Try as he might, Buddy Somnitz can't forget what he saw in 1963 at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna. He was standing on a loading dock, watching a boy about his age try to hide in a field next to the reform school campus. Then he saw a Jeep full of men race across the field toward the boy. One of the men in the Jeep swung a rifle full-force and caught the boy under the chin. The blow, Somnitz remembers, peeled the skin off the boy's face, from his chin to his eyebrows.
"I'm not positive he was dead," said Somnitz, 66, of Panama City, 50 years after he escaped from Florida's longest-running reform school. "If he wasn't, he was within inches of it. They dadgum near knocked his head off."
Stories like that — and there are many — haunt the men who were confined to the Panhandle campus for all manner of juvenile crime. That's why they're encouraged to hear that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has petitioned a judge to allow a Panhandle medical examiner the right to exhume human remains at the school, known recently as the Dozier School for Boys.
Bondi's office on Tuesday filed a petition on behalf of Dr. Michael Hunter to allow him to investigate clandestine graves for up to a year. The petition seeks a court order to exhume bodies from "Boot Hill Cemetery" and surrounding areas, where there may be unmarked graves and unaccounted for bodies of boys who died at the school. The Department of Juvenile Justice closed the school in 2011.
"The deaths that occurred at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna are cloaked in mystery, and the surviving family members deserve a thorough examination of the site," Bondi said in a prepared statement. "I am committed to doing everything within my power to support investigative efforts to help resolve unanswered questions and bring closure to the families who lost loved ones."
Forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida have been using ground penetrating radar to map the forgotten burial grounds. They've identified 50 possible graves; previous investigations found just 31. They also identified nearly 100 deaths that occurred at the school, using state records. Erin Kimmerle, who has led USF's work, believes there may be another unmarked cemetery on the south side of the campus. She has asked the state to fund ongoing efforts to find all the graves and to identify the remains.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is also pushing for a thorough investigation.
"For the sake of those who died and the family members still living, we've got to find out what happened at that school," he wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in December.
Relatives of two boys who died in state custody have been urging lawmakers to allow further investigation to determine where the boys are buried and how they died. Both families are skeptical of the official cause of death provided by the school and local authorities.
Ovell Krell, a former Lakeland police officer whose brother, Owen Smith, died in 1941, said she heard from another juvenile inmate that men were shooting at her brother as he tried to escape. Jackson County newspapers reported that Smith's remains were found under a house in Marianna, and that no cause of death could be determined because of decomposition. Krell can't understand how her 14-year-old brother would just crawl under a house and die.
"We want to help them find closure," Bondi told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
Buddy Somnitz is convinced that investigators will find signs of foul play if they're allowed to exhume the remains on campus.
"I think they're going to find boys that were beaten to death," he said. "I don't think they're going to find many who died of natural causes."
When he escaped in 1963 after several severe beatings in a dank, concrete block building called the White House, Somnitz, ran as far as he could down a dirt road in his pajamas and bare feet. When he saw the guards coming, he ducked into a hole in a briar patch and covered himself with leaves. When the men came with bloodhounds, they fired shots into the briars, he said, but couldn't find him in the dark.
"I was really lucky to get away," he said. "They did their best to put me in the ground, but they didn't make it."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.