Florida juvenile justice: The dead at Dozier

MARIANNA — Boys are buried on the little hilltop. That much is certain.

Thirty-one metal crosses stand in a clearing in the woods near the campus of the 109-year-old Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, and they're said to mark the final resting place of troubled kids who came here to be reformed.

But no one really knows how many graves are here, or where they are, or who is in them, or how they died.

Dozier has such a long and ugly history of violence and secrets that the governor last year ordered an investigation into the graveyard, to identify the dead and determine whether any crimes were committed. The state can now match names to the 31 crosses on the hill.

But those bodies may not be the only ones buried at Dozier. The St. Petersburg Times has interviewed three former inmates who say they unearthed bones in other parts of the campus. Another man who was in search of his uncle's grave in the early 1990s says a staffer at the school showed him two separate burial grounds.

And according to the school's records, at least 50 more boys who died here remain unaccounted for.

About a year ago, former wards of the school who had found each other online started telling stories of awful beatings, of missing boys. The men, who call themselves the White House Boys, filed suit against the state and held a news conference. Reporters rediscovered Marianna and its tiny graveyard.

In December 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the investigation. In May, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced it had found records that showed 29 boys and two men had been buried on the campus since the school opened in 1900.

"There is no evidence to suggest that the School or its staff made any attempts to conceal and/or contributed to the deaths of these individuals," the report said.

Thirty-one crosses. Thirty-one names. Case closed.

• • •

Thomas Varnadoe was 13 when he was sent to the school, then called the Florida School for Boys. He never came home. The mystery surrounding his death and burial has disturbed his family for 75 years.

Thomas was sent to Marianna in 1934 with his brother, Hubert. Hubert's son Glen has heard that the Brooksville boys were convicted of malicious trespassing. He knew his father was released in 1935, and that until the day he died he was deathly afraid of authority. He took literally the Do Not Remove tag on mattresses.

Glen, the CEO of a chemical company in Mulberry, often wondered about his father's experience, the impact it had on his life, and about what happened to his uncle. Why wasn't Thomas Varnadoe buried in the family plot in Hernando County?

In the early 1990s, Glen paid a visit to the school looking for answers.

He drove onto the campus and explained who he was and what he wanted. After some haggling, a staffer opened a big bound ledger. He ran down the pages of boy after boy until he finally found his father's name, and a notation that he was received on Sept. 22, 1934, and paroled July 29, 1935.

He copied the entries on a sheet of paper.

Beside his uncle's name was this: Deceased after an illness of pneumonia. 10/26/34.

Thomas Varnadoe was dead a month after he was admitted? Glen didn't believe that a sturdy 13-year-old got sick and died so quickly.

Glen asked to see his uncle's grave. A man — Glen can't remember his name or what position he held — drove him across the highway, down a dirt road, to the hilltop cemetery.

There's been a lot of kids buried up here, he remembers the man saying. The man seemed embarrassed about the poor condition of the cemetery.

They looked around for a minute, then climbed back into the pickup, drove a short distance, and stopped at another clearing.

We believe there's six or seven other graves over here, Glen remembers him saying.

• • •

In its investigation, the FDLE relied heavily on the school's own records, many of which are faded, damaged or incomplete. Investigators looked through deteriorating ledgers, student record books, old issues of the school paper, the Yellow Jacket. Some documents had been stored in buildings so dilapidated that the records were lost to the elements.

They checked the state archives and aerial photographs and ordered death certificates from the Florida Department of Health.

Last December, they visited the cemetery. They took measurements and counted the crosses and combed the nearby woods for disturbed ground or boy-sized indentations.

They tried to put together a history of the cemetery. The FDLE interviewed Lennox Williams, the superintendent at the school from 1966 to the mid-'80s, who still lives in Marianna. Williams said he had found the cemetery overgrown in the early '60s, and he felt like the dead deserved better. So he ordered a Boy Scout troop to clean up and erect 31 concrete markers. He said the number of crosses was based on word of mouth and visible indentations in the ground.

Years later, another superintendent, Danny Pate, had new crosses made. Pate still lives in Marianna. He says he went to the cemetery one day around 1996 to have a look around and the place was a mess. Trees had fallen on some of the cement crosses. He ordered new metal crosses. The staff didn't know where the crosses should go, so they guessed, driving them into the ground in four crooked rows.

The FDLE did not use ground-penetrating radar to see where remains were buried, believing it would not be useful because the ground and the bodies were likely too damaged.

"There were too many variables," said Mark Perez, FDLE's chief of executive investigations.

The FDLE used school records to try to create a roster of the dead.

The school's Biennial Report for 1911 and 1912 lists one death, the first on record, but no name, and no burial information.

Two guards and eight boys died in a dormitory fire in 1914. A telegram to a dead boy's mother said: "Bodies charred beyond recognition. Will be buried here. Greatest sympathy to family."

Three more boys, all black, died in 1915, but there was no cause of death or location of burial.

Three more black boys died in 1916. No information besides names and "deceased."

Nine more died in 1918, five white and four black, but no other information was given.

And on it went, until the last recorded death, a drowning in the Chipola River in 1973.

In the end, the FDLE determined that 81 people died there, but the official records placed just 31 in the cemetery on the hill.

Where are the other 50? The FDLE tried to track them to hometown cemeteries across Florida, but could not.

• • •

Charles Jones got a letter from the Times at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, where he's serving time for stealing a car and running from police. He says he has tried for 20 years to put the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys out of his mind, but the letter brought back painful memories.

One day in 1988, when he was about 16, he was on a work crew clearing land north of the campus. It was hot and nasty work. Then suddenly it stopped. One of the boys had unearthed what looked like human bones. The others gathered around, Jones remembered. The guard noticed and walked over.

What are you boys doing?

When he got close enough to see what they were staring at, he ordered them back into the van.

Jones and the others did as they were told.

And Jones remembers the guard on the way back to campus saying this: Y'all didn't see anything.

"I know what I saw," Jones said, 21 years later. "I can't forget it."

Asked if there's anybody who can verify his account, Jones doesn't hesitate.

"Jared Hunt," he said. "He was there. He'll remember."

The Times wrote Hunt, also serving time at Union Correctional Institution. He got caught fleeing a law enforcement officer at high speeds and driving with a canceled or suspended license.

"We were in ISP work crew," Hunt wrote back. "We discovered what appeared to be human bones in the woods."

• • •

In 1963, Horace Bouler escaped from the school, he said, but he didn't leave the campus.

The kid who grew up in the swamps in Winter Garden hid out in the woods on the school's 1,400 acres for weeks. A friendly cook on the black side of campus left food out for him once in a while.

One afternoon, he said, he stumbled onto a large graveyard on the property. The graves were unmarked, but there were smallish square indentations in rows. Curious, he dug into the ground with a stick. He found a collar bone, he said, then a skull.

"You go past the cemetery and there's a wooded lot and that's where they buried all the boys," said Bouler, 62 now and living in Oklahoma. "You go straight north like you're going to Alabama, about 500 yards, and you'll find some graves that are unmarked."

• • •

Seventy five years have passed since the sheriff took Richard Varnadoe's brothers away.

He's 80 now, retired. He lives in Salt Springs, 25 miles outside Ocala.

The sheriff accused his brothers of stealing a typewriter from a woman down the street and nobody listened as his parents swore their sons' innocence. It wasn't long before the judge shipped the two boys to Marianna.

A letter came a month later, Richard remembers. Thomas, 13, was dead. "Everybody was devastated," he said. "It changed everybody. It has always been a cloud over our heads.''

His older brother Hubert came home from Marianna subdued and scared, almost to the point of being cowardly, he said.

Stranger still, he wouldn't talk about what had happened to Thomas. "I tried and tried and tried to get him to say something about it," Richard Varnadoe said. "He lived to be 72 and he never said anything about it. He was obviously afraid.''

Did Thomas Varnadoe die from pneumonia? Or something else?

What about the others, the ones whose cause of death was cancer or heart attack? The boy who died during a tonsillectomy? What about Billey Jackson, whose official cause of death was Pyelonephritis, a kidney infection? Woodrow Williams, 67, of Lakeland, remembers attending Jackson's funeral at the school. He said the boys all knew he had been hit in the stomach during a beating.

What about George Owen Smith, whom the Times wrote about in May? His remains were found under a house in Marianna in 1941, his cause of death could not be determined, and his sister remembers a boy telling her family that the last time he saw George he was running across a field and a man was firing a rifle at him.

What about the stories from the former wards? Troy Warren claimed guards made him and another boy dig child-sized holes. Dick Colon claimed he had seen a boy in a tumble dryer. Jerry Cooper said he knew for a fact that a boy with a heart condition dropped dead during an intense workout in the gymnasium. The staff wouldn't let him take a break.

Many of them were orphans or runaways, like Alvin Curtis Laster. He's a minister and motivational speaker in Connecticut now, but in 1966 he had no family, no guardians.

"If that kind of a kid were to be never heard from again," he said, "nobody would be there to question it."

For him and the other White House Boys, the investigation won't be over until all the bodies are accounted for. As boys they were told not to question authority. Now they won't stop.

But is any of that true? And how do you verify stories a half-century old?

• • •

Now the FDLE says its investigation into the cemetery is not over, and it will check out any new leads.

"We didn't say it was absolutely closed," said Perez, of the FDLE. "This case is a 50- or 60-year-old case. We can't expect it to be closed in a few months."

For 60 years, the school had a black campus and a white campus. In the first half of the last century, it was uncommon for blacks and whites to be buried together. But FDLE found no records to suggest there was more than one cemetery.

"We're basing our findings on records, family members, former students themselves," Perez said. "Without the evidence to support it, we just don't know."

Without a way to see underground, without proper headstones or a reliable body count, there is only speculation. Perez said the FDLE published the names of the other 50 boys in hopes of generating clues about their whereabouts.

Maybe a relative would remember something. Maybe a nephew or a niece or brother would step forward with a shred of evidence.

Richard Varnadoe had only this to offer.

"I would just like to have some closure," he said, "and I'd like if someone could find his remains and dig him up and get him down here where we could give him a proper funeral and bury him close to family.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

On the Web

To see aerial photographs of the area around the cemetery over the years, and for earlier coverage, go to magazine.tampabay.com.

Florida juvenile justice: The dead at Dozier 12/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 29, 2009 9:44pm]

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