John Gilbride was shot last September amid a dispute with MOVE. The case is unsolved.
Fran and Jack Gilbride are done keeping quiet.
A decade ago, they raised no ruckus when they lost their son John for the first time, to MOVE, the radical West Philadelphia cult known for its violent tangles with the government – notably the 1985 armed standoff that ended with police bombing MOVE’s headquarters, the destruction of a city block, and the deaths of 11 people.
A year ago, the Gilbrides were too shell-shocked to speak when they lost John for good after the man who dared to divorce MOVE’s matriarch was murdered near the end of a vicious custody battle.
The South Jersey murder remains unsolved, and now, the Gilbrides finally want to talk.
They want to tell John’s story, to speak for the man who silently endured what he called a “war of words” with MOVE, a war he said he could never win.
And they want to dispute MOVE’s conspiracy theories.
Last year, the group said government special forces assassinated John to hassle MOVE.
In recent weeks, as reporters began calling about the one-year anniversary of John’s murder, MOVE leader Ramona Africa said she was not even sure John was really dead.
Last week, she told me his “so-called murder” could have been staged by the government, again to hassle MOVE.
“That’s just ludicrous,” says Fran Gilbride, unsure whether to laugh or cry at the wild idea that their son might be alive.
“I only wish it was true.”
The truth is all tears.
John Gilbride was found dead at 12:08 a.m. Sept. 27, 2002, in the parking lot of his Maple Shade apartment complex.
John, 34, had just returned from work as a baggage supervisor for US Airways – a job he loved because it allowed him to hop on a plane and see the world at a moment’s notice for next to nothing.
Later that day, John was due for his first unsupervised visit with the son he’d been fighting for since he left his wife, Alberta, in 1998.
Police found John in the driver’s seat of his old Crown Vic.
The engine was running. The radio, playing.
And John? His head and chest, blasted with bullets fired through the car window by someone who’d had enough of John Gilbride.
No suspects, few leads
Nearly a year later, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said investigators had no suspects and few leads.
Investigators won’t release ballistics information. They have issued no public pleas for help.
Last week, Bernardi did say investigators had interviewed several MOVE members.
“Frankly, they haven’t provided us with any information that has been any assistance to us in solving the case,” he said.
“There is still this problem with the timing of this homicide given what was pending in the custody dispute,” Bernardi said. “Is that a coincidence, or is there something more to it?”
In the two weeks before John’s murder, MOVE fortified its West Philadelphia house, demonstrated in South Jersey, vowed to defy a court order allowing John to spend time alone with his son, and accused him of being a deadbeat dad, a child abuser, and worse.
Amid the rising fury, John prepared for a Sept. 19 visit with his son.
Law-enforcement sources acknowledge they advised him to skip that visit, to avoid a confrontation with MOVE. So Gilbride flew to Las Vegas for the weekend.
Though Burlington County investigators have said nothing about a possible motive, one Philadelphia police official not involved with the case offered his own theory.
“The way he was killed, if it happened at 10th and Fitzwater, would have immediately been labeled a mob hit,” Capt. William Fisher told the Philadelphia City Paper this summer.
“I understand that Mr. Gilbride was something of a gambler. I would take a long, hard look at whether he had any outstanding gambling debts if this was my investigation.”
The Gilbrides strongly dispute that suggestion, saying John went to Las Vegas to see an Earth, Wind and Fire concert – not to gamble.
Even after a year with no news, the Gilbrides say they believe the case can be solved.
They, too, note the coincidence of John’s murder coming near the end of his contentious custody fight.
“John knew the consequences of what he was doing,” Jack Gilbride said tearfully at the family’s kitchen table last week.
“He always said, ‘I could get killed for what I’m doing, but I have to do it.’ “
John Gilbride entered the world fighting.
He and his twin, Cathy, were born five weeks premature.
Doctors told Fran that John saved Cathy’s life, because she had underdeveloped lungs and he’d done the hard work by pushing his way out first, four minutes ahead of his sister.
At Delran High School, John lettered in track. Weekends, he worked at Sears in the Moorestown Mall.
As a boy, his parents found him impressionable and obedient. As a teen, little changed.
“He never rebelled,” Fran recalls. “Neighbors used to tell me how they envied us.”
After his graduation in 1986, John enrolled at Temple University, majoring in business.
By then, Jack and Fran had moved to the Virginia suburbs near Washington for work.
It was there, on one of John’s visits from college, where they first suspected their son was under a new influence.
“He came home and rode around the neighborhood saying, ‘This is nothing. These big houses, this money, it doesn’t mean anything,’ ” Fran recalls.
That seemed odd, she said, because John’s goal in life had always been to “become a millionaire and drive a Cadillac.”
A letter from MOVE to the Gilbride house followed one summer, as did John’s eventual admission that he had visited MOVE members in prison.
It wasn’t until after his 1991 graduation that the family learned just how moved he was with MOVE, when John announced he’d moved into the group’s headquarters.
There’s nothing you can do about it, John told his parents.
Fran was crushed. “His eyes were so cold and blank. For me, it was like he had died.”
The family staged an intervention, but failed to shake John from the grasp of MOVE.
After that, the Gilbrides followed cult experts’ advice to keep communication open and maintain whatever relationship John would allow them.
They talked periodically, on an 800 number Jack set up. In one call, in the fall of 1992, John told his folks he’d married a woman named Alberta.
As in Alberta Africa, MOVE’s matriarch, the widow of the group’s spiritual founder, John Africa. A woman twice John Gilbride’s age. An ex-con who spent seven years in prison for her role in an armed standoff with police in 1977 at MOVE’s Powelton Village headquarters.
Fran cried and Jack cringed, but the couple composed themselves enough to tell John they should celebrate in some way.
So the Gilbrides drove to Philadelphia and took the newlyweds to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
“At no time did we sympathize with MOVE,” Jack explains. “But in order to have a relationship with John, we did what we had to do.”
Years later, John told his parents he’d done some sacrificing of his own for his new family, going into deep debt on in-vitro fertility treatments trying to have a child with Alberta. Finally, in 1996, a son was born. Today, the boy – with a big, bright smile and chestnut hair – is the spitting image of his dead father.
If his son’s birth was the happiest day of John’s life, the father’s decision to leave the child two years later was the darkest.
John had grown frustrated with MOVE’s meddling in his marriage, even after the couple had moved to a $174,000 house in Cherry Hill.
Whenever John and Alberta argued, he said, MOVE members got involved, staging hours-long “interventions,” which John deemed “degrading.”
In the fall of 1998, John walked out. Left $500, and had his lawyer send a letter alerting Alberta he’d file for divorce.
“He did a complete about-face,” Fran recalls. “He woke up one day and said, ‘Why am I here? This isn’t what I wanted for my life.’ “
Overnight, John renewed contact with his family, talking with them six, seven times a day. He cut his hair and bushy beard.
And he vowed to fight for his son.
“He loved that kid,” Jack said. “He truly felt responsible for bringing him into the world.”
In 1999, John filed for bankruptcy, his finances drained first by the fertility treatments, then by lawyers’ fees.
He took overtime shifts and continued the custody fight, in spite of acrid abuse accusations from his ex-wife – accusations that were roundly refuted by the judge hearing the case.
The divorce was finalized in 2000, but the custody fight raged on for two more years.
In August 2002, a judge granted John unsupervised visits with his son. MOVE, which opposed any visits outside Alberta’s watchful eye, braced for a showdown.
As summer turned to fall, John had a cautionary conversation with his mother.
“He said he wanted to be cremated,” Fran recalled. “He said, ‘I just couldn’t take knowing I’m being put in the ground.’ “
Fran just shook it off, never imagining that a few weeks later, she’d be honoring his wish.