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Ground Truth: In Dozier's neglected cemetery, a search for lost boys and the reasons why they died

MARIANNA — The darkness started to fall on the pines and the kudzu-covered fields and on the little cemetery when a thundercloud erupted in the distance, and everybody down in the graves stopped digging and looked up at the sky. "Was that thunder?" one of them asked. The last thing they needed was more rain, because more rain meant more mud and more mud would make it much more difficult to get the bones out of the ground intact and in time for the evening news.

The CNN reporter was pacing in front of the satellite truck, talking into his cell phone and stressing out the public relations people from the University of South Florida. This was the biggest story USF had ever handled. They'd fielded calls from the press about bedbugs in dorms and misbehaving football players and USF's work on the oil spill in the Gulf. But this? Hundreds of reporters and producers had called. The story involved a cemetery at a brutal reformatory known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and mysterious deaths. The excavation of a graveyard. The bones of boys coming out of the earth.

The woman who made all this happen worked methodically below ground, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, red dirt stuck to her elbows and blue jeans. Dr. Erin Kimmerle had done this before, digging up bodies to determine age and race and identity and cause of death. To right wrongs. To return boys to families. But most of her work was in other countries, places like Kosovo and Croatia and Peru. This was her back yard. Florida, the land of sun and surf, south of the South. Marianna, an hour west of the governor's house, the City of Southern Charm.

This had started two years before as a project to map an old cemetery with ground penetrating radar. But she had found more graves than state investigators insisted were there, and the families of the dead boys wanted them back. That had emboldened her to open up the ground for answers.

The pressure on Kimmerle, 40, was intense. The associate professor of forensic anthropology was scorned by some academics, watched by Panhandle lawmakers. County officials complained about the bad publicity. The local newspaper publisher called her work "this greed motivated waste of money." Some locals even wanted her arrested.

In town, she noticed the sideways glances. Her colleague swore somebody was following her. They didn't know whom they could trust.

Kimmerle knew the risks. What if she didn't find anything? What if it was a waste of money?

They started with shovels, then trowels. The first hole they'd dug was empty, nothing but Jackson County clay. But, now, on the third day of digging, a graduate student got Kimmerle's attention. Her eyes were wide.

"Want to come take a look?"

Kimmerle descended into the open grave.

The months to come would bring protests and press conferences, more threats and a massive search for a second cemetery. Kimmerle would come close to breaking. She'd find more bodies than anybody expected. She'd find an empty casket. She'd find a hundred more questions.

Now, though, in early September 2013, at the bottom of the grave, she brushed away the earth.

There in the dirt was a perfect set of baby teeth.

• • •

The main hallway of a building at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys known as The White House. Many men who were kept at the school as children have said that they were horribly beaten in this building.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

THE WHITE HOUSE: The main hallway of a building at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys known as "The White House." Many men who were kept at the school as children have said that they were horribly beaten in this building.

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Five years before, five old men stood in front of an ugly cinder block building they called the White House, about a mile from the cemetery. It was Oct. 21, 2008, a beautiful Tuesday.

They'd been prisoners at Florida's oldest reform school and they'd found each other online and formed a support group to help each other figure out why they were still having nightmares. They felt like it all started here when they were boys in the 1950s and '60s, when they were yanked out of bed and beaten bloody with a leather strap or sodomized by guards, face down on a dirty cot. They talked about picking underwear out of the cuts on their backsides. They wanted an apology they never got. The state decided to let them hold a ceremony, to plant a tree, to seal the White House.

"May this building stand as a reminder of the need to remain vigilant in protecting our children," the plaque said. A few reporters were there with some state bureaucrats.

The men told the stories they had swallowed for most of their lives.

"There was blood splattered all over the walls," said Michael O'McCarthy, 65.

"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 Roger Kiser, 62.

"They were monsters," said Robert Straley, 62. "Oh, my God, the things they did."

As birds sang in the pines, they talked about the years of misery since, the broken relationships and hot tears.

They led the TV cameras across Highway 276, to a cemetery called Boot Hill, dotted with 31 pipe crosses planted in crooked rows. They'd known about Boot Hill, and they'd always wondered who was buried there. One of the men kneeled to pray.

The story ran in newspapers across the country.

I read it like everybody else, in a short Associated Press account on page 9B of the Tampa Bay Times. Two giant questions nagged at me: Was it true? And if so, how on earth was this allowed to happen?

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

A conversation about The Lost Bones: Finding the bodies

Erin Kimmerle, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida talks to Times reporter Ben Montgomery about The Lost Bones.

I called one of the men, Clearwater resident Robert Straley, and asked him to share my number with anybody else who was hurt like him, who might've seen the news and looked him up. Within a few days, I couldn't keep up with the calls. Men walked into the newspaper office in St. Petersburg, saying they'd been beaten at Marianna, asking to speak to a reporter.

We drove all over Florida, all over the South, interviewing them. Their memories would prompt a state investigation and a big series in the Tampa Bay Times that would chronicle decades of torture and abuse at the hands of state employees, and would lead to the closure of the school after 111 years.

But they remembered more than the beatings. They remembered deaths, disappearances. Johnny Gaddy swore he saw a human hand in the pig slop. Buddy Somnitz witnessed a guard swing a rifle and rip a boy's face off, chin to eyebrows. Johnny Walthour told me he buried his friend Billey Jackson, 13, who took a beating in the White House and was dead just a few weeks later. Official cause: "Pyelonephritis," a urinary tract infection, but Walthour, who saw his buddy's distended belly after the beating, never believed it.

"Justice cries out for a conclusion," said Gov. Charlie Crist that December 2008.

The governor ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. Find out who was buried on school grounds, he demanded, and find out if any of them were murdered. Several guards were still alive, including Troy Tidwell, whom the former prisoners called the "One-Armed Man."

The investigation didn't take long. By May 2009, the FDLE had wrapped up its case. Investigators stood behind a podium in Tallahassee and said they'd found no evidence that guards killed anyone. They found records of 29 dead boys and two adults buried at the school. Ten of them burned to death in 1914, locked inside a dormitory. A number died from influenza and pneumonia. One boy died, according to school records, during a tonsillectomy. Another, a 12-year-old, was murdered by his peers inside a 7-by-10-foot "sweat box" they'd been locked in for days.

Nonetheless: "There is no evidence to suggest that the school or the staff caused or contributed to any of these deaths," said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

They found that the cemetery held 31 graves. That matched exactly the number of pipe crosses at Boot Hill, which were planted in the 1990s based on folklore. But that number — 31 — was based on the school's own records, records kept by men accused of torturing boys.

Those same papers showed that another 50 children died in custody. We asked where the other 50 boys were buried. The FDLE said they had no idea.

• • •

Source: USF, Times research

In 2009, my colleague, Waveney Ann Moore, and I wrote articles critical of the state's investigation. We'd interviewed former wards who remembered finding human bones on the prison grounds. Others told us they'd seen a second cemetery. We'd also tracked down two siblings of boys who died in custody under mysterious circumstances.

Our story didn't light any fires. The state had dropped it.

A year passed with no news. Then Jon Jefferson called.

This was early 2011, and Jefferson wanted to give me a crime novel he'd written called The Boneyard that he based on our Dozier stories. The book's main characters were forensic detectives called to excavate a graveyard at the North Florida Boy's Reformatory in fictional McNary, Fla. There was even a vicious one-armed guard.

Over coffee a few days later, Jefferson told me that his writing partner was Bill Bass, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist who founded the nation's first human-decomposition research facility at the University of Tennessee. They called it The Body Farm. One of the program's sharpest former students was now an associate professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Erin Kimmerle knew her stuff, Jefferson said, and she might be interested in the graveyard at Dozier. Who knows?

I met her in the cafeteria at USF in February 2011. I got the immediate impression she wouldn't be interested. Her fingernails were too clean. She struck me as a polite Midwesterner, almost shy, with a sort of high-pitched, halting voice that I read as insecurity. She seemed like she didn't want to interrupt or say the wrong thing. She was a suburban mother of two and naturally pretty, like she could model carry-on bags in SkyMall magazine.

I'd brought along the Times' stories, the ones about Boot Hill and the lingering questions. We had written about Richard Varnadoe, 80, of Salt Spring, who missed his brother. He remembered the sheriff arresting Thomas in 1934, and shipping him away to Marianna. He always wondered what happened, and doubted the official story, that the boy had died of pneumonia a month after arriving. Worse than that, his parents had no way to mourn, no obituary to write or grave to visit.

"I would just like to have some closure," he told the Times in 2009, "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."

We had talked to Ovell Krell, who was still broken 70 years after her brother died at the reformatory. The Lakeland resident was one of the first female police officers in Florida, served two decades, and this was the one case she couldn't solve.

Her brother, George Owen Smith, died in state custody in 1941. He'd been sent to Marianna for stealing a car. Krell's parents never believed the school's version of the boy's death, that the 13-year-old ran away from campus, crawled under a house in Marianna and died. They borrowed a car and made the long drive from Auburndale to get his body, but he was already in the ground.

Krell was just 12 then, but it sounded like lies. She remembered a boy telling her that the last time he saw George he was running across a field and a man was shooting at him.

Ovell Krell

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

"I don't believe he'd lay down under that house and die. I just don't believe that. I felt like he had been buried before."

Ovell Krell, whose brother, George Owen Smith, died at Dozier in 1941. When the family went to get his body, it had already been buried.

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We tracked down a man named James Young who remembered George. Young, also there in 1941, recalled that George got a beating from guards and swore it'd never happen again. "Ain't one of you gonna lay another hand on me," he recalled George saying. "I'm never going back to that White House." The next the boys heard, George was dead.

"Then it was hushed," he said. "We didn't say anything about it."

I gave Kimmerle the stories. Then I waited.

I didn't know it then, but she was kind of perfect.

Her interest in anthropology started in fifth grade when her mom, who raised her with the help of Lutheran grandparents, gave her a book about people in the Caucasus Mountains who lived to 110, 120 years old. The nerdy girl in Cold Spring, Minn., loved it. Then, her junior year, a debate teacher gave her a copy of Dick Gregory's book, Nigger: An Autobiography, an eye-opening view of racist America.

In college she joined a group that opposed anti-abortion laws and advocated for women's reproductive rights. And after undergrad at Hamline University in St. Paul, she followed her future husband to Washington, D.C., and got a job at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, in the repatriation office. She went to work identifying the remains of American Indians — the museum had 14,000 of them — so tribes could claim them, and rebury them with dignity. It was satisfying work.

She'd been bored in school by hands-off cultural anthropology. She wanted to do something good instead of just watching things happen. Inspired by Clyde Snow, a legend in forensics circles who investigated mass graves and human-rights violations across the globe, she built a heck of a resume.

She was chief anthropologist in 2001 for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where she inspected remains from mass graves, looking for trial-quality evidence of war crimes. She worked with a Peruvian team in 2008 near Putis, Peru, where men, women and children were massacred by the military in the 1980s. That's where forensic anthropologists laid out the clothes they'd found on skeletons and asked mothers and grandmothers to parade past and identify the dead by their last outfits.

That's why she got interested in Dozier: the grandmothers. After we met, Kimmerle talked to Ovell Krell, who reminded her of the mourning grandmas she met overseas.

That's what it took. She was in.

The first thing she had to do was figure out how many boys were buried at Dozier, whether FDLE had been right.

She was teaching and helping police solve cold cases and trying to finish a study about how killers dump bodies, but she thought she could do the Dozier work on the side, low-budget. She thought it would take a year, maybe, and cost a few thousand dollars for a couple of trips to Marianna, 300 miles away. She convinced a colleague with a ground penetrating radar to help. She talked others into helping, too, archaeologists, biologists, cops and cultural anthropologists. They'd preserve records, find the graves, protect the cemetery and open it to families.

The state didn't have a problem so long as they didn't dig.

• • •

 Florida Public Archaeology Network Regional Director Richard Estabrook (left) and University of South Florida Asst. Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle (right) use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to survey a cemetery at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna on May 16, 2012.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

GRAVE MARKERS?: Florida Public Archaeology Network Regional Director Richard Estabrook (left) and University of South Florida Asst. Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle (right) use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to survey a cemetery at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna on May 16, 2012.

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May 15, 2012. A Tuesday.

Kimmerle walked slowly behind a man pushing a machine that looked like a jogging stroller back and forth in rows across the green grass of the cemetery at the Dozier School for Boys.

The ground penetrating radar recorded hundreds of subsurface images every inch and the man, an archaeologist named Richard Estabrook, watched the monitor, noting places where the radar picked up changes in the density of the dirt.

"We've got an anomaly right here," he said, pointing with his toe.

"Nice," Kimmerle said.

She planted little orange flags in spots where the machine saw that the ground had been disturbed. Soon, the markers covered the field.

In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had looked around the woods and combed through the records. They didn't use ground penetrating radar, though, due to its "inherent limitations" and "limited investigative application." But Estabrook's machine, nicknamed Matilda, was picking up all sorts of hits. And when he sat at a card table nearby and scanned the data on his laptop, it showed that the 31 crosses didn't even mark actual graves.

"The cemetery isn't really contained here," he said. "It's more over in that area." He pointed to the north. Inmates from the nearby county jail helped them clear trees and underbrush, opening a clearing around an old oak 20 yards north of the pipe crosses.

"I think I want a trench," Kimmerle said. Called "ground truthing," digging a shallow trench was standard archaeological procedure, a way to peek into the earth without disturbing any remains.

Graduate students grabbed pickaxes and shovels and went to work under the hot sun, digging a trench five and a half yards long and a half yard wide. A foot and a half down, they used hand trowels to scrape smooth the sides and floor of the narrow pit.

"There's one there," Kimmerle said. "That's a shaft."

She pointed to a wide dark spot on one of the walls, a section of mottled brown topsoil and clay that was distinct from the solid orange clay of undisturbed ground. Someone, at some point, had dug a hole here. And they were well outside the marked graveyard.

• • •

View showing construction of the foundation for the Dozier School for Boys' negro dining hall.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

THE BEGINNING: View showing construction of the foundation for the Dozier School for Boys' negro dining hall.

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The reform school in Marianna was born of a sin Floridians could not ignore.

In 1887, a 16-year-old boy sentenced to a convict labor camp died from a beating. "Death by Torture," read his autopsy. His killing was the product of a flawed Florida justice system under Jim Crow that leased convicts to business owners who worked them, beat them and even killed them, which was legal if they tried to escape. The outrage over this one spun into reform.

Florida needed a place for juvenile convicts. Up stepped the grandson of former Florida Gov. John Milton, the staunch Confederate and slave owner. W.H. Milton, who would later serve as superintendent and on the governing board of the school, offered the state more land and money than anyone else.

Opened on Jan. 1, 1900, the reformatory on 1,200 acres just south of Marianna was meant to be a school, not a prison, and wards were students, not inmates. But that concept fell apapart in its earliest days. Farming on school property proved profitable. And soon, officials at the predominantly black school, under Milton's leadership, were asking the state for ways to make the children's sentences longer and to stiffen laws so more kids would be sent to Marianna.

"Having so few inmates makes the crop come in slow," one superintendent wrote in 1906.

Milton asked the governor to authorize that "incorrigible children be sent, without conviction, for an indefinite period, leaving the term to be fixed by the management."

The state complied and numbers shot up. So did the problems. In 1903, when the school held boys and girls, investigators found children as young as 6 locked "in irons, just as common criminals." Six years later, in 1909, investigators found no desks in the schoolhouse. The superintendent had been falsifying inventory and keeping kids past the age of 18, presumably for labor. Two years later, in 1911, they found kids crowded, hungry, sick, and another superintendent was beating them with a leather strap.

Three years later, in 1914, some eight boys and two staff members (there are conflicting reports) burned to death locked in a dormitory. A grand jury learned the superintendent was in town on a "pleasure bent" when the fire started. The superintendent lost his job.

The following year, 1915, the Tampa Times published a scathing exposé, quoting former inmates who said that girls and boys were raped by guards; that boys were forced to labor in fields owned by private parties; that incurable and filthy diseases had been contracted by inmates. In 1918, with a population around 220, at least 11 boys died from influenza and another exposé prompted calls for the state to close the school. The Tampa Tribune called it a "holocaust."

"How long will the intelligent and God-fearing people of Florida stand for a thing of this kind?"

Ninety-three more years.

• • •

 Erin Kimmerle stands inside the building where guards whipped children.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

IN THE WHITE HOUSE: Erin Kimmerle stands inside the building where guards whipped children. "They wear out the straps on the boys," a former employee testified in 1958.

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Erin Kimmerle had been scouring records from the state archives and big bound ledgers from Dozier. The state's count of dead boys was off.

In the months she spent researching Boot Hill, Kimmerle had found records showing that between 1911 and 1973 the number of deaths totalled 98. The FDLE had said 81.

She also found that officials never reported some of the deaths to the state, that boys weren't issued death certificates and many had no known cause of death. She learned that seven boys died while trying to escape.

Former wards had told her stories about the "Dog Boys," adult inmates from nearby Apalachee Correctional Institution who helped Dozier guards capture runaways. They called it "boy hunting." She'd heard from men who remembered being caught in the swamps and beaten by the Dog Boys.

The records also showed that 20 boys died within three months of arriving.

One of those was Thomas Varnadoe, dead just a month after he got to Marianna.

• • •

Thomas Varnadoe, Jr. (front) as a toddler in late 1925. His brother, Richard Varnadoe (standing behind Thomas) was also sent to Dozier. He came home after nine months.

Varnadoe family

THE VARNADOE FAMILY: Thomas Varnadoe, Jr. (front) as a toddler in late 1925. His brother, Hubert Varnadoe (standing behind Thomas) was also sent to Dozier. He came home after nine months.

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Thomas and his brother Hubert had been ripped from their Brooksville home by the sheriff on charges of malicious trespassing, something about stealing a typewriter. Hubert came home alone in 1935, and he would never talk about what happened to Thomas.

Hubert's son, Glen, always wondered why his uncle Thomas wasn't buried in the family plot in Hernando County. Glen drove to Marianna once in the early 1990s to try to find Thomas' grave, but the staff couldn't point it out. There were no headstones, no burial maps. One guard found Thomas' name in a big bound ledger.

Deceased after an illness of pneumonia, is all it said. An article in the school newspaper, The Yellow Jacket, said the boy, 13, had been ill for "several years" upon arriving.

The boy's family had always maintained Thomas was a spry, healthy boy when he left home.

When Glen retired as CEO of a chemical company in Mulberry, he threw his energy into finding Thomas. He was angry. He had money. He had connections. He made a promise to his family that he'd see it through.

• • •

 Anthropologists talk near Boot Hill cemetery in May 2012 at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, previously called the Florida Industrial School for Boys.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

GRAVE MARKERS?: Anthropologists talk near Boot Hill cemetery in May 2012 at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, previously called the Florida Industrial School for Boys.

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Amid all the controversy, the state was rushing to sell the shuttered reform school, razor-wire and all, to the highest bidder. The land went up for auction in August 2012. Two hundred and twenty gently rolling acres off Interstate 10. Bidding started at $300,000.

Jackson County and Marianna were hatching economic development plans. Maybe they could lure another distribution center. One man proposed a Christian sports camp. The mayor of Marianna heard that a private developer wanted to build an amusement park.

As they were drawing up plans, Erin Kimmerle broke some news. The ground penetrating radar data was in. The state said Boot Hill held 31 graves. She found 50.

She also found "sufficient evidence" to suggest there was another cemetery on the south side of campus. It was extremely rare for blacks and whites in the Deep South to be buried together before the 1960s, and the ground-penetrating radar showed all the burials in Boot Hill clustered together. So maybe there was another cemetery on the white side.

She'd have to search there to know.

• • •

 A graduate student digs a shallow trench well north of Boot Hill in search of grave shafts in May 2012. The pipe crosses didn't mark actual graves.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

PEEKING UNDERGROUND: A graduate student digs a shallow trench well north of Boot Hill in search of grave shafts in May 2012. The pipe crosses didn't mark actual graves.

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Glen Varnadoe wanted his uncle back. On Oct. 10, 2012, he filed a lawsuit demanding the state turn over the remains of Thomas Varnadoe. A judge had no choice but to stop the sale.

"This case will go away when the state of Florida points us to Thomas Varnadoe's grave, so his remains can be reinterred in Brooksville in the family cemetery plot with his mother," Glen said. "A thirteen-year-old boy deserves to be with this family, especially in death."

He had bought Kimmerle more time.

He had also brought on two power players, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

If they were going to find Thomas, Kimmerle had to dig. And if she wanted to dig, she needed the political muscle to cut through red tape. Bondi had a plan. She appointed the statewide prosecutor to petition a circuit court judge in Jackson County for permission to exhume the bodies.

"This is our Florida history, and this is on state-owned land," she said, "and we know at some point atrocities occurred, and there are families in this state who need answers."

It was state-owned land. But it was surrounded by Jackson County, population 49,000, and there were plenty of locals who were ready to fight. They saw it as an invasion, an insult. Outsiders had already shut down Dozier, costing 200 jobs and $14.5 million in annual spending in the local economy, mostly from salaries. That's in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in Florida, where most of the jobs are in government.

The Jackson County Times railed against the dig, editorializing about how much it would cost, how bad it made the county look, how it would hurt tourism. The paper launched a series called "In Defense of Dozier." "A multitude of past employees rise to defend the honor of Dozier school," read one headline.

"When they say torture and murder, it's a slur against us," said Sue Tindel, a clerk in the Jackson County courthouse. "It's personal."

Personal because some here knew the men who ran the school. They saw them at the Waffle Iron and sat by them at the First Baptist Church.

"Them little bastards wouldn't have been out there at the school if they had got what they needed at home," said Woody Hall, 43, who worked for the local power company. "It's easy for criminals to call foul."

Most vocal was Dale Cox, a 51-year-old former TV reporter and lay historian who had been interested in the cemetery in the early 1990s. He became the face of the opposition. He said his only interest was to give voice to the elderly members of the community who remember Dozier being a good place for wayward kids.

The Jackson County Commission asked Cox to help the county attorney intervene in the case. Cox had been protesting the exhumations in letters to state officials for months.

At a Jackson County Commission meeting, a representative of the NAACP compared the feeling he got touring the White House to how he felt inside a Nazi gas chamber at Dachau, Germany. Cox erupted.

"Dachau? Dachau?" he shouted. "What kind of a situation are we in when people are comparing Marianna to Dachau? That is absolutely ridiculous. Dozier School is no more Dachau than I'm Santa Claus."

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

"Dachau? Dachau? What kind of a situation are we in when people are comparing Marianna to Dachau?"

Dale Cox, above, after the White House was compared to Holocaust gas chambers during a Jackson County Commission meeting.

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Cox emailed politicians, asking them to bar media from the cemetery. He sent public records requests for Kimmerle's emails and correspondence, which he called "secret communication."

Kimmerle tried to ignore it. She expected pushback. Everyone she knew in the field had faced accusations and threats. For her, human rights could be enforced through forensics. And a basic human right is the entitlement to the remains of a family member who died in custody of the government. She had a set of skills that could give the Varnadoes, Ovell Krell and the others access to justice.

The locals' refusal to acknowledge the decades of abuse wasn't surprising, either. She stood in comingled human remains in Bosnia — men who were executed and dumped in a grave — and still people there and abroad say it never happened.

But she got spooked when she wound up on TV.

In March 2013, Dale Cox told the Marianna police chief that someone from USF had been digging at Boot Hill. "Would that not be a criminal violation of state law?" he wrote in an email. "I believe it is a 3rd degree felony to disturb a human grave without authority." He offered to file the complaint himself. A TV station in Panama City broke the news. The Marianna police were investigating Kimmerle for disturbing graves.

They hadn't disturbed any graves. It was the shallow trench. The ground truthing. But suddenly she was the target of a criminal investigation.

She came down with shingles, which knocked her out for two weeks. She holed up at her Wesley Chapel home, so sick she missed a major conference where she was a keynote speaker.

Her husband, Mike, who runs a business telecommunications company, reassured her. He told her no one could stop her, so long as she was doing what was right.

• • •

Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office forsenic investigator Jason Brando swabs the inside of Ovell Krell's mouth on June 14, 2013 at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Krell's brother George Owen Smith died at the Dozier School and his remains were never returned to his family.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

DNA TESTING: Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office forsenic investigator Jason Brando swabs the inside of Ovell Krell's mouth on June 14, 2013 at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Krell's brother George Owen Smith died at the Dozier School and his remains were never returned to his family.

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In May 2013, a Jackson County judge denied the petition for exhumation. More than that, he warned all involved to "proceed with caution," pointing to a 1949 ruling. "The quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed," he wrote.

Kimmerle didn't know what to do, but she knew she wasn't stopping. She met again with the statewide prosecutor for the attorney general. They decided to appeal to the Department of State's Bureau of Archaeological Research.

The mission had become something else now, something more complicated and political.

In June, she got a tip that the secretary of state was planning to deny their request to dig. They needed another option. If they could get the families into the justice system and create active missing persons cases, they wouldn't need the secretary of state. Lara Wade, the media relations chief at USF, was in constant communication with Kimmerle, talking five times a day sometimes. She wanted to make it a spectacle.

Kimmerle turned to her friends at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. And the day before the secretary was to issue his ruling, families who were never able to bury their boys took seats in front of reporters at USF. Television cameras rolled as Hillsborough detectives took DNA swabs from their cheeks, from Ovell Krell and Richard Varnadoe and Robert Stephens.

It was a mass-media message: Who's going to stop this?

The ruling came the next day.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he didn't have the authority to let them exhume human remains "absent a danger to the grave site that actually threatens the loss or damage of those remains."

Kimmerle's backers were incredulous.

"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. "You cannot find this many bodies and simply walk away."

"They're liars," said Dale Landry of the NAACP in north Florida. "Look at the insensitivity."

Wasn't the worse threat to the graves doing nothing? Maybe Florida wasn't ready to confront the past.

Kimmerle had one last shot. Three of the most powerful elected officials in the state. The Florida Cabinet.

• • •

Erin Kimmerle

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

"I think everyone can understand that children came here and died here, and there are people who are related to them who have questions."

Erin Kimmerle, above, talking about her search for truth.

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On Aug. 6, 2013, Erin Kimmerle slid into a chair in Tallahassee.

She was nervous, but tried not to show it. She knew she had the support of the attorney general, who had helped for months. But it takes more than one vote.

White House Boys filled the chairs in the audience and in the front row sat a group of men called the Black Boys of Dozier. Next to them sat a peonage researcher who had helped them understand that what they experienced working the farm as children was nothing less than slavery. Many of them never said a word about the hell they endured at Marianna, the beatings and intimidation and the questions about their peers who disappeared. They didn't say anything for 50 years out of humiliation, or for fear nobody would believe them. Now they were united.

More than 500 had come forward with similar stories. It didn't matter now that the publisher of the Jackson County Times called them "derelict clowns" who were "trying to glean a few million dollars in reparations." They drove hundreds of miles to bear witness, hoping this administration had the guts to let Erin Kimmerle dig up the past.

One by one, the three members of the Cabinet gave her their approval. She could dig.

"In a state as old as Florida, we're going to have chapters in our history we're more proud of than others," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, "but there is no shame in searching for the truth."

The former Dozier prisoners began to cheer. Some hid their faces.

"We all came back for them. We remembered," said Richard Huntley, who lost a toe working the farm at age 11. "If they could hear us today. We came back for you."

• • •

People stared at them in the Lowe's by Interstate 10. They wore shirts that said USF as they picked out shovels and pickaxes and measuring tape and five-gallon buckets. They checked in, car after car, with the Jackson County sheriff's deputy stationed on the only road into the cemetery. They found a deer camera mounted in a nearby tree, like somebody was spying on them.

They also felt welcomed. One longtime Marianna resident had driven to the gates of the old reform school and told the reporters gathered that it was about time someone looked into what went on here. Another woman had approached them at a Mexican restaurant the night before.

"Are you the folks doing the exhumations?" she had whispered.

They nodded.

"I hope you find the truth."

The project Kimmerle thought would cost a few thousand dollars was now bankrolled by the state and federal government, which had given her $613,000.

In December 2013, Erin Kimmerle passes graves where remains had been removed. She hoped to identify the boys and return them to their families.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

LOST AND FOUND: In December 2013, Erin Kimmerle passes graves where remains had been removed. She hoped to identify the boys and return them to their families.

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The graves opened slowly over the next three months. They pulled out coffin nails and handles, zippers and buttons and belt buckles, as dirt daubers flitted about. They found the remains of victims of the 1914 fire. They found boys buried unceremoniously and at varying depths, the shallowest about two feet deep. They found the remains of one boy bunched up near the top of a casket, with an arm over his head, lying on his side, not on his back, like most.

They told macabre jokes, the way people who make a living working with the dead often do.

"He never thought he would, but he's going to college now," one of them had said as they watched a mortician roll remains away on a gurney.

They also stopped working one day and gathered around a grave to examine a perfect white marble in what would have been the pocket of a little boy's jeans.

"The skeletons are so small," Kimmerle said in late October. "They were just little guys."

And when the digging was over in December 2013, when they'd filled in all the holes and checked out of their motel rooms and put Marianna in the rearview mirror, they'd solved one mystery and found a much bigger one.

The state found 31 crosses.

Erin Kimmerle found 55 graves.

More bones than names.

The remains of a child, later identified as George Owen Smith, wait to be loaded into a van at the Boot Hill cemetery on the campus of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. [EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN   |   Times]

The remains of a child, later identified as George Owen Smith, wait to be loaded into a van at the Boot Hill cemetery on the campus of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. [EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times]

They were screwed up kids, sent to the reform school in Marianna for smoking, fighting, stealing cars or worse. The Florida School for Boys — that'd straighten them out. Fifty years later they are, by their own account, screwed-up men — afraid of the dark, unable to love or be loved, twisted by anger, scarred by the whippings they endured in a cinder-block hell called the White House.

Read the Tampa Bay Times award-winning series For Their Own Good at tampabay.com/dozier.

About this story

This story is based on six years of reporting, the review of thousands of documents and interviews with more than 100 people. The University of South Florida allowed reporter Ben Montgomery and photographer Edmund Fountain to observe the excavation of the cemetery in Marianna, the excavation of Thomas Curry's grave in Philadelphia and the analysis of the remains in the laboratory in Tampa. The UNT Health Science Center allowed the journalists to observe "Cut Day" in Fort Worth, Texas. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. This project was produced as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship.

Ground Truth: In Dozier's neglected cemetery, a search for lost boys and the reasons why they died 12/18/14 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2015 3:34pm]
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