TAMPA — The men who ran the Florida School for Boys buried George Owen Smith quickly, without the dignity of a permanent headstone, before his family could drive up from Auburndale. Their official story was that the spry 14-year-old had crawled under a house nearby and died. His sister Ovell, 12 at the time, never believed it.
"None of that rang true," said Ovell Krell.
Seventy-three years later, she still wants to know what happened, and where he's buried.
Researchers from the University of South Florida are trying to help. They announced Tuesday they have exhumed the remains of 55 boys who died at the notorious state-run reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna.
That's 24 more than the 31 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found during a cursory investigation in 2009 on orders from then-Gov. Charlie Crist. The FDLE relied on incomplete school records and did not use ground-penetrating radar to map the cemetery.
The number even exceeds USF's earlier estimate of roughly 50, which was based on ground-penetrating radar.
Among the unidentified remains — many of which appear to have been buried unceremoniously, somewhat haphazardly and at varying depths — anthropologists found thousands of artifacts they hope to date and compare to school records to help determine the identities of the boys buried. They found belt buckles, zippers, coffin hardware, buttons, bottles of embalming fluid and a marble in a boy's pocket. They found more modern debris, signs that part of the cemetery had been used as a dump. They also found remains under a road, under a tree and spread throughout surrounding forest. Only 13 were found in the area marked as a cemetery with pipe crosses, which is on a forgotten corner of campus.
The team, led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who has called the project a "humanitarian effort," began work in early 2012. The tedious excavation didn't begin until August, after the university cleared political hurdles and won approval from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. "This has always been about fulfilling a fundamental human right," Kimmerle said.
They hope DNA from the families of those known to have died at the school will also shed light on the identities of the remains. USF and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have collected DNA from about a dozen families and are trying to track down more relatives of the dead.
The anthropologists will return to campus soon to continue to search for a purported second cemetery.
The state closed the facility in June 2011 after a century-long cycle of scandal and short-lived reform. The school, 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was founded in 1900 and was once the largest of its kind in the nation. It has been known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Florida School for Boys and the Dozier School for Boys. Over the years, kids were locked in irons, beaten with a leather strap in a building called the White House, locked in isolation for as long as three weeks and hog-tied.
In October 2008, five former wards went public with stories of extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards. They were featured in a Tampa Bay Times series called For Their Own Good. More than 500 men have come forward with similar stories of being abused by staff at the school, according to a lawyer with Masterson & Hoag, the St. Petersburg firm representing the men.
Troy Tidwell, one of the few living guards accused of abuse, refused to talk to the Times but admitted in a deposition to spanking boys. He normally gave them 8 or 10 licks with a leather strap, he said.
Hundreds of men say that's a lie.
"They made me sit on a boy to hold him down because he couldn't take it," said Arthur Huntley, 68, still haunted by the memory. He and his brothers spent years at Dozier in the 1950s for skipping school. He wasn't surprised that researchers found far more graves than school records reflect. "We were always suspicious, because guys would run away and never be seen again," he said. "What are they trying to hide?"
Some Jackson County residents have fought the effort at every turn. When FDLE released its report in 2009, which concluded there were 31 graves, local historian and blogger Dale Cox touted his own corresponding research and said the media should apologize. "They printed wild accusations of murders and secret graves with no supporting evidence," he said, according to a Jackson County Times article headline "FDLE Confirms: No 'Mystery Graves' at Dozier." "Now they should make up for it."
Cox has since revised his estimate to 55.
"As far as Marianna and Jackson County are concerned, our community has been vindicated," he wrote Tuesday in a blog post headlined "USF confirms: No Mass Grave at Dozier School."
"The media will never say that and USF will never say that, but we know it and we can hold our heads a bit higher today."
Ovell Krell just wants her brother back. "It would be the answer to many a years of prayer," she said.
"I want to get him out of there and put him between my mother and daddy in Auburndale."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.