The sparse evidence collected after John Gilbride was fatally shot last year outside his Maple Shade apartment yielded little to help the detectives searching for his killer.
Neither did the interviews they conducted for several weeks afterward.
As the first anniversary approaches, the unsolved crime continues to bewilder investigators, deeply trouble Gilbride’s parents, and infuriate MOVE, the radical Philadelphia back-to-nature group from which he had broken away and which feels unfairly labeled as the likely suspect.
“We are in the usual mode with a case that is unsolved after a year,” said Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi. “And that is, you are getting to the end of the line in terms of what you have available to you for new information. So you go back and retrace your steps and look at the old information.”
It was the timing of the killing, Bernardi said, that created concern among his detectives.
Gilbride, 34, was found just after midnight Sept. 27, slumped over in his car with the engine still running. He died just hours before he was to have his first unsupervised visit with the son he had with Alberta Africa, MOVE’s matriarch and former wife of founder John Africa.
Gilbride had become involved with MOVE as a student at Temple University and married Alberta Africa in 1992. Six years later, he left the group, filed for divorce, and sought custody of their son, now 7.
In interviews, on its Web site and at demonstrations, MOVE described Gilbride as an unsupportive, abusive father who should not be allowed to see the child.
A judge in August 2002 agreed, however, to let Gilbride have unsupervised visits – but he never got the opportunity. After returning from his job as a baggage supervisor for US Airways, he was shot several times in the head and chest.
The details from detectives end there, even as they continue to hope they catch the killer.
Along with that hope, says MOVE, is a continuing effort by the government to make the group look guilty. They believe the government is using The Inquirer to make the group seem like a threat to society – an accusation the newspaper denies.
MOVE members also think Gilbride is still alive, said Sue Africa, speaking for Alberta and the rest of the group.
“MOVE had nothing to do with his death if, in fact, it even occurred,” she said. “We loved John, but for some reason he turned on us. We have been wronged far worse by other people. If we were going to go after somebody, it sure as hell would not be John Gilbride.”
She was referring to the 1985 standoff the group had with Philadelphia police that ended when the city dropped a bomb on MOVE’s Osage Avenue compound, causing a fire that burned an entire city block.
Eleven MOVE members, including Sue Africa’s son and four other children, were killed in the blaze along with John Africa.
For MOVE, the anniversary of Gilbride’s death is also marked by The Inquirer’s attempt to get transcripts of the custody hearings between John Gilbride and Alberta Africa. The paper’s petition to gain access will be heard today.
MOVE says it will not oppose the request. “We have absolutely nothing to hide,” Sue Africa said.
Philadelphia police civil affairs Capt. William Fisher, the department’s liaison with MOVE for the last few years, believes the group had no involvement in Gilbride’s death. Its members defend themselves when needed, he said, but do not go out and kill people.
Fisher says more attention should be given to the trip Gilbride made to Las Vegas several days before his death. He suggests that perhaps Gilbride was killed over a gambling debt.
But Gilbride’s parents, Jack and Fran, have refuted the gambling theory and say their son went to Las Vegas to see a concert.
From their home in Virginia, they have also said Bernardi’s office believes the case can be solved. If that’s true, they wish it would happen soon.
Still grieving, Fran Gilbride, 61, says her son’s death has left her with health problems. “They tell us to keep the faith,” she said. “It’s hard, but I’m trying.”
For an arrest to be made, Bernardi said, someone would likely have to come forward with information.
Does he have a theory about how John Gilbride died or who killed him?
“I have to be honest with you,” Bernardi said, “the short answer right now is no.”
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