In Marianna, dig for truth encounters desire to keep past buried

Marianna residents deny abuse at boys school, say outsiders are intruding.

Published April 13 2013
Updated December 12 2014

MARIANNA — The old reform school on the edge of town is all but abandoned. The only activity is from a few guards who watch the gate to make sure the locals don't cut the razor wire and strip the darkened buildings bare of copper. But in this little blue-collar city a few miles up State Road 276, the shuttered campus, home for a more than a century to Florida's juvenile delinquents, has surged back into conversation.

They call Marianna the "City of Southern Charm," but that sweet-tea nickname has been poisoned, some here are saying, by its connection to the reform school, built in 1900, and by incessant derision from a group of several hundred men who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, extreme beatings from school staff and tales of classmates who disappeared.

But no matter how many tell of being tortured at the Florida School for Boys, no matter how similar their stories or how many old newspaper clippings support their claims, some residents here refuse to believe them.

And now that the state attorney general and a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida want to exhume remains of boys buried in a neglected campus cemetery, to see how many died and how they met their deaths, locals are shoving back, trying to discredit the men and stop the exhumation.

"That stuff happened before I was a tickle in my daddy's drawers, and it can stay in the past," said Woody Hall, 43, who works for the local power company and thinks the men are after money. "Let old dogs rest. Let it be. Leave it alone."

"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."

It's personal because some in this Panhandle county of about 49,000 people know the men who ran the school. They sat by them at the Baptist church. They broke bread and rode horses together. They can't believe that respected members of the community would march off in the morning and do terrible things to boys behind closed doors.

"If anything suspicious had've gone on out there, I'd know," said Robert Earl Standland, 79, a lifelong friend of R.W. Hatton, one of the school's deceased disciplinarians who has been accused of abuse by scores of men. "He and I had a relationship such that he would've let me know."

In 2008, five men went public with stories of savage beatings in a dank building called the White House. More than 450 more have come forward since then making almost identical claims. But many believe that unassailable truth lies buried in the ground, proof to Marianna residents that they're not lying.

Horror next door

At a public meeting last week, a state NAACP representative who toured the campus recently with Sen. Bill Nelson compared the White House to a Nazi gas chamber at Dachau, Germany, suggesting that those who lived near the concentration camp did not know of the atrocities until the camp was liberated.

"I propose to you that many people in Jackson County did not know what was going on," Dale Landry, regional vice president of the NAACP, told the Jackson County Commission. "This is not an indictment of Jackson County."

A man from nearby Two Egg grew incensed.

"What kind of a situation are we in when people are comparing Marianna to Dachau? That is absolutely ridiculous!" said Dale Cox, a lay historian and former television reporter who interrupted the meeting. "Dozier school is no more Dachau than I'm Santa Claus."

Cox, 50, recent recipient of the Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the Year award, is leading the charge to disrupt the project. He prompted the Jackson County Commission to file a petition to intervene in the medical examiner's motion to exhume bodies from the cemetery, which is being considered now by a circuit court judge.

Cox has argued that Jackson County taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for the project. Last week, he asked the Marianna police chief to investigate whether anthropologists studying the old cemetery had the right to dig shallow trenches, a common process known as ground-truthing, while mapping the graveyard with ground-penetrating radar.

"If they violated state law, I feel they should be charged," Cox wrote to the chief. "I'm providing this for your information, but if you need extra information or someone to file a complaint, let me know!"

Chief Hayes Baggett told the Tampa Bay Times he spoke with state land officials and has chosen not to investigate.

"I'm not interested in wasting one taxpayer penny on a witch hunt," he said.

Voice for elderly

Cox said he's not motivated by money, and he's not writing a book about the controversy, as he did about a notorious, unsolved 1934 spectacle lynching in Jackson County. He said he's speaking for elderly citizens of Jackson County who feel they haven't had a voice in rebutting the abuse claims. But Cox's opposition to the cemetery survey stretches back a year, before the cemetery mapping project was widely known. Documents obtained by the Times show that Cox was urging his state lawmakers to stop the effort in April 2012.

"It strikes me as appalling and odd that taxpayer dollars would be spent on digging up graves that another taxpayer investigation has determined are in no way related to the allegations made against the school," he wrote, referring to a 2009 investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that relied on incomplete records and found that no prosecutable crimes had been committed.

"Is there no way that funding for this project can be withdrawn or eliminated by the State Legislature?" he wrote. "Marianna has suffered the loss of jobs and undeserved notoriety during a severe recession due to this fiasco and surely as taxpayers we shouldn't be called upon to fund the digging up of graves too."

The cost likely will be covered by the state and by federal grants. The state Senate in March recommended spending $200,000 on the project, and Nick Cox, statewide prosecutor for the Attorney General's Office, promised Jackson County commissioners that no one would ask the county to cover the cost.

Dale Cox said he first learned of the cemetery in the mid '80s, when he was working for a local television station. He researched it at the time for a story and has continued to learn more; he provided information to the FDLE during its investigation.

But Cox's record as an expert on the graveyard is blemished. He posted a photograph in 2009 on his blog that he claimed was an aerial shot of the cemetery. "As I have been reporting here all along, there are no 'mystery graves' or 'unmarked graves' in the little cemetery near Dozier School in Marianna," he wrote. "As I reported two weeks ago, most of the graves were there when the aerial photograph shown here was taken of the school area in 1940."

Complaints debunked

But graduate students at USF couldn't match the photograph with the known cemetery. They turned it 45 degrees counter-clockwise and the roads in the photograph matched a different part of campus, far from the known cemetery. Cox now says the geographical features he thought were graves were actually bee hives.

"He's a farce as far as I'm concerned," said Jerry Cooper of Cape Coral, who says he received more than 100 lashes in the White House in 1960 and paid for a lie detector test to prove it. "I don't know what his motivation is. It just don't add up."

Cox was also sure several years ago that the cemetery contained 31 graves, which matched the exact number of pipe crosses planted in the small clearing in the pines. But when the USF survey with ground-penetrating radar identified 50 possible grave shafts, many in the woods outside the perimeter of the cemetery, Cox changed his opinion. He thinks there are approximately 53 graves there now.

"At that time I was coming up with 31," he said in an interview. "But we knew there were gaps in the record."

Those with a personal stake in the exhumation wonder why Cox and others are opposing discovery with such certainty. Glen Varnadoe of Lakeland made a promise to his dying sister to find the remains of his uncle Thomas, who died at 13 after a month of incarceration. He was healthy when he was sent to the school, his family said, but school records say he died from pneumonia. The retired CEO has spent thousands of dollars on attorneys to stop the sale of the school property so anthropologists can continue searching for another graveyard.

Klan involvement?

"My biggest question is: What do they have to hide?" Varnadoe said. "If Marianna and Dale Cox want me off their rear-ends, they could walk out there and point to Thomas' grave and I'll get him and never visit their . . . town again."

Varnadoe wonders whether the Ku Klux Klan buried dead black men on school property. That may sound improbable to modern readers, but Thomas Varnadoe was reported dead on Oct. 26, 1934, the same day an illiterate black farmhand was tortured, killed, mutilated by a throng of 5,000, and then hanged from a tree that still stands outside the county courthouse. Jackson County in the early 20th century was well known for its lawlessness, violence and unabashed klan activity.

Between 1900 and 1934, six other black people were lynched, one of the largest counts of any Florida county at a time when the state had the highest ratio of lynchings to its black population of any other state. Three days before Thomas' death, the headline in one of the local papers read, "Ku Klux Klan May Ride Again, Jackson County Citizens May Rally to Fiery Cross to Protect Womanhood."

"We've been marking graves in this country since 1776," Varnadoe said. "There's a specific reason they didn't do it at that school. What else is buried at Dozier that the people of Jackson County don't want the rest of the world to know about?"

Varnadoe is one of four descendants of dead boys known to be buried on school property who approve of the exhumation. The Attorney General's Office is trying to locate others, and a circuit court judge will likely entertain opposing opinions. A case management hearing has been scheduled for Monday.

Cox said he can't object to Varnadoe's desire to retrieve his uncle's remains.

"I do object to digging up everyone in order to find one body," he said. "I have serious questions about, for the next year, for the next two years, the publicity they're going to generate against our community. And if they don't find what they want out there, it's going to go on. We all know that. They tell us that this is to give us closure? This is just the beginning."

The cost of bad press

It's hard to tell whether the publicity surrounding the school has hurt the county's economy, outside of several hundred jobs lost when the state closed the school in 2011.

Pam Fuqua, executive director of the Jackson County Tourist Development Council, hasn't seen a measurable impact on tourism dollars coming into Jackson County, she acknowledges, but there is anecdotal evidence. Fuqua recently brought a bus of Canadian snowbirds from Bay County to Jackson County, and as the group drove past the old school, many of them recognized it and asked about its current status. That, she said, reflects poorly on the people here.

"It's had a negative impact on the community," Fuqua said, "What we need is some closure."

The biggest draw to the county is eco-tourism, like the magnificent caverns and cool clear springs. The second is history, she said, the antebellum mansions and historic buildings. It's a certain version of history the folks here want to show off, separate from the boys' school.

"We don't want to be known for this," she said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650.