MARIANNA — After Willie Morris served his time at the Florida School for Boys in 1962, the 16-year-old got a job in Orlando and started tucking away folding money. Then he bought a .32-caliber pistol and a Greyhound ticket back to this little Panhandle town so he could take revenge on the state employee who beat him.
"It was a whole 'nother world up there," said Morris, 66 now, who learned his abuser was dead of a heart attack before he boarded the bus. "It was an angry world, a vengeful world. It was a field day for them to beat you."
Morris, and other former state wards beaten and neglected at Florida's longest-running reform school, feel they're closer than ever to some level of justice, to letting the world know what they experienced at the state-run facility, which housed troubled kids from 1900 to 2011. That's thanks to renewed attention U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has brought to the shuttered 1,400-acre Dozier campus and a clandestine cemetery on the property.
Nelson led state officials and dozens of reporters on a tour Wednesday morning, showing a torture chamber called the White House where boys were beaten with a leather strap and pointing out an off-path graveyard where anthropologists from the University of South Florida have identified at least 50 possible unmarked burial shafts. That's 19 more than the FDLE identified during an investigation ordered by former Gov. Charlie Crist.
"Growing up, it was always known that you don't want to misbehave because you don't want to end up at the Marianna boys school," Nelson said, recalling trips through town to visit his grandparents. "Now there are a lot of questions we want answers to."
Erin Kimmerle, an assistant professor of anthropology at USF, has been trying to find those answers. Her work prompted Attorney General Pam Bondi and the local medical examiner to seek permission to exhume the bodies of boys buried here, to identify them and determine how they died. Records and testimony show several deaths were suspicious. A judge is expected to decide whether to allow that as early as next week, Nelson said.
"The statute of limitations never runs out on murder," Nelson said.
Glenn Hess, state attorney for the area, said that if forensic evidence suggests a boy was killed, law enforcement would try to determine the circumstances. If the evidence points to a suspect, he'd file charges or present it to a grand jury.
"It's my understanding that there are maybe one or two guards alive and they're so advanced in age that prosecution would be unlikely," he said. "The question is: Can we establish probable cause . . . and determine who's responsible?"
Anthropologists can only guess at the condition of the remains, but forensic science has advanced rapidly in recent years. They're hopeful that they can identify the remains using DNA samples from living relatives. Family members of two boys buried on campus have been urging the state and USF team to identify their kin and relocate the remains to family plots.
Locals say proceeding could be difficult.
"It's a closed community," said Elmore Bryant, 78, area director of the NAACP and a former mayor, who taught school here for 11 years in the 1980s and '90s. "Ain't nobody about to tell you nothing."
Dale Cox, a writer and historian in nearby Two Egg, has argued on his website that a report from the USF team is inaccurate. He also petitioned the Jackson County Commission to intervene, to make sure local taxpayers aren't responsible for the cost of the investigation and to give locals with relatives buried on school property a chance to object to exhumation. Cox would not comment for this story.
Nelson told reporters that the state Senate has suggested covering the cost, and the U.S. Department of Justice has identified some $3 million in grants available for the project.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire," Nelson said. "We need to find out, were there crimes committed, and let's get to the bottom of it."
Wansley Walters, who closed the school when she became secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, agreed.
"This place has haunted many people, including me, for a long, long time," she said, looking around the White House, where boys were beaten so badly they had to pull their underwear out of lacerations.
That people care about what happened here 40 years ago gives Willie Morris a sense of peace. He broke his femur catching a bag of grain in '62 and the doctor in charge called him racial epithets before kicking him and stomping his wounded leg. His brother, Curtis, sentenced to Dozier in the 1970s, says guards kicked his teeth out with cowboy boots and locked him in solitary confinement for three months.
"It wouldn't surprise me if they found kids who died of foul play. We always heard rumors," said Morris, who blames the injury and abuse for three hip replacement surgeries later in life. "I thank God that a lot of us got out of there. I'm just glad that this is coming to light now, that people will know how horrible this place was."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.