After months of struggle, University of South Florida researchers may finally be able to continue their efforts to find and exhume bodies at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
Formal approval could come as soon as Tuesday, when Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet will vote on whether to permit the excavation on the former Dozier campus. According to the agenda, approval is recommended.
Several families of boys who lived — and died — at what was once the nation's largest reform school are anxiously awaiting the decision.
Ovell Krell, 84, a former police officer from Lakeland, hopes to recover the body of her brother, George Owen Smith, who died in Marianna in 1941. In June, she joined two other families who gave DNA samples to help identify the remains of their relatives if they are found.
"Through all of this, our governor has not shown any interest at all," Krell said. "I am very, very pleased if they get permission. I hope and pray every day that they get the permission."
Officials at the reform school told her family that her brother had run away and that his body was discovered under a house in Marianna. He was 14 and buried before his parents could claim him.
Krell said she hopes to see where her brother is buried: "I would love to go up there and to be able to walk and see it myself."
If USF's request to find and identify bodies at the now-closed Dozier campus is approved, it will mark the end of months of legal and political wrangling where different courts and state agencies said they didn't have the power to allow the excavations.
The decision ultimately fell to the Cabinet, sitting as the state's Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, which has power over public lands.
At Tuesday's meeting, the group will vote on a joint land-use agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection to allow the excavations at Dozier.
Attorney General Pam Bondi issued a statement Wednesday saying that she "remains supportive" of the work to return human remains to the boys' families.
Richard Varnadoe, now 84, hopes to retrieve his brother's body and lay it to rest in a cemetery in Hernando County. He and his nephew, Glenn Varnadoe, have been pushing the USF effort.
The family issued a statement through Tampa lawyer Robert S. Bolt on Wednesday.
"The Varnadoe family is focused on finding and repatriating the remains of Thomas Varnadoe and it supports and appreciates whatever others, including USF and the Florida Cabinet (acting as Trustees), actually accomplish in that regard."
USF associate professor of anthropology Erin Kimmerle, who has led the work to find the graves, said the team hopes to begin work again this month.
Using ground-penetrating radar, the USF team already had found 50 graves in an area referred to as Boot Hill, on what was the designated black side of the campus during segregation.
"I'm saying that there are 200-plus or even more buried around that place," said Robert Straley, a 66-year-old Clearwater man who was one of the school's White House Boys, so called because of the small building where they were flogged. "I don't think they will ever find all the bodies that are there."