TAMPA — He was 5 when his two brothers were sent away to the place that eventually became known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
One brother came home traumatized. The other didn't come home at all. Officials at the notorious reform school said he had succumbed to pneumonia. His family never saw his body, nor knew where he was buried.
Almost a lifetime later, Richard Varnadoe, now 84, is hoping to find his brother's body and lay it to rest in a cemetery in Hernando County. Friday he let his cheek be swabbed for a DNA sample that would help identify his brother's remains if they're found on the sprawling campus of the now-closed Panhandle institution.
"I am hoping to find enough remains to identify him and get him back and put him with Mother," Varnadoe said.
Using ground-penetrating radar, University of South Florida researchers have identified 50 possible graves at the school and have applied to the state archaeologist for a permit to conduct exhumations.
Ovell Krell, 84, a former police officer from Lakeland, also hopes to recover a brother. George Owen Smith died in Marianna in 1941.
"It's been 70-something years. Of course, I'm hoping for closure for myself," said Krell, who joined Varnadoe at USF's Tampa campus Friday to give a DNA sample.
A member of a third family, Robert Stephens — named after the uncle who school officials said was killed by another boy in 1937 — also was swabbed Friday.
His goal, said Stephens, a welder who lives in Tampa, is "to find the truth."
Among those bearing witness to their hopes were U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, state Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, all of whom are helping push USF's research. McKeel, head of the House Appropriations' Committee, and Stargel are behind the $190,000 in state funding that will enable USF assistant professor of anthropology Erin Kimmerle and her team to continue their work at Dozier. Nelson is supporting Kimmerle in an effort to get money from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The DNA samples, collected by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, will be sent to the University of North Texas for processing and then entered into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Friday, Kimmerle spoke of USF's research as an important step in the process "to provide a small measure of justice" for the dead boys and their families.
The graves Kimmerle and her team have located are in an area referred to as Boot Hill, on what was the designated black side of the campus during segregation. The researchers are trying to locate another cemetery where white juveniles were buried.
The state-run school was closed in 2011, after more than a century and a history of brutal beatings, sexual abuse and neglect.
Priscilla Stephens Kruize, the niece of Robert Stephens, who was 15 when he was killed, learned about him only three weeks ago. USF had contacted her brother-in-law, civil rights lawyer John Due.
"We can't forget and try to whitewash what happened in Jackson County in the 1930s," said Due, 78.
Krell said the reform school explained the death of her brother by saying he had run away and that his body was discovered under a house in Marianna. He was 14.
Her family never believed the story, Krell said.
Varnadoe said his family also didn't believe the school's version of what happened to his brother Thomas.
"We got a letter in the mail that he had died and been buried. He was 13. It was devastating to all of us," he said.
His nephew, Glen Varnadoe, a retired chief executive officer for a chemical company, was among the family members at the USF event. It was Glen's father, Hubert, who was sent to Marianna with Thomas in 1934. Nelson praised the Lakeland resident for being a catalyst for the USF research. Glen Varnadoe filed an injunction to stop the sale of the closed Dozier school so his uncle's grave could be found, sent letters to politicians and provided funding for USF's research.
"My uncle was a 13-year-old boy who never got the opportunity to come home to his family," he said.
Thirty-five days after arriving in Marianna, Thomas was dead. "I want to bring him home and bury him next to his mother."
Josephine Varnadoe is buried in the Lake Lindsey Cemetery in Brooksville.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.