George Owen Smith was afraid of the dark, so he'd whistle Gene Autry songs, like country music could keep the evil away. Every night for 40 years after he died, his mother, Frances, would sit on the stoop of her home in Auburndale, listening for her boy to come whistling through the woods.
He was just 14 when he was sent to what was then the Florida Industrial School for Boys in Marianna, in late 1940, and he was there only a few months when his mother got word of his mysterious death. His body had been found under a house in Marianna, officials told her, and was so badly decomposed that they could identify him only by laundry marks on his clothes, dental records and the color of his scattered tufts of hair.
He was buried before his parents could travel the 350 miles to the school. All they saw when they arrived on campus was a fresh mound of red dirt. George Owen Smith's mother suffered a mental breakdown and never fully believed he was dead.
Now, 74 years after he died in state custody, the remains of George Owen Smith have been found.
Archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of South Florida who have been probing at the shuttered Panhandle reform school since 2011 announced Thursday that Smith was the first boy to be identified among 55 sets of human remains unearthed from an unmarked cemetery on school property.
His remains, the first to be exhumed last August, were found in a shallow grave well north of the known cemetery, which was marked by just 31 pipe crosses planted in crooked rows. Scientists at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth matched Smith's DNA to a sample given by his sister, Ovell Krell.
"I'm sure we'll never know exactly how he died, but at least we have him now," Krell said Thursday. "This is closure and the release of a lot of heartache."
Krell was 12 when her brother died, but her memory is sharp.
She remembers that he was a musical boy with wanderlust. He made his first guitar out of a cigar box, sang to the South Florida Ramblers, and he'd often split town on foot to visit his grandpa, a fisherman on Gasparilla Island. Then, in 1940, he left and never came back.
Krell remembers hearing that he was headed to Nashville, to stab at a music career, but he wound up in jail in Tavares on an auto theft charge, even if he didn't know how to drive.
The sheriff sent him to the state's only reform school, later called the Dozier School for Boys.
Owen sent a letter home, telling his folks he was fine. Then weeks went by with no word.
The next they heard he was in Bartow, not far from Auburndale, caught running from reform school. He'd almost made it home.
Then came the letter from Marianna. "I got what was coming to me," the boy wrote.
But then the letters stopped.
Frances Smith wrote to the school's superintendent, Millard Davidson, in December 1940, asking about her son. Davidson wrote back saying no one knew where Owen was.
"So far we have been unable to get any information concerning his whereabouts,'' said his letter, which Krell has kept, dated Jan. 1, 1941.
His mother wrote back, telling the superintendent she would be at the school in two days to search for her son.
A neighbor drove the Smith family to Marianna. No one at the police station would talk to Smith's father, George, Krell recalls. Instead, they directed the family to the reform school on the outskirts of town. The school's superintendent told the family that Owen had escaped two months before, and his remains were found under a house in Marianna. He led the family through the woods to a clearing, to a patch of fresh-turned earth.
Local newspaper accounts say a coroner's jury inspected the body and could not determine what killed the boy.
It all sounded like lies to Owen's sister. Owen disappears, then just before the family arrives to help look, he's found under a house and buried before his family can see the body?
Krell remembers something else. The family met with an inmate while the superintendent sat in. The boy said he and Owen had escaped together and were headed toward town when they saw headlights. The last time the boy saw Owen, Krell says now, Owen was running across an open field and men were shooting at him.
Owen's mother took to her day bed until her own death in the 1980s, leaving the cooking and cleaning to her husband and children. Krell, a former police officer, swore to her mother that she would someday find her brother.
"I've waited 73 and a half years for this," she said. "I'm just so thankful today. I'm just beginning to believe it. I wake up at night and think I dreamed it, but it's true."
Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist and associate professor at USF who has been criticized by some Jackson County residents who opposed the exhumations, said this is what the project is about.
"We may not know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was," she said. "We do know that he now will be buried under his own name, beside family members who longed for answers."
Kimmerle said it appeared Smith was buried quickly. He wasn't issued a death certificate. He was buried unclothed, wrapped in a shroud. His grave was only 2 feet deep, and his skeletal remains showed he was lying on his side, with one arm over his head. Other skeletons were found supine, with their arms crossed or at their sides.
USF's project started in response to a group of old men who came forward in 2008, claiming they were raped and beaten bloody at the reform school in the 1950s and '60s, in a dank cinder block building they called the White House. As word spread, more than 500 former wards came forward with similar stories.
The men were the subject of a Tampa Bay Times series called "For Their Own Good," which posed questions about missing boys. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into deaths at the school, at one time the largest in the country, but Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators, relying primarily on records kept by school staff, said 31 boys were buried on campus. USF unearthed 55 bodies, and continues to search for other burial sites on the 1,400-acre campus.
The Florida Cabinet and Department of Environmental Protection this week granted researchers permission to work on the campus for one more year.
"These families deserve to have closure," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "The Florida Cabinet will fight to be sure that all these deaths are investigated."
USF has collected nine viable DNA samples from surviving family members of boys known to have died while in state custody. They and detectives at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office are searching for more family members to help identify the rest of the remains.
Krell has plans to rebury her brother at the family's plot in Auburndale, beside his mother and daddy.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.