Monica Yant Kinney
Monica Yant Kinney
September 20, 2012
Last of two parts.
All unsolved murders are inherently mysterious, but that of John Gilbride remains extra-curious, since he was shot dead hours before a court-ordered visit with the son his ex-wife, MOVE matriarch Alberta Africa, vowed not to let him see.
Most custody battles never make headlines. MOVE, the West Philadelphia cult famous for two deadly confrontations with police, spent the weeks before John was killed fortifying its headquarters and lambasting him as a bad dad.
John was 34 when he was gunned down inside his Crown Vic in the parking lot of a Maple Shade apartment complex called Ryan's Run. The killer fired an automatic weapon through the window. Bullets ravaged his head and chest.
Sept. 27 marks the 10-year anniversary of John's violent demise. Investigators have never named a suspect or released ballistics information.
In 2003, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi told me MOVE members were interviewed but offered no helpful information.
"There is still this problem with the timing of this homicide given what was pending in the custody dispute," Bernardi said back then. "Is that a coincidence, or is there something more to it?"
I tried for months to get another sit-down with Bernardi and sought the reflections of investigators who have pulled thread anonymously for a decade. He declined all requests and just released a bland written statement:
"Somebody out there has knowledge of what transpired the night John Gilbride was slain. I implore that person to come forward and assist us in bringing his killer to justice."
A father's risk
In 1992, John married Alberta, an ex-con 20 years older. In 1996, the 48-year-old gave birth to Zack. In 1998, John fled MOVE and his marriage, aware of the risk.
"I was told," he said in 1999 divorce papers, "my attitude toward my wife was going to cause a situation that would involve my death."
On Aug. 27, 2002, a domestic dispute between John and Alberta at her home led to John's summoning the Cherry Hill police. On Sept. 9, 2002, the exes aired grievances in Camden County Family Court.
"John was not pushin' because he wanted Zack," Alberta testified. "He was pushin' because he knew that MOVE belief would not allow me to give him Zack."
Her ex-husband, Alberta contended, intended to "drive me and Zackary into a situation where we're confronted with cops and court orders and warrants. And he knows because of 1985, May 13 in 1985, he knows what a situation like that could cause."
(For the uninitiated, she was referencing the armed standoff that led officials to bomb MOVE's West Philadelphia base, killing 11 members and destroying 60 homes.)
John, meanwhile, told the Family Court judge that during the August quarrel, a MOVE supporter named Mario Hardy stepped in to defend Alberta and issued a fresh threat:
"Move and I'll kill you."
A week later, on Sept. 17, 2002, MOVE posted a statement citing "dangerous developments" and urged supporters to do anything "in their power to do to avert this government assault."
Ten days later, John was dead.
Leads or conspiracy theories?
Afterward, MOVE questioned whether John was killed by the government - if he was even dead.
A Philadelphia police liaison to MOVE speculated that John, who traveled and frequented casinos, was slain over a gambling debt.
Another curiosity concerned John's secret, and brief, second marriage to Rosario Bienvenida Arias, a 24-year-old casino dealer from the Dominican Republic.
They wed in Maryland on April 25, 2002, but, according to the annulment John initiated May 19, she used him and then fled the country. The marriage had not been nullified by the time John died, so as his widow, Arias - not Zack - collected death benefits.
Mario Hardy long ago declined to comment on John's charge. MOVE sent an e-mail last week calling my interview request a "new assault."
John's father, Jack Gilbride, says investigators told him they ruled out a mob hit and cleared the mystery wife, but Bernardi will neither confirm nor deny that information.
Ten years of silence
In 2009, America's Most Wanted filmed interviews about John's murder. The episode never aired.
In 2010, Burlington County investigators sought the expertise of the Vidocq Society, acclaimed sleuths known for thawing cold cases. John's family was barred from watching the presentation, and the county forbade Vidocq members from sharing their theories with me.
Law enforcement sources elsewhere puzzle over Bernardi's refusal to engage or publicize the investigation. That silence, they say, is a missed opportunity.
This summer, investigators sought to interview a former MOVE supporter who could be a source of information, but the man skipped the scheduled appointment.
Jack Gilbride perked up at the thought of investigators pursuing new leads, but he remains concerned that hesitation or missteps a decade ago allowed a killer to roam free.
"The first 48 hours are the most important," so why, he asks, did it take detectives "seven weeks to talk to Alberta Africa?"
Gilbride thinks back to his son's warnings. "I believe," he concludes, "that this investigation has been extremely and negatively impacted by MOVE's intimidation."