A Horrible Irony Son Of Former Top Cop Slain Cops See No Connection To Move Disaster Anniversary

Posted: May 12, 2000

It seemed too coincidental to be random.

But Philadelphia police say whoever killed Nicholas Sambor, son of the former police commissioner who implemented the deadly MOVE bombing in 1985, merely had an unbelievable sense of timing.

Sambor was gunned down behind his Overbrook rowhouse before midnight Wednesday - just two days before the 15th anniversary of the day his father, Gregore Sambor, oversaw the fiery siege on armed members of the radical group MOVE.

Eleven MOVE members, including five children, died and 61 homes were destroyed in the May 13, 1985, blaze.

But police say roving robbers have been preying on Overbrook residents in recent weeks and may have been Sambor's killers.

Just 15 minutes before the attack on Sambor, four gun-toting men held up a passer-by a block and a half away and stole his wallet, cigarettes and lighter. The robbers ran off toward 65th and Jefferson streets, where Sambor lived, the victim told police.

Another robbery happened about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday on Gross Street, three blocks from Sambor's home.

Both victims gave similar descriptions of the attack and their assailants, Homicide Capt. James Brady said.

"We believe it was an attempted robbery that went awry, and for reasons that we can't explain, they shot him multiple times in the chest and left him in the back alley to die," Brady said. "We don't think it's happenstance there's a robbery about a block and a half away some 15 minutes before."

Sambor, 40, an employee of the Fairmount Park Commission, was leaving his house when the robbers accosted him, investigators said. Sambor wasn't armed, police said. His wallet was still in his pocket when paramedics began their hopeless efforts to revive him, police added.

No witnesses have stepped forward, but neighbors on the sycamore tree-lined street said they heard the killing all too clearly.

"I heard three gunshots and a man scream, 'Oh, no!' and I knew something happened tragically," said Sandra Colgan, adding that she and her daughter, Carly, ran outside and saw Sambor lying in his blood, dying, outside his back door.

He was pronounced dead at 12:11 a.m., about half an hour after the shooting, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Real nice guy," said Joseph Vitali, 71, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. "My daughter works with him and said he all the time had a, 'How you doin', hi, hello' for you. All the good guys, this happens to."

Fairmount Park Commission spokesman Tom Doyle said Sambor had a respect for all living creatures: "He was a gentle man. He'd walk around ants on the ground."

Sambor worked for the park commission, which he joined in 1993, as a park manager, although his job description more correctly would be "landscape designer," said Barry Bessler, the commission's chief of staff.

He was the creative force behind the landscape design of Rittenhouse Square, Logan Circle, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and other city parkland, Bessler said.

He also designed the commission's annual exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show and worked closely with volunteers on tree-plantings and other public beautification efforts, Bessler said.

In the commission's Memorial Hall headquarters, Sambor's presence was obvious every Christmas.

"Nick would take hours and great pride every year in decorating our Christmas tree," said Bessler, whose commission oversees 8,900 acres of city parkland. "He would always make an event out of it."

That passion for horticulture was evident outside his home.

A bachelor, Sambor lived alone in his rowhouse, which he was restoring.

From irises to azaleas, the foliage and flowers flourishing on every inch of his property lent his home a romantic, if a bit unkempt, look. Christmas wreaths still hang from his front windows, hinting that the man most neighbors only knew enough only to trade waves spent few hours at home.

Neighbors said Sambor lived in Overbrook for about five years, but real estate records show he bought the home in 1990 for $65,000.

Police said Sambor spent a lot of time at his parents' home in Drexel Hill, Delaware County. A woman who answered the door there yesterday declined to comment.

Behind Sambor's home yesterday, the inscription "5-11-00 FCC #1" and "5-11-00 FCC #2" - FCC is police patter for "fired cartridge casing" - remained chalked on the sidewalk and driveway, reminding residents and passers-by of the previous night's violence.

"Jesus God!" cried Colleen Gallagher, 31, of Media, when she heard about the shooting.

Gallagher had stopped by her mother's house, several doors down from Sambor, yesterday to do laundry. She left with clean clothes and the conviction to teach her mother how to shoot to kill.

"My mom's not the gun-carrying type," she said of mom, Sandra Colgan. "But I'm very protective. I'd love to give her some lessons."

Few neighbors knew of Sambor's father's connection to the MOVE mess, but most acknowledged their unease at the timing of the tragedy.

Gallagher said she'd be relieved if Sambor's slaying was a targeted hit by someone seeking revenge for his father's role in MOVE.

"Then I wouldn't have to be worried," she said frankly. "This is a good block. They have a block captain, organized street cleanups, barbecues in the summers. This is pretty freaking scary."

Richard Harris knows firsthand how scary it was.

Harris, 34, a cook at a restaurant in the Northeast, was the man robbed 15 minutes before and a block-and-a-half from Sambor.

He was walking home from his sister's to the home he shares with his cousin at about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night.

"That's when I met up with these guys," Harris said, referring to the robbers. "As I was about to pass them, one of the guys said, 'What are we working with over here?' I thought it was a joke, so I kept walking. Then he pulled out a gun and robbed me. They told me not to look back or come back and they took off.

"I didn't look back."

Harris said he spent all day yesterday obsessing about his brush with death.

"That could have been me," he said. "If I'd said anything or made the wrong move, it could have been me . . .but I've always been one to think that whatever I've got in my pocket, I can get more of. The important thing is to still be alive and be with my family and friends."

The killers are described as men in their teens or early 20s.

One is 5-foot-7 or 5-8 with dark complexion, wearing a winter-type coat and carrying a black automatic handgun. The other is black, slightly taller and slender, wearing a multicolored bandana. The other two are simply described as being 5-7 to 5-8.

"We believe they're still out there and it's important we get them off the streets before they kill someone else," Brady said.

Send e-mail to difilid@phillynews.com

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