The state on Monday denied the University of South Florida's request to exhume the bodies of dead boys from a clandestine, unmarked cemetery at the Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna, where troubled youths for decades were severely beaten and abused by guards.
In a letter to the USF professors leading the project, Secretary of State Ken Detzner wrote that he understood the importance of telling the story of the Dozier School.
But "The Department of State does not have the statutory authority to fulfill your request," he wrote. "The (Bureau of Archeological Research's) existing statutory authority to grant archaeological research permits is restricted to the recovery of objects of historical or archaeological value, not human remains, absent a danger to the grave site that actually threatens the loss or damage of those remains."
Many of the graves on the campus were already lost. Crosses that marked supposed graves were placed incorrectly based on folklore. The USF team, using ground penetrating radar, found suspected grave shafts in the woods north of the cemetery. They identified nearly 50 grave shafts, 19 more than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found during an earlier investigation. They also suspect there's a second cemetery on the campus.
"Enough is enough," said Jerry Cooper of Cape Coral, who took a lie detector test to prove he received more than 100 lashes when he was beaten at the school in the 1960s. "When you've got graves outside of the marked cemetery and you have found more than the FDLE claims that are buried in that graveyard, that's all the more reason to keep going."
The families of dead boys buried at the notorious reform school, which opened in 1900 and closed in 2011, have been fighting to have their loved ones exhumed and moved to family plots. Hundreds of former wards, now old men, have put pressure on the state to let USF unearth the remains of their peers, some of whom died under suspicious circumstances.
"This is an example of yet another attempt to cover up the truth," said Robert Straley of Clearwater, who was abused at the school in the 1960s. "This time I do not believe the people of Florida will stand for it. You cannot find this many bodies and simply walk away."
"They're liars," said Dale Landry, president of the NAACP's Tallahassee branch, of state officials. "Look at the insensitivity."
Landry said he met with Detzner in his office and recalled that the secretary of state was glad that USF wanted to lead the exhumation at Dozier because otherwise the state itself might have to do it.
"Human remains are historic. He's playing a game of double talk," Landry said.
Detzner didn't respond to a request to be interviewed.
"The NAACP is extremely angry," Landry said. "We're talking about a site where there were atrocities done in America, on state property — on both black and white boys."
Erin Kimmerle, the USF anthropology professor who launched the project, said she was considering other options. Kimmerle, the local medical examiner and Attorney General Pam Bondi initially petitioned a judge in Marianna to let them exhume the remains. The judge denied the petition but pointed out other options.
"We are meeting with the USF attorneys (today) to understand what this means, and we are continuing to work with the families to determine the next steps and how to proceed," Kimmerle said. "I'll have more information after our meeting."
"At this point, it's starting to look like a classic runaround," Sen. Bill Nelson said. "This is state-owned land, it's the state's responsibility and the state of Florida needs to do the right thing and not pass the buck."
Bondi's communications director said the attorney general would contact USF to try to determine the next step. Bondi "has been supportive of every effort to bring closure to the families of those who died at the Dozier School for Boys," Jenn Meale said.
At the last meeting of Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on June 25, Detzner was present to testify on an unrelated issue and gave no indication that the USF request was in trouble.
At the meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said: "I've got folks in my old hometown that are really focused on this. I'd love to get an update on where we stand on Dozier and getting these families the answers they deserve."
"You said it," Bondi told Putnam. "This is our Florida history and this is on state-owned land, and we know at some point atrocities occurred, and there are families in this state who need answers."
Straley, who helped start a group called the White House Boys, so named because of the small white building where the abuse occurred, said he's determined to get answers.
"Time is on their side," Straley said. "Sixty White House Boys have died since this started in 2007. This is just an attempt by them to see: Are we going to give up? The answer is, 'Hell no.' I'll never give up."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Alex Leary and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.