Killer familiar with victim's movements

Authorities: Gunman set up ambush of man involved in custody fight with MOVE

Philadelphia Daily News/September 28, 2002
By Nicole Weisensee Egan, Ramona Smith and William Bunch

Whoever murdered John Gilbride knew what he - or she - was doing. The killer knew where he lived.

He or she knew his schedule.

And the gunman knew how to carry out an ambush.

Gilbride, 34, in the midst of a bitter custody dispute over a child he fathered with his ex-wife, MOVE member Alberta Africa, was shot to death in his blue 1985 Ford Crown Victoria LTD around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, authorities said.

The gangland-style execution happened outside his Maple Shade, N.J., apartment building, about 14 hours before Gilbride was scheduled for his first unsupervised weekend visit with his 6-year-old son, John Zachary Gilbride.

"It appears he pulled up, didn't even have the ability to get out of his car and unhook his seat belt, and somebody fired through the closed window," Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said at a news conference yesterday afternoon.

When Maple Shade cops arrived at 12:08 a.m. yesterday, four minutes after a neighbor called complaining that a car had been running outside for about 30 minutes, they found Gilbride dead - shot numerous times in his head and chest.

The driver's window was shattered from the bullets, and the right passenger door had a hole made by one of the exiting slugs. The windshield wipers were slapping. The car was parked in neutral and the radio was blaring, Bernardi said.

Numerous shell casings littered the area around the car, indicating his killer used an automatic weapon, he said.

"We have some leads we're pursuing, but I'm not at liberty to discuss them," he said. "We're going to go where the evidence leads us."

One angle detectives will pursue is the custody dispute between Gilbride and Alberta Africa, he said.

Gilbride's parents, John and Frances Gilbride, called their son a loving father who had spent every penny he had in order to gain custody of his son.

"He was deeply concerned about Zack and did everything he could to protect Zack's interests. We were very proud of him. As you can understand, we have many unanswered questions. For now, we must trust that the police and prosecutors will conduct a thorough investigation and bring whomever is responsible for John's murder to justice," the Gilbrides said in a statement released last night.

Gilbride and Africa were due in court again next Friday. Gilbride was seeking to have a judge force Africa to adhere to the visitation order Philadelphia Family Court Judge Shelley Robins New issued last month.

Alberta Africa had refused, claiming Gilbride had been physically and mentally abusive to his son. New found no evidence of that behavior and granted Gilbride unsupervised visitation with his son every other weekend.

It was supposed to begin Sept. 13, but when he arrived at Africa's Cherry Hill home, accompanied by police, MOVE member Mary Africa told them neither Alberta nor Zackary was there.

In the meantime, MOVE members began boarding up windows of its headquarters at 4504-06 Kingsessing Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia, saying they needed to be ready to defend themselves.

In 1985, a standoff and shootout ended when the city dropped a bomb that started a fire that killed 11 MOVE members, including Alberta Africa's first husband, John, and destroyed 62 homes.

In 1978, a shootout with MOVE members left Police Officer James Ramp dead. Nine MOVE members went to prison.

Gilbride was scheduled for another visit with his son last Friday but went to Las Vegas, Bernardi said, returning earlier this week. So yesterday, at 4 p.m., would have been his first unsupervised weekend visit with his son, according to court papers.

Gilbride and Alberta Africa were married on Feb. 22, 1992, in New York City and divorced in 2000. In the divorce complaint he filed, Gilbride cited Africa's "extreme cruelty" as the reason for the divorce. Gilbride also often clashed with his wife over her beliefs and her affiliation with MOVE, a radical group.

In the complaint, he detailed the MOVE organization's interference into his marriage, including several "interventions" they staged at their Cherry Hill home when they were unhappy with his actions. One occurred in January 1997 after he and Alberta had an argument.

"I was told that my attitude towards my wife was going to cause a situation that would involve my death," the divorce complaint said.

Last night, Alberta Africa held a brief news conference inside MOVE headquarters and tearfully proclaimed her and MOVE's innocence.

"I might have been adamant about him not taking my son for unsupervised visits, but that doesn't mean I wanted anything bad to happen to him because as long as he was alive, there was hope," she said.

Both she and Pam Africa said they believe the government is behind his murder.

"I've experienced a lot of hurt and pain at the hands of this government and I'm pretty sure they're the ones who did this," Alberta Africa said. "To me, that sounds like Special Forces."

"We have never disliked John Gilbride," Pam Africa said. "We have never hated him. And since when have MOVE members been murderers? Never. It is against our beliefs to go out and attack somebody."

Capt. William Fisher, head of the Philadelphia Police Department's Civil Affairs Division who knows the MOVE members, said he does not believe any of them were responsible for Gilbride's murder.

"I've been wrong before," he said. "But I would just say my investigative instincts would lead me to look at his background before Kingsessing Avenue. This is bizarre, to say the least."

The sprawling 1970s' style Ryan Run West apartment complex, where Gilbride has lived since last October is the kind of place where people often don't know their neighbors - and Gilbride seemed no exception.

"He was a loner," said Gilbride's downstairs neighbor, Helen Emanuel.

Gilbride worked a night shift supervising baggage handlers for US Airways at Philadelphia International Airport, and police said he left work about 10 p.m. the night he was killed. A US Airways spokesman, David Castelveter, said he'd worked for the airline for about a dozen years.

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