James Berghaier, Police Officer

(Michele Tranquilli)
Posted: May 06, 2010

PHILADELPHIA POLICE Officer James Berghaier was in the alley behind the MOVE house when the fire began. He braved gunfire and sloshed through waist-deep water to pull 13-year-old Birdie Africa to safety.

1985: Berghaier, then 35, realized that going out into the alley to rescue the boy could have been a trap designed to put him in the line of fire. But he did it, he said, knowing that if he died, he'd die trying to do a good thing.

Berghaier's partner, Charles Mellor, stood in the middle of the alley and kept watch.

"The whole time I'm locked in on Mellor's face," Berghaier said recently, "and, I've got to be honest with you, I'm praying I'm not going to see a change of expression . . . I'm locked on [Mellor]. I don't want to feel a thump on my back."

The first words that Birdie said to Berghaier were, "Don't shoot me." He also said, "My pants are falling down" and "I'm hungry. I want something to eat."

Quote: "Birdie went back down . . . He landed square on his head. I said something like . . . 'I'm going to get the kid.' . . . Birdie was just laying there. He didn't move . . . I just didn't want to let that kid lay there like that."

After hearing Berghaier's testimony before the MOVE Commission, panel member Charles Bowser said: "I've been sitting here listening for many days, and it's all been depressing and discouraging. Except for what I've read of Officer Berghaier and heard from Officer Berghaier today. . . . And if there's any hope for this entire situation, it's from that officer. And I want to thank him."

2010: Berghaier, 60, has long struggled with the guilt he feels about not being able to save the other MOVE children. (He wasn't aware they were there at the time.) He retired from the police force shortly after the MOVE confrontation and later divorced his wife. He bounced around to various jobs over the years, including working as a bar manager and as a janitor. Remarried, he lives in Northeast Philadelphia and works for a nonprofit agency.

Berghaier doesn't think or talk about MOVE every day, but when he does, it clearly upsets him.

"I don't act like this every day," he said after getting teary during his interview. "I'll probably find peace when I pass."

- Natalie Pompilio

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