Sen. Bill Nelson asks Justice Department to investigate Dozier boys' deaths

Published February 25 2015
Updated February 26 2015

Sen. Bill Nelson has asked the Department of Justice to look into the decades-old deaths and burials of boys at the state's oldest reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna.

In letters sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder and to President Obama's nominee to replace him, Loretta Lynch, Nelson asked the Justice Department to include the reformatory deaths in its ongoing investigation of inmate deaths at Florida prisons.

"Given new information about wards of the shuttered reform school, and a long history of mistreatment allegations surrounding the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys," Nelson wrote, "I believe the department is uniquely positioned to provide an outside and independent review."

The letter was sent soon after a report was issued from anthropologists at the University of South Florida who unearthed the remains of 51 people who died at the school, 48 of them boy inmates. That's 20 more than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said were buried there after an investigation in 2009. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam last week asked the FDLE to review the USF report and investigate the discrepancy.

Several former wards from the 1950s and '60s, part of a group called the White House Boys, complained that an independent agency should conduct the investigation, not the FDLE.

"We don't trust them to do this," Jerry Cooper, 70, president of the White House Boys, told the Tampa Bay Times. "If they're going to reopen this and they can't get the feds in there, they need to use an independent outfit to investigate this."

Several boys known to be buried at the school died under suspicious circumstances. But anthropologists have said their remains are too deteriorated to determine causes of death.

The FDLE found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but Nelson pointed out that anthropologists have determined boys suffered from nutritional deficiencies, lack of dental care and underdevelopment. He also noted that they found a small metal ball with one boy's remains that they think might be buckshot.

"Local law enforcement, meantime, has expressed no interest in investigating," Nelson wrote. "Thus, a federal investigation may be the best alternative."