Sen. Bill Nelson on Wednesday called on the Department of Justice to assist a team of anthropologists and archaeologists from the University of South Florida that has been investigating the deaths of nearly 100 children at Florida's oldest reform school, the now-shuttered Dozier School for Boys outside the Panhandle town of Marianna.
Nelson, D-Fla., sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after the USF team released a report on Monday saying it had found 50 grave shafts on school property, 19 more than Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators found during an investigation in 2009.
"The reform school may yield some ugly reminders about our past, but we absolutely must get to the bottom of this," Nelson said.
The USF team also said it believes there is another burial site on what had been the white side of campus before integration in the late 1960s. Erin Kimmerle, a professor and forensic anthropologist, said Monday that she had been in contact with the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida to talk about how to proceed. The team is continuing its investigation.
The state was trying to sell the property, but a judge ordered the sale be put on hold while the team searches for the remains of a boy who died under suspicious circumstances in 1934. The boy's family has been trying to locate his remains for decades.
"For the sake of those who died and the family members still living, we've got to find out what happened at that school," Nelson wrote to Holder. "I'm asking your department to provide support and assistance to USF researchers in a broadened search to look for more graves, as well as forensic evidence of possible crimes. The families deserve closure once and for all."
FDLE communications coordinator Keith Kameg said Monday that FDLE was aware of the report, but, "In the absence of any additional evidence we do not anticipate further criminal investigative action."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Tuesday publicly asked the FDLE commissioner to look at the findings and report back to state officials.
FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said he had still not seen the USF report and he could not comment on its findings.
After his appearance before the Cabinet, Bailey said he was "anxious to receive the report."
"When we receive it and see what's in it, we will react accordingly," he said.
Nelson's call for the Department of Justice to help was good news to many of school's former inmates, who call themselves the White House Boys because they were beaten bloody inside a white brick building. Many disagreed with the FDLE investigating a state-run institution to begin with.
"Florida is not going to find Florida guilty of anything," said Robert Straley, 66, of Clearwater, who co-authored a book about his experience at the school. He called the initial investigation a "flimsy, transparent cover-up of the truth."
Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.