Monica Yant Kinney: A son slain, he fears he's lost a grandson to MOVE

Alberta Africa talking in 2002 about a government conspiracy against MOVE as a possible reason for John Gilbride's death.
Alberta Africa talking in 2002 about a government conspiracy against MOVE as a possible reason for John Gilbride's death. (BONNIE WELLER)
Posted: September 17, 2012

Jack Gilbride's memoir, A Father's Sacrifice, is written for an audience of one: his grandson, Zack, the only child of John Gilbride, who was murdered in 2002 during a bitter custody fight.

The manuscript contains 109,971 words aimed at a 16-year-old living in Cherry Hill. "My sole purpose," the author says, "is for Zack to read this and have some understanding of what his father did for him."

John Gilbride developed an unlikely fascination with MOVE, the West Philadelphia cult whose two violent standoffs with city officials resulted in the death of 11 MOVE members and one cop. He met Alberta Africa, 20 years his senior, while she served a seven-year prison term on riot charges. In 1992, John married the MOVE matriarch.

The book chronicles John's tortured decision six years later to leave MOVE, his wife, and 2-year-old son, John Zackary, called Zack.

John, Gilbride writes, was "subjected to the mental cruelty meted out by MOVE" and was "nearly paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of guilt and fear" as he broke free.

"Every part of his being demanded he ignore his lawyer's advice and take his son and just disappear." But he didn't.

A week ago, I knocked on Alberta's door hoping to interview her and Zack about the 10th anniversary of John's unsolved murder. A Volvo sat in the driveway, but no one answered. So I left a letter.

Friday, "South Jersey Friends of MOVE" distributed statements accusing me and The Inquirer of "harassing" the group about the "supposed murder."

An e-mail claiming to be from the MOVE organization arrived late Friday, accusing me and Gilbride of waiting for Zack to grow up to "lure him away ... and misuse him for your own designs."

I've talked with Jack Gilbride regularly since his son was found shot to death in a Maple Shade parking lot on Sept. 27, 2002. There have been no arrests and no named suspects. I'll explore the case in depth Wednesday.

After John's death, his parents drove frequently from Virginia to see Zack at Alberta's home in South Jersey. MOVE members were always present. They hovered and horned in on games, letting the 6-year-old win at Monopoly.

"They lose to him on purpose [because] he's special," Gilbride told me at the time. "They're setting him up to be their leader."

In a break from the group's separatist, antisocial ethos, this MOVE child took karate and tap dancing. He fenced and swam competitively. Before John was killed, Alberta and Zack talked to a reporter about his show-business ambition after winning a modeling contest.

"I wanted to explore different avenues of opportunities that could possibly lead to a career later in his life," Alberta was quoted as saying. "My goal for him is to have a good life. I want him to be a gentleman."

A royal birth

In the book, Gilbride quotes John calling Zack's 1996 birth "the happiest day of my life." In the hospital, Alberta made an odd statement: "I have some Indian blood . . . that's probably why he looks so white."

John's family learned Zack was conceived, contrary to MOVE's antitechnology belief, via in-vitro fertilization and an egg from a white donor. Alberta, Gilbride writes, wanted Zack "to look a certain way, talk a certain way." From day one, she "mapped out the child's future."

The baby, Gilbride notes, was treated "like royalty."

Peace, then dissent

John and Alberta entertained his parents at dinners of leg of lamb and filet mignon at MOVE's Kingsessing headquarters. But in 1997, Alberta fled to Paris with Zack, citing threats from people who'd had a falling-out with MOVE. She stayed six months. John, who flew free thanks to his job at US Airways, visited 17 times.

"Looking back, it was probably Alberta's foremost mistake," Gilbride writes. Without MOVE's "constant supervision," John's "critical thinking process resurfaced."

John and Alberta bought the Cherry Hill home in 1998, a step John hoped would distance his family from MOVE. To his dismay, MOVE members descended. In a climactic scene, John returned from work late at night to find a group on his bed watching a movie.

He asked them to leave, but they refused and Alberta did not intervene, so he raised his voice. "John crossed a line," Gilbride recalls. Challenging MOVE and yelling at Alberta was "unthinkable."

The slight led to epic MOVE "meetings" at which John was berated and humiliated. John, Gilbride writes, "became totally convinced that Alberta would never choose him over MOVE."

Reaching out from afar

In a 2009 Philadelphia Daily News interview, Alberta called Zack a "happy" homeschooler active in swimming and fencing. He now goes by a different last name. His role in MOVE, if any, remains unknown.

"He has a life," Alberta told that reporter. "I don't keep him locked up in here."

Gilbride has not seen Zack since 2004, when he was grieving the loss of his wife. At their last visit, he reminded Zack: "You, your father, and I all have the same blood."

They spoke periodically until 2010, Gilbride says, when, suddenly, MOVE "stopped putting him on the phone." He worries about Zack growing up with no knowledge of his extended family.

Gilbride hopes A Father's Sacrifice lands in Zack's hands so the teenager can learn about the man who gave him life and a name before losing a bruising battle to raise him to think independently.

"The more MOVE attacked John," Gilbride concludes, "the more he realized what they would do to Zack if he ever got out of line or wanted to do something different with his life."


Coming Wednesday: Part two

on the unsolved murder of John Gilbride. Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter.

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