MARIANNA — They say Troy Tidwell drew blood. They say he dragged the boys to a tiny building on the campus of the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, made them bite a pillow and hit them so hard with a leather strap that they feel it 50 years later.
They say he enjoyed it.
More than 200 former students of the state-run reform school, now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, accuse Tidwell in a class-action lawsuit of abuse. They tell of picking underwear from their lacerations and being black and blue from their thighs to their backs.
For the first time since the men told their stories publicly in October, Tidwell was made to face the allegations.
He called it "spanking," according to those at his deposition here Thursday. He said it was state-sanctioned discipline, punishment for kids who tried to run away or got caught smoking. He said he hit kids eight to 10 times per infraction with a thick leather strap, but never hard enough to harm them.
He said he never made a boy bleed.
Tidwell was the focus of a St. Petersburg Times report called "For Their Own Good," which documented a history of abuse at the school, now known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Since the article was published last month, dozens more men have told similar stories of being abused by Tidwell and other school employees.
Tidwell, who was hired at Florida School for Boys in 1943 as an instructor and houseparent, is 84. He's in poor health and frail.
He was dapper Thursday. He wore a navy blue suit with a crimson shirt and matching handkerchief. He carried a multicolored cane.
He spoke quietly during most of the deposition. At times he seemed upset, aggressive even.
Bryant Middleton was sitting a few seats from Tidwell during the four hours of testimony. Middleton, sent to the school in 1959 for incorrigibility, said Tidwell wouldn't look him in the eye.
"He inflicted so much harm on me that it totally changed my life," Middleton, 64, said after the deposition. "I was brutally hurt, physically and emotionally. For him to say he never hurt anybody, well, he hurt me."
Tom Masterson, an attorney representing the men, said he wasn't surprised that Tidwell denied abusing children. He tried presenting historic testimony from a former psychologist at the school who told a U.S. Senate panel that the beatings with the leather strap constitute "brutality."
But Tidwell said all discipline was state-approved protocol. They called it Final Disciplinary Action.
"The ultimate issue is: How do you define abuse?" said Masterson. "He denied that he harmed anybody, but when you have 200 people telling the same story …"
Masterson said he will question Tidwell again in coming weeks.
The deposition came a week after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement closed its investigation into a small cemetery on the reform school campus. Investigators found no evidence that the 29 boys buried there died at the hands of school staff. They did not exhume any remains or use ground-penetrating radar to determine how many bodies are in the ground, and they relied heavily on staff-generated reports to account for the deaths.
The FDLE is still investigating allegations of abuse at the school.
Tidwell's attorney, Matthew Fuqua, refused to answer questions.
"He did good," was all he said.
Thursday afternoon, deposition over, Tidwell stepped out of his lawyer's office into the light. Photographers snapped pictures as he carefully walked to a waiting car, his eyes down, a police officer keeping watch nearby.
He said nothing.