understand.
On the streets where his life began, friends remember the family of John Africa as close and loving, their bonds cemented by the struggle to make it during the Depression in Mantua, a tough, tight and gritty neighborhood tucked behind the Philadelphia Zoo. "He was a quiet-type boy," a family friend recalls. "He liked the dogs, the animals, mostly stayed by himself. I didn't see him rassling with too many boys. I've never known him to be a leader of anything."
Leaphart was the name he was born into. The Leapharts were God-fearing people, regulars at Metropolitan Baptist Church. Frederick E. Leaphart and his wife, Lennie Mae, had come up from Atlanta. He worked as a handyman and paperhanger, carrying pattern books filled with samples of ornate wallpaper. Lennie Mae Leaphart had her hands full caring for her children - six boys and four girls. A swarm of children played around her skirts when she emerged to sweep the stoop of the family's rented rowhouse. "She was beautiful . . . very close to the children," says the family friend. "She loved those kids." Then, after producing 10 children in 18 years, Lennie Mae died abruptly in her early 40s.
After Lennie Mae's death (John Africa would later tell MOVE members that the hospital had "killed" his mother), the grief and the burden of a house full of children seemed more than Frederick could bear. "It seemed at one point his father just fell to pieces," says a neighborhood friend of the Leapharts, "and he (the elder Leaphart) didn't know how to keep the family together." Says another woman who knew Frederick Leaphart until his death in the early '70s, he became "sort of sickly, (with) not much he could do."
As for Vincent Lopez Leaphart - the full name John Africa was given at birth on July 26, 1931, at the now-demolished Philadelphia General Hospital - he was a short, painfully thin boy, so underweight that the school doctor twice made note of it. There were other deficiencies as well. By the age of 9, he had been classified "orthogenetically backward" - what educators today call educably mentally retarded. When he was first tested, his IQ was measured at 84; tested again eight years later at age 15, his score fell to 79 - an evaluation that surely would have shocked those who later came to regard Leaphart as exceptionally canny, even brilliant.
Transferred to a special school where slow-learners could be taught simple trades, he compiled a spotty attendance record. Twice, at age 11 and again at 13, his teacher rated his overall performance as unsatisfactory - though Leaphart always did fine in civics. His scholastic ability had reached the third-grade level when, at age 16, he dropped out. At 17, he was arrested for an armed holdup and for stealing a car (court records no longer list the case's outcome). Drafted by the Army, he served for more than a year with the infantry during the Korean War. Later, he would talk of the savage contrast between the glory of a sunrise over the Korean mountains and the ugly gunfire of war.
It was shortly after his return from war that Leaphart began courting Dorothy Clark, one of five sisters who had lived on Wallace Street, near 38th, down the block from the Leaphart clan. On March 11, 1961, when they were both 29, the couple was married in the home of a local minister.
Today, the former Dorothy Clark calls herself Princess Dottie. A petite woman, shy to the point of being reclusive, she lives alone in a West Philadelphia apartment, a sunny place crowded with plants. Here and there are religious pamphlets with passages underlined in red, numerous books on astrology, as well as a picture of Jesus on a blackboard displaying mystical- looking diagrams.
In the only interview she has granted about her life with Leaphart, she told an Inquirer reporter that during the six years before they separated, the Leapharts were "an ordinary married couple." A close friend of the couple remembers Dorothy's laboring to improve Vincent's reading and writing; the same friend also recalls Leaphart as "a very levelheaded person, very dependable."
"When he was young, he was handsome - stayed very clean," the friend remembers. "He would wear work clothes when he worked, but when he didn't, he wore exceptional-looking clothes. Vincent was a very smooth dresser; he liked nice, tailored clothes, a nice suit, decent shoes."
Leaphart was a charmer in those days, a vital, cheerful man who loved classical music. He was also a vigorous talker and debater, a man with firm ideas about everything. "He sort of stepped into his father's shoes," says the family friend. "He took on a lot of responsibility."
"He was very dynamic," his estranged wife says. "He always had a spirit of helping others. He always was a person to voice his opinion, but he tried to be just and fair to all. But he was a leader and not a follower. . . . He was a very deep thinker."
In her quiet way, Dorothy Leaphart, too, began to assert her independence. In 1965, she began following the teachings of a group known as the Kingdom of Yahweh. It provided an answer for her. "The churches weren't giving it to me," she says. "I was out for the truth." She began following the teachings of the Kingdom's leader - a man named Joseph Jeffers, now 86, who lives on a rambling estate near Phoenix, Ariz., extolling the glories of reincarnation and the power of pyramids.
Dorothy swore off meat and adopted a rigorous natural diet. "It's principles of natural law," she says. "We do have a separate diet, a healthy diet, fresh vegetables, grains." Her husband, however, did not share her enthusiasm. "He was still eating meat," she said. "He didn't understand." Later, though, Leaphart incorporated aspects of the Kingdom's vegetarianism into the MOVE philosophy.
Though his wife speaks fondly of Leaphart, their marriage had a bleaker side. In the early years, theirs was a commuter marriage, for Vincent moved to New York City's Chelsea section, where he studied and practiced interior decorating. Then, after pleas from his wife, he finally returned home to West Philadelphia.
Dorothy's inability to have children caused strains, too, especially since Vincent had such a way with children and enjoyed lavishing love on them. Dorothy does not blame the collapse of their marriage on her failure to conceive. "It bothered both of us," she says, "but we got over it." Nor does she cite the abuse she apparently suffered at her husband's hands. "It only happened twice," she says. Still, the battering was a problem serious enough for her to call in the law. They were living in a second-floor apartment at 55th and Walnut Streets in early 1966 when Dorothy showed up before a magistrate to charge her husband with assault and battery. She said he had struck her "with his hand twice across the face"; the district attorney's office dropped the case in 1970 for unspecified reasons. In 1967, the couple separated; they last saw each other in May 1968.
"When we separated, it was not on any hostile level," she says. "I had made up my mind that I had to make a new life for myself, and I gave him the same freedom."
In later years, she made sporadic attempts to renew contact but never received a response. She would follow her husband's exploits in the news, puzzled by his new role, baffled by the violence, pondering whether his message had somehow been distorted on its way to her.
Fifteen years after they were written, the "collective principles" of Community Housing Inc. ring with the radical rhetoric of the 1960s. "All decision-making is non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian and open to the entire membership," reads the document. "The collective does not claim to be a substitute for revolution in our oppressive society."
The idealism of Community Housing Inc. - a cooperative whose members pooled their money to buy the handful of buildings in which they lived - was rife in Powelton as the 1960s came to a close and a new decade began. It was a neighborhood in rebellion against the "oppressive society" that fought a dirty war half a world away and bulldozed the homes of poor people to make way for new university buildings. The 1971 manifesto of Community Housing Inc. bore 14 names - including Vincent Leaphart's.
About 1970, he moved into Powelton - a polyglot neighborhood squeezed between Mantua and the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel - and he soon became known, even in this unconventional community, for his unconventional lifestyle. No longer "the smooth dresser," he would roam the streets trailed by a pack of dogs. In a neighborhood full of academics, this unread man who spouted philosophy was something of an amusing curiosity. "He was somewhat eccentric," says a man who then knew Leaphart well, "but, you know, he fit into the wide range of people who lived in Powelton then and to a certain extent still do. . . . The village was, still is, very tolerant."
To get by, Leaphart walked dogs for pay and sold horse meat as dog food. He also did a bit of roofing and carpentry, selling carefully constructed desks, no two of which were alike. And he had a knack for making a broken television work like new. "He was a naturally kind type person, nice resonant voice. He didn't talk loud," recalls Roland Goodman, 54, a neighbor who spent many nights talking philosophy with Leaphart until dawn. "Anyone who had the time to deal with him, they liked him."
When he was about to lose his little rented rowhouse at 3207 Pearl St., the housing co-op stepped in and bought it so he could remain. It was a simple act of good will that the co-op would one day regret. Behind the congenial facade lived an iron-willed man who once told a friend that his minimalist lifestyle was a way of testing himself "to see how he could survive." Says the friend: "He thought most people were weaklings." During those early days in Powelton, though, he kept his contempt well-hidden. "At that time, I thought if you overlooked the dogs and if you overlooked the hair - which was in the Rastafarian style - he was a very gentle man," says one neighbor.
One day, about a year after he moved onto Pearl Street, neighbors looked out and saw a young white man standing on Leaphart's porch with an armload of papers. "I thought he was some kind of schoolteacher," a neighbor says. As it happened, there was some teaching going on, but Leaphart was doing all the instructing. He had found his first disciple, a man who would become a key figure in the history of MOVE - Donald Glassey.
"I think it should be seen in the context of the time - the environment, the war. I think people look at MOVE today and say, 'My God, how could this be?' but in the early '70s, there were a lot of groups like MOVE. The thing that was different about MOVE is that it was against everything."
Today, this man who asks people to see MOVE "in the context of the time" is almost 40, and MOVE is eight years behind him. Donald Glassey keeps a low profile as he goes about a white-collar job in a location and profession he insists must not be disclosed. A thin, almost frail man, he still has the blond beard he wore then, though it is trimmed neatly now and flecked with gray, and he still looks at the world through the same old metal-framed glasses.
Leaphart "had some answers for some questions I had," he says. "I was trying to 'find myself.' He certainly did seem to be sort of 'tuned in,' or at least he certainly did so in the beginning."
With a newly minted master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania - his thesis was on the participation of the poor in decision- making in public housing projects - Glassey, then 24, went looking for himself in the whirl of Powelton social activism. He found Leaphart and was soon deeply impressed by the man's philosophizing. "He was very gentle and seemed to be a warm, loving-type person," recalls Glassey. "I said, 'You have some fascinating ideas here, you should write them down.' And he said, 'That's a great idea, but I can't write very well. 'I said, 'I can take care of that for you.' And we started."
As Leaphart dictated, Glassey typed what later became known as The Book or The Guidelines - 300 pages that laid out the tenets of Leaphart's anti- technology, back-to-nature views. The two men moved into Glassey's apartment, all the better to work on The Guidelines. They carried out their work in an apartment house that was owned by the housing cooperative.
"I took it down, and I organized it - put sections together - but it was totally, 100 percent his words," Glassey says. "Many people don't believe that, but it was true." As sections were completed, Glassey would read them back to Leaphart. "He just told me he read so slowly, he would prefer it if I read it to him." After a year's labor, The Guidelines were complete. "Much of it was some of the strangest prose I'd ever read," says a former co-op member who got an early glance of the manuscript. "The metaphor I remember was 'cloaked in vomit,' and it was filled with metaphors like that. The book was filled with an accusatory tone, attacking science and technology."
While Leaphart sat Buddha-like, Glassey began to extol his teaching at co- op meetings. Its members were puzzled. "For reasons that none of us could figure out, he struck up a friendship with Vince," says former co-op member Jack Wright, 42. "He looked up to Vince with great admiration, as a genius and wizard."
Before long, Leaphart and Glassey gave Powelton its first taste of what became the MOVE lifestyle. They refused to use roach spray in their apartment for fear it would harm their dogs. Soon, the entire building became infested. Finally, a delegation of three co-op members confronted them. "Vince came out and was really adamant and hostile for the first time," says one of the three. "He said, in effect, 'If you're not with me, you're against me.' That became the MOVE line.
"The poison that came out of him - I was shocked. Up to that point, I only had seen Vincent in a positive light. He told me that people should work to support him, that's how he viewed the co-op, that people who were working should work to support others. He told me he viewed me as an enemy. . . . My response to Vince was, 'Well, if that's the case, Vince, you've been playing me for a sucker.'"
In the winter of 1973, after the co-op began eviction proceedings, Leaphart and Glassey moved out. Leaphart took his belongings across the street to a massive old Victorian twin on the corner of 33d and Pearl Streets. Now, he made a different kind of impression. "He was a strong guy, and he had a strong character. He had what you might call power of being," says the man who allowed Leaphart to rent there. "There was a tone in him that was not gentle, it had . . . an element of brutality." Despite this, he gave Leaphart permission to move in. "I felt some misplaced compassion," he says. "I didn't know anybody who didn't have a place to live."
It wasn't long before other tenants in the building - families who had lived there for years - became alarmed by Leaphart's dogs and by an incessant parade of budding MOVE supporters. "I saw that something was amiss," the man says. "We somehow decided that the best solution was to sell the house." The new buyer was Donald Glassey. It was a house that one day would become the stage for murder.
Some members of the housing co-op still believe that it was Glassey, not Leaphart, who founded MOVE. Years later - despite the trauma MOVE brought to them - they speak of Vincent Leaphart with an almost melancholy fondness. But for Donald Glassey, their anger still runs hot; some even accuse him of being an agent provocateur, perhaps from the FBI. Says one: "Donald Glassey is the real Svengali in this. Most of the rest of them were victims, including Vince." To which Glassey wearily responds: "I can't help what people still believe. He (Leaphart) ran the show from day one. Unfortunately, I allowed myself at the time to be manipulated to carry out his bidding."
There is a notion that MOVE began as a peace-loving group that was put on the defensive by an aggressive, confrontational city. Certainly, its early crusades seem to support that. MOVE members picketed the zoo, demanding that its animals be set free. They demonstrated outside a pet store. "We don't see any difference between putting Jews in Auschwitz, napalming Vietnam or enslaving black people and enslaving puppies," Glassey declared at the time. The biggest early headlines came when MOVE members handcuffed talk-show host Mike Douglas in his studio to retaliate for an episode in which an errant chimpanzee had been handcuffed and shot with a tranquilizer dart after running amok during a taping.
In truth, MOVE's violent side was evident even in its earliest days. Its initial targets were the people who had helped Vincent Leaphart keep his first Powelton house - the members of the housing co-op. After the co-op and Leaphart had their falling-out - he quit the group in the fall of 1973 - the houses of its leaders were picketed and their lives repeatedly threatened. As they walked down the street, they were encircled, cursed and shoved. In perhaps the most violent incident, a MOVE member kicked co-op member Wright in the face, breaking his nose, because Wright had refused to nod hello when the two passed in a hallway.
As for Vincent Leaphart, this man who was once such a fixture on the streets of Powelton now seldom went out. When he did venture forth, he was known as John Africa, a name selected, Glassey says, not to show solidarity with blacks, but, rather, because Leaphart wanted to pay homage to Africa as the continent where all life began. No one knows why he chose the first name John.
"Vince was presented as the guru," says a neighborhood man who watched MOVE gather strength. "Vince was being turned into a godlike figure. The transition from Vince Leaphart to John Africa took probably about a year, a year and a half - until people never knew about a Vince Leaphart, they only knew about John Africa."
At first, his group was called the American Christian Movement for Life; over time, that became shortened and capitalized to MOVE. For many of its members, it offered shelter from the world - a haven for seekers, drug-users, ex-convicts, lost souls. John Africa played the father figure, advising, cajoling, ordering. To win his approval, members had to change their diets, swear off junk food and meat, become physically fit. Periodically, they were sent on an "activity" ordered by John Africa. The troops sallied forth to demonstrate at the local police station or to disrupt talks by Jane Fonda and Buckminster Fuller or meetings of the Board of Education. All the while, their leader stayed in the shadows. While his 40 or so followers clashed almost daily with the authorities - tallying hundreds of arrests - never once was John Africa picked up. "He always made sure he had no public role, from the very beginning. He made sure he wouldn't be identified," recalls a former MOVE member. "He might be there, but he would be in the background, sitting down the street somewhere."
His creation of a family structure was central to the group's appeal. In fact, many MOVE members were relatives - including his two sisters, Louise James and LaVerne Sims, and six of their children. The rest became family, all with the same age (age 1) and the same surname - first, Life, and later, Africa. Their pasts didn't matter; they were welcomed without reservation. ''It was nothing for him to reach out and grab someone and hug them while they were talking," says a woman who visited the Powelton compound during the early years of MOVE.
She is 37 now, with an ingenuous manner that is surprising given her years of hard traveling. A half life ago, at the age of 18, she turned heel on her New England family. Then, after years of searching for something that was not easily found, she discovered a group called MOVE. "They gave me a solid, secure family," she says now.
MOVE also gave her a whole new education, lessons learned during sessions each Monday and Wednesday, lessons about the corrupt society of man, lessons about the need for unity and the elimination of individuality, lessons taught by John Africa.
"Everything at one time was balanced until man violated it," explains Jeanne Africa, who asked that her last name today not be used. "What (John Africa) was trying to do was get back. . . . They (society) gave you color as separation. They gave you names for separation. They gave us gender for separation. We were always taught to look at lower life forms. Dogs and cats don't know they're dogs and cats; they just know they're life.
"He gave us a lot of solutions to problems we had in 'the lifestyle.' We had people who were on drugs; he got them off drugs. He was like a messiah. . . . He helped me. He gave a lot of answers to questions I had."
To cure, say, a drug abuser, John Africa would begin by focusing the user's anger outward. "He was teaching us how drugs came into society. The hierarchy would give you drugs to control you," Jeanne Africa says. "Drugs were in the black community for a long time, but they didn't have (rehabilitation) programs until it got into the white community."
Jeanne Africa did not drink or use drugs, but she quickly learned that she was not without sin. Her vices were "materialism and education - synthetic education, synthetic meaning not real." The children born to MOVE were forbidden such synthetic "formal" education; they were not taught to read or write.
For all his demands, John Africa was not always the harsh instructor. When he sensed his students drifting, he would stop a lecture, saying, "That's enough for today. You'll get sick." And every once in a while, John Africa would permit D-Days - "distortion days," during which MOVE members were allowed a break from the regimen and permitted to eat their fill of forbidden junk food.
"He was very clever. It was magic. John Africa had many tricks, many illusions," says Jeanne Africa. "As I look at it now, I think he warped my mind. People came into the organization looking for something. He knew how to make the system our enemy."
MOVE members thinking of quitting, she says, were warned, "You'll come back if you go back out there." About five years ago, Jeanne Africa went back out there, never to return.
As the '70s progressed, MOVE gained members and grew bolder. The Powelton headquarters expanded into the twin house next door, which MOVE simply took control over after its tenants moved out.
Before long, the neighbors were plagued by rats and foul odors, and the headquarters grew into an ominous compound surrounded by a stockade. But if MOVE had gained a few enemies, there remained loyal friends. Though John Africa's ideas had only the vaguest political content, his group operated with radical trappings that readily found welcome in Powelton.
"They were so militant . . . and when somebody says something in a militant tone - and especially when the people it's coming from are black - there's a feeling that it must have a ring of truth to it," says Wright. Adds another former co-op leader: "Some people insisted on seeing MOVE as the victim of racism and police brutality, and they were not interested in listening to the people whose persons had been threatened, whose children had been threatened, whose property had been threatened, who were living literally under the MOVE gun. . . . For us, it was horrible."
Co-op members who tried to convince Powelton neighbors and city authorities that MOVE was a genuine threat often found themselves being damned as racists. In seven years, Leaphart - this gentle man they had invited into their group, this non-threatening fellow who sat quietly at meetings - had completely short-circuited the organization. Its members now broke into bitter factional disputes, quarreling about whether MOVE sympathizers should be permitted into other co-op houses and suing each other in Common Pleas Court over a proposed sale of the co-op's properties.
Seven years after its members proclaimed that "the collective does not claim to be a substitute for revolution in our oppressive society," four of its members lodged a formal appeal with the Philadelphia police for help. They asked for the "placement of metal shields" over the front porch of the co-op apartment building across the street from MOVE headquarters - a steel wall between them and the angry world of MOVE.
Walt Wasyluk was fresh from vacation when he was called into the MOVE case. MOVE members, dressed in military-style fatigues and carrying all manner of handguns and rifles, had just issued a challenge from the stage atop their barricaded Powelton compound.
"Don't attempt to enter MOVE headquarters or harm MOVE people unless you want an international incident," they declared in a written statement to police. "We are prepared to hit reservoirs, empty hotels and apartment houses, close factories and tie up traffic in major cities of Europe. . . . We are equipped, well-trained and experts in guerrilla tactics. . . . We are not a bunch of frustrated, middle-class college students, irrational radicals or confused terrorists. We are a deeply religious organization totally committed to the principle of our belief as taught to us by our founder, John Africa. We are not looking for trouble. We are just looking to be left alone."
The statement given out that day - May 20, 1977 - was signed with the chemical equations for nitroglycerine and TNT. It was just the kind of thing to capture the attention of the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms - and special agent Wasyluk.
Wasyluk (pronounced WUHS-a-luck), now 44 - a lean man with a deeply etched face, a booming, infectious laugh and a Winston Light always in his hand - had been working for ATF for seven years when he took on the MOVE case. Before that, he worked for seven years as a Philadelphia policeman and a New Jersey state trooper. He has investigated enough radicals to know the difference between Maoists and Marxist-Leninists, but he is no intellectual - just a smart, resourceful street agent.
The same day MOVE members delivered their statement to police, Wasyluk got his big break in the case. A shotgun that police took from a MOVE member who had left the compound that day was traced to none other than Glassey, John Africa's right-hand man. Arrested and facing a five-year prison term for falsifying federal firearms forms, Glassey came over to the other side. After years of responding to orders from John Africa, he now began to listen to the federal government - as personified by Walt Wasyluk. Now, in mid-1977, Wasyluk was determined to suck Donald Glassey dry of everything he knew about MOVE, and Glassey was ready to talk.
Even before his arrest, Glassey told Wasyluk, he had become disillusioned with MOVE and with its leader. John Africa, he said, had dropped his fealty to nonviolence and was indeed turning into something of a weapons freak, requesting other MOVE members to obtain, for example, bazookas and mortars. ''Glassey stated that John Africa had a Charles Manson-type grip on MOVE members," reads Wasyluk's first full report on his interrogations of Glassey, "and that they had now ceased to function as free-thinking individuals. He was firmly convinced that MOVE members would kill if ordered by John Africa." On one occasion in early 1977, Glassey said, he had met John Africa at Africa's apartment a block from the 33d Street headquarters - characteristically, Africa had moved from the Powelton compound before it had been barricaded - to find him surrounded by 50 rifles and handguns. There, Glassey said, Africa had held a carbine and said: "We could take this rifle and go across the street to a dormitory in Drexel, and we could hit somebody at City Hall."
Just as the group had warned in its May 20 letter, MOVE had indeed stockpiled bombs, Glassey said. Over the past year, he said, he and other MOVE members had flown to cities across the nation - and to London - where they'd left bomb-timing devices, but no explosives, in hotel rooms. These were accompanied by threatening letters warning that MOVE would strike for real if Philadelphia did not stop its harassment.
Unsure whether Glassey was telling the truth, Wasyluk encouraged him to enlist the aid of another MOVE member who was wavering in his support. The two disaffected members then set out to pick up all of MOVE's weapons, under the watchful eye of the AFT, from caches at homes of relatives of two other MOVE members. The haul that July day included 20 bombs, a pile of bomb parts, two shotguns, eight high-powered rifles and a handgun. Also recovered were a collection of newspaper clippings on MOVE and what Wasyluk calls "some very interesting books" - The Anarchist's Cookbook, The Silencers, Snipers and Assassins Handbook, an OSS manual on sabotage and an Army field manual on explosives.
The day after the bomb seizure, the ATF instructed Philadelphia police to arrest Vincent Leaphart/John Africa. "We had certain locations identified already that we knew where Leaphart could be or might be," Wasyluk recalls. Police "missed Vincent by two minutes."
After what was, in effect, a mock arrest, Glassey was put back on the street to serve as a spy within MOVE. At first, his MOVE cohorts were suspicious. But after Glassey told them he'd moved the bombs to outwit police surveillance, MOVE welcomed him back.
As Glassey went about his undercover assignment, his diciest moment came when a wiretap revealed that several MOVE members had become convinced that he was somehow planning to raid the group's $26,000 bank account at PSFS. "They thought that Glassey was trying to steal money from MOVE, and they wanted a meeting and a confrontation. We were concerned that they were going to beat his head in," Wasyluk says. "For a little guy, he had guts. He says, 'I'm going down there, I'm not afraid.' He was under a lot of pressure. Plus, the inner struggle between feeling that he's a traitor and yet feeling that he's doing the right thing. He was in a real pickle."
For his part, Glassey says now, "I think at the time it was a kind of purging for me. It seemed that this thing had gone wrong, and for a good while I had been a part of it. . . . That was certainly part of my motivation at the time, to rectify what had gone wrong."
Finally, the charade ended. In September 1977, 10 MOVE members, headed by John Africa, were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and of manufacturing and possessing bombs. But when federal agents and police went to serve the warrants, John Africa was gone.
Less than a year later, on Aug. 8, 1978, the tense deadlock at MOVE's barricaded compound on North 33d Street finally exploded in violence. After a blockade failed, after negotiations failed, police moved in, and during the exchange of gunfire, officer James J. Ramp, 52, was killed and 10 other police officers and firefighters were wounded.
One by one, 12 adult MOVE members were at last driven from their compound, flushed from its basement by water. John Africa was not among them.
Dolores and Andrew Mitrano are not nosy people, so, several months before the Powelton shootout, in the spring of 1978, when two men who were "dressed kind of bedraggled" came to their little real estate office in the basement of their modest home in Irondequoit, N.Y., a block from the Rochester city line, the Mitranos didn't ask too many questions. One of the men, a slim fellow, called himself Jimmy Lee Phart; the other, a beefy man, went by the name of Ernie. The men, both about 28, came to discuss buying a wood-frame building on Flint Street in a rundown section of Rochester, N.Y.
After discussing the sale, Dolores Mitrano, 49, recalls, "they said their uncle was coming into town - they didn't say where from - and he had the money." Their uncle's name, the men said, was Vincent Lee Phart. When he arrived one day with the cash to buy the home, the Mitranos liked him. "He was an extremely calm, personable guy," says Andrew Mitrano, 50. "You felt at ease talking with him."
Vincent Lee Phart was, of course, Vincent Leaphart, a.k.a., John Africa, federal fugitive. His "nephews" were Alphonso Robbins, a MOVE member also wanted on the same charges, and Gerald Ford, another MOVE member, who in 1967 was named the city's outstanding scholastic athlete for his track and football accomplishments during high school. Thus, while his brethren in Philadelphia were facing an increasingly tense blockade at the Powelton headquarters - a standoff that would end in the 1978 shootout - John Africa was in Rochester putting together a little real estate empire. Initially, John Africa and the band of followers who'd accompanied him had been drawn there because a relative of a MOVE member lived in the area. Apparently, they found Rochester, whose population is one-quarter black, a hospitable environment. And over the next four years, MOVE bought seven homes, for $500 or so each, in seedy sections throughout the city.
Before long, some of the properties began to take on a look that had become all too familiar in Philadelphia. An eight-foot fence went up partway around an old gas station and home that MOVE owned at Lewis and Union Streets. Across town, the two-story frame house on Flint Street underwent more drastic changes. Its driveway was dug up - as MOVE had done five years earlier with the sidewalk around the Powelton compound - so the earth could ''breathe. " Slats were nailed over the windows. The porch was torn off.
"That was a beautiful, nice house," says the Rev. Robert Adams, 47, who lived next door, "and they ripped that house to pieces. " A nurse who lived across the street was similarly disturbed. "They were really friendly. The longer they stayed, though, you saw they weren't improving the house - they were closing it up," she says. "I felt that there was something wrong, but I didn't know what it was."
John Africa and Alberta Wicker, a MOVE member 17 years his junior who had become his companion within the cult, were the only members in Rochester to keep their dreadlocks. John Africa soon became known in the neighborhood for his addiction to running. As soon as Rochester's long winters thawed, he began running the city streets daily in bare feet. And the animal bones he put out each day began to draw stray dogs - and rats.
Angered by the desecration of the house next door, Mr. Adams tried to persuade his neighbors to sign a petition against MOVE, but without success. Many folks liked the new neighbors, particularly because during Rochester's long winters, the members would go up and down the block uncovering cars and clearing driveways for free. Mr. Adams' dispute with MOVE grew sharper when its leader started to feed his family dog. When Mr. Adams demanded that John Africa stop, an angry argument ensued, and other MOVE members rushed from the house to aid their leader, whom they now called "Master John Africa." Mr. Adams fled into his home and returned with a rifle. When the police came, John Africa was arrested for shoving one of the officers. He gave yet another false name and was released. Soon, though, his sojourn in Rochester would be over for good.
It was dawn on a Wednesday in May 1981 when the three large U-Haul trailers pulled out of the Rochester armory, heading toward MOVE's two locations. Each carried 20 officers. Meanwhile, a spotter aircraft hovered above while other police, including Wasyluk, traveled to the target areas in vans and cars. Two of the trailers arrived at MOVE's gas station, and their drivers got out, ostensibly seeking directions. About the same time, John Africa came into view, walking a dog and accompanied by two children. Suddenly, the officers burst from the trailers and fanned out - each with particular suspects in mind. Wasyluk's team, toting shotguns and wearing bulletproof vests, pulled their car up next to John Africa, who grabbed the children and raised them to his chest. "He seemed to recognize me. He told me he wanted to talk to me," Wasyluk later said in court. "And I told him I was waiting four years to talk to him."
Back in an interrogation room, John Africa sat his lithe muscular frame in a chair, while Wasyluk perched on top of a desk, the picture of relaxation. Both men wore blue jeans and sneakers. A blue baseball cap covered John Africa's bald spot. He placed his beige sunglasses on the desk.
His name, Africa told Wasyluk, was Vincent Life. His age, he said, was 1. He assured Wasyluk that MOVE was nonviolent but that outsiders sometimes mistook that for pacifism. If threatened, he told Wasyluk, MOVE would not wait to be killed; it would react first. Africa also had a rationale for the bombs that MOVE had stockpiled four years earlier. "He said that they bought chemicals to make bombs, and this was OK because society supplied the chemicals and that MOVE merely mixed them," Wasyluk would testify later. ''They were using society against itself, and in the end MOVE would triumph over society."
The raid had gone like a dream - not a shot fired, the prime suspect in custody. But during Wasyluk's interview with John Africa, trouble developed. Africa's followers - eight others were arrested that day - were rebelling in their holding area, cursing, leaping up and down, moaning. They would not be fingerprinted; it was against their religion. No officer relished the job of wading in among the MOVE members to physically force them to cooperate.
Hearing of the commotion, Africa asked to see his followers. A small man, twice as old as most of them, John Africa raised his hand, and the tumult ceased. The faithful gathered around him, touching his clothes; one young man - one of Africa's nephews - burst into tears.
"It was freaky, it was scary," recalls Wasyluk. "You want to talk about flipping a light switch. They are all screaming and carrying on and ripping stuff apart, and all of a sudden he comes in and Christ calms the waves."
As he headed home in chains, John Africa boasted, "They better start selling tickets for my trial in Philadelphia."
But the circus he envisioned never materialized. The year before, in 1980, nine MOVE members had been convicted of the murder of officer James Ramp, in a trial that was bedlam from gavel to gavel. But John Africa's trial, in the spring of 1981, was different. Just as he chose to stand back while his followers were carted off in droves during demonstrations, he let others do much of the talking in court. He was almost a model defendant, sitting quietly behind his sunglasses at the defense table. His only lapse was dozing off occasionally.
John Africa and his co-defendant, Alphonso Robbins, chose to represent themselves, relegating court-appointed defense attorneys to the role of advisers. Prosecutors L. Marc Durant and Will Carr presented a concise and overwhelming case. Glassey played the star witness - directly implicating John Africa in the bomb plot - and two other MOVE defectors backed up much of his testimony. It seemed proven beyond dispute that MOVE had stockpiled a great arsenal of bombs and guns. It seemed just as clear that nothing took place within MOVE without John Africa's approval. And Walt Wasyluk's testimony that John Africa admitted his plan to "use society against itself" seemed to cement the case.
During the trial, Robbins put witness after witness on the stand to testify that John Africa had cured back problems, epilepsy, smoking, marital discord,
drug addictions. He had even caused it to rain when police were blockading the Powelton compound, one witness testified. MOVE members - including six convicted of murder the previous year and one who would later die at Osage Avenue - took the stand to laud John Africa's power and to denounce Glassey as "semi-hip," a "Judas," an "overbearing white boy." When it came time to cross-examine Glassey, Robbins was tough, asking him, "How does it feel to be a traitor?" and hammering away at why, if Glassey was so troubled by MOVE, he waited until after his arrest to talk to the authorities.
Through it all, John Africa spoke only twice - once to cross-examine Wasyluk and once to deliver a closing argument. With Wasyluk, his cross- examination was meandering and confused, a tangle of metaphors that failed to make much sense. It came to a halt when U.S. District Judge Clifford Scott Green finally cut Africa off, saying, "There is no reason to get into this type of philosophical debate." John Africa responded, "This is the reason I was laying back (during the trial), because this is the only way I can speak," and then he turned to Wasyluk, saying, "OK, Walt, he just let you off the hook, and I know you know what I mean."
"On the MOVE" was John Africa's greeting as he faced the jury for his closing argument, perhaps the only time Africa spoke out to Philadelphia about MOVE. Before he finished delivering what amounted to a bizarre sermon, John Africa would cry 10 times. He was, by his lights, a victim:
"I'm not a guilty man. I'm an innocent man," he said. "I didn't come here to make trouble or to bring trouble. But to bring the truth. And, goddamn it, that's what I'm going to do.
"I'm fighting for air that you've got to breathe. And I'm fighting for water that you've got to drink, and if it gets any worse, you're not going to be drinking that water. I'm fighting for food that you've got to eat. And, you know, you've got to eat it and if it gets any worse, you're not going to be eating that food.
"Don't you see? If you took this thing all the way, all the way, you would have clean air, clean water, clean soil and be quenched of industry. But, you see, they don't want that. They can't have that.
"I've been a revolutionary all my life. Since I could understand the word revolution, I have been a revolutionary, and I remain a revolutionary because, don't you see, revolutionary simply means to turn, to generate, to activate. It don't mean it should be evil and kill people and bomb people. It simply means to be right. If this world didn't revolutionize, everything would stop. If your heart didn't revolutionize, you would stop. If your lungs don't revolutionize, you would stop.
"Monkeys don't shoot people, but people will shoot monkeys. Yet monkeys are seen as unclear and people are seen as intelligent. You can go as far as you want in the forest and you won't find no jails. Because the animals of the forest don't believe in jail. But come to civilization, that's all you see."
Despite a case that even Africa's backup attorney concedes was virtually flawless, the jury - after dragging out their deliberations for six days - acquitted Africa and Robbins. The prosection was stunned.
"The case against him was staggeringly overwhelming," says Durant, now 36, the Harvard Law School graduate. "We were withdrawing evidence in our trial preparation all the time because we had too much evidence. There were prior trials on that same indictment, and the government won all those trials.
"It was the only case I ever lost as a prosecutor. It was also the strongest case I ever had."
After emerging victorious that day from the federal courthouse - carrying a cardboard box full of cantaloupes, potatoes, eggs and a pineapple - John Africa went back to ground. His few words to reporters after the acquittal - "I whipped them" - were his last public statement. His people continued to say that their every move was directed by John Africa, but their leader was nowhere to be seen.
What happened to John Africa during the 1980s was a puzzle that the special mayoral commission that investigated the May 13 disaster on Osage Avenue sought to solve - not, however, with much assistance from John Africa's two sisters, Louise James, 55, and LaVerne Sims, 49, who had once joined him in MOVE. The two sisters appeared together before the panel and spoke glowingly about MOVE - which they said they no longer belonged to - but they provided little substantive information about their brother. Indeed, both refused to confirm that Vincent Leaphart was John Africa. (Reached at her Mantua home, LaVerne said neither she nor her sister would grant an interview for this article.)
In February 1984, however, John Africa's two sisters were more willing to provide detailed information about him. That year, police said, Louise and LaVerne gave a civil-affairs officer a full briefing about John Africa - a briefing in which they portrayed him as in the grips of a gathering madness, ordering relatives beaten, pronouncing himself both "mother and father" of all the MOVE children, bragging that he had planned the Powelton clashes with the city and that he "walked away unscathed."
The sisters, according to a police memorandum, said John Africa moved into the MOVE house on Osage Avenue - which Louise James owned - after his acquittal in federal court. "When John Africa walked away from his federal trial," the memorandum says, "he became obsessed with his own power, telling his followers that he had outsmarted the whole United States."
Within his sister's home, according to the memorandum, his megalomania reached some sort of final, frightening stage. Africa ordered one of his own nieces - Gail Sims - to marry a MOVE member. In an angry telephone conversation, LaVerne Sims - neither she nor her daughter lived in Osage Avenue MOVE headquarters - objected and told John Africa so. Then, according to the memorandum, "John ordered Frank, Louise's son, to go to his mother's bedroom and to beat her violently while the other MOVE members watched. Frank complied. Louise was being punished for her sister's disobedience to John Africa."
Later, a more harrowing attack took place - with Frank James, described as John Africa's bodyguard and main disciple, once again meting out the punishment to his own mother. In a classic cult scenario, the provocation this time was Louise James' refusal to play along with a public humiliation ritual. The uglinesss began when Louise - whose mail was routinely intercepted - was ordered by her brother to read aloud a letter from a jailed MOVE member attacking her for backsliding in her fidelity to the movement.
"After reading a few passages (filled) with vile and obscene language, she refused to continue to read any further. Frank was ordered to attack his mother. Louise was beaten until she started vomiting violently," says the memorandum. "Frank then placed a pillow over her face and asked John Africa if he wanted Louise cycled (killed). John replied, 'Not this time.'" (After last May's confrontation, the body of Frank James Africa, 26, was found lying the closest, of all the victims, to that of his uncle.)
Shortly after that beating, Louise told John Africa that she wanted to go to Atlantic City for a week. After being permitted to pack a few belongings in trash bags, according to the memorandum, she left Osage Avenue, never to return.
Louise apparently moved in with her sister LaVerne, who then became the target of attacks. "John ordered other MOVE members and supporters to make threatening phone calls to LaVerne as part of their 'activity' for the day," the memorandum says. "Sometimes as many as 50 to 60 phone calls were received during the day."
According to the memorandum, Africa never ventured outside the Osage Avenue headquarters; inside, he began overseeing the children in a more sinister way. ''MOVE children are taught to hate their parents and to embrace him as their mother and father," states the memo. "They are taught to be willing to cycle their parents, if ordered to do so."
In July 1984, Louise James talked to police two more times. During the MOVE hearings, commission counsel William B. Lytton 3d confronted Louise about the July conversations, during which she told police she had become convinced that her brother was legally insane and that his personality had changed to that of a madman. In response, Louise told Lytton that she could not recall making such remarks. As for the earlier police memorandum, Louise James said she had "no comment" and then verbally fenced about it, saying that if the police had assured the MOVE commission that the report was accurate, Lytton had no need to ask her about it. She added: "What is the relevancy here - except for you to gossip?" For her part, LaVerne Sims asked: "Mr. Lytton, am I to assume that the bomb was dropped on the MOVE people because Frank beat his mother?"
If John Africa's past is any guide, he is alive today. There is no way he would have been present with his followers on Osage Avenue when the police attacked, say many who knew him. "I'd be surprised," says Wasyluk, ''because generally the field marshal would not be in the trenches with his troops - or at least he never was before this."
But perhaps the field marshal erred by choosing to inspect his fortifications on the wrong day. In his dramatic videotaped interview, 13- year-old Michael Moses Ward - known as Birdie Africa when he lived in the compound - indicated to the MOVE panel that before the confrontation, John Africa had moved from the Osage Avenue house to one of the other three Philadelphia-area MOVE houses. But Ward said that John Africa would sometimes return to the compound for "meetings" and that he was there during the final confrontation. So whether by miscalculation or a desire to be with his family at long last, when they squared off with the police, John Africa returned to Osage Avenue before the May 13 battle, and it was there, at age 53, that he died.
How he died remains unclear. Perhaps a shotgun blast killed him; his remains showed wounds from buckshot-like fragments in his left chest and left hip. Perhaps his head was blown off by explosives; a police sergeant testified during the MOVE hearings that early in the confrontation - hours before police dropped the bomb - he saw what might have been a headless body lying in the compound's front yard shortly after police threw explosives at the porch.
Ward's testimony, however, suggests that as the MOVE members retreated to the basement of their burning fortress after the bombing, John Africa and two other men went back upstairs, into the flames. So perhaps the fire finally claimed him, as it almost surely killed most of the victims, including the children - children who, earlier in the day, had huddled under wet blankets as tear gas stung their eyes, bullets ricocheted above their heads and explosions rocked the walls around them. To overcome their fear, the children of MOVE had been told to chant "Long live John Africa."
Craig R. McCoy, Inquirer Staff Writer
Read full story: Who was John Africa?