MARIANNA — Mike McCarthy walked into a small white building on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for the first time in 40 years Tuesday, and the memories of horrific beatings came flooding back.
"There was blood splattered all over the walls," he said, standing in a dark room barely big enough to fit the bed he and other children lay in while they were beaten so badly he said some had to have underwear surgically removed. After a moment, he muttered, "God, I've got to get out of here."
McCarthy, now 65 and living in Costa Rica, and four other men who spent time in the 1950s and 1960s at what was then called the Florida State Reform School returned to hear the state Department of Juvenile Justice acknowledge the abuse that took place at the sprawling North Florida facility.
On a beautiful fall day, with birds swooping and singing in the pine trees behind them, each of the five men, who call themselves "the White House Boys," recalled brutal beatings, punishment for offenses as slight as singing, or talking to a black inmate. Boys would be hit dozens of times — sometimes more than 100 — with a wide, 3-foot-long leather strap that had sheet metal stuffed in the middle.
Roger Kiser was sent to the facility after running away from a Jacksonville orphanage.
But after his first trip to the White House, he knew he would have been better off at the orphanage.
"When I walked out of this building … when I looked in the mirror, I couldn't tell who I was, I was so bloodied," said Kiser, 62, who now lives in Brunswick, Ga.
For years later, he worked menial jobs because he said he lost his self-respect.
All this, and he had never committed a crime.
"Nobody treated me with respect; I was nothing more than a dog," he said. "I certainly hope things have changed. I pray to God."
In a building just across from the White House was a place the boys referred to as the rape room. Robert Straley, 62, of Clearwater, was 13 and about 105 pounds when he was sent there. He remembered being waked one night and accused of smoking, and told that if he denied it, he would be punished.
"I was on the entertainment list for the night. That's what it was," Straley said.
He remembers a man with an iron grip grabbing his arm.
"They were monsters. Oh, my God, the things they did," Straley said.
"When these men had me down, you weren't going to turn into Bruce Lee, you only had one option, and that was you could scream all you wanted."
Dick Colon remembers trying not to scream. He was told by guards that if he made a peep, the beating would last longer. Guards would force him to lie on a bed.
"The pillow he asked you to bury your face in was all blood and snot and guts," Colon said.
He described the pain as feeling like someone pouring a pot of boiling water on his naked body. The pain got worse with each hit.
"You screamed in your mind and your heart, and in every ounce of your body you screamed, but you didn't peep. The man told you, 'Don't peep! I'll start at one and I'll go all over again,'" said Colon, 66, who now lives in Baltimore.
He remembers standing up after one of the beatings and coming nose-to-nose with a guard who had a smile on his face.
"I thought to myself, 'God almighty, if I could right now, I would reach into your chest cavity and I would pull out your heart and I would bite it while you looked at me,' " Colon said. "He looked at me with a face of satisfaction and contentment over the whipping that he gave me."
After the men spoke, former state Rep. Gus Barreiro, now the Juvenile Justice Department's chief of state residential programs, unveiled a plaque outside the White House as an acknowledgment of the torture.
The detention center is still open, but the White House building has been locked up since 1967.
The group planted a tree outside the building. Later, they drove to a nearby cemetery where 31 unmarked iron crosses mark the graves of unknown dead — bodies the White House Boys believe are children beaten to death at the reform school.
"That's a sorry something for a head marker," said Bill Haynes, 65, who was an inmate at the school in the late 1950s and now works in the Alabama Corrections Department. "This may not be the only place they ever buried them."
Straley said as far as he knows, no one was ever prosecuted for the beatings or rapes. The men, who seek out other victims and have researched the facility, say it's not clear why the abuse finally stopped. Perhaps the victims' complaints were finally heard.
At the end of the day, Straley said it was hard to find a sense of closure because the things that he suffered had filled him with rage.
"It might lessen some of it, I don't know," Straley said softly.
"Maybe it did change my mind a little bit seeing what the place looks like today and knowing they aren't just beating the hell out of these kids."