Sheriff investigates claims of 'torture,' killings at Okeechobee reform school

The former Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee, which opened in 1959, is now a privately run halfway house and development center for boys and young men.
The former Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee, which opened in 1959, is now a privately run halfway house and development center for boys and young men.
Published July 13, 2014

OKEECHOBEE — The sheriff's deputies saw blood on the back of Joseph Johnson's shirt. He was 12, in 1959, walking down a Sarasota street after another beating from his stepmother.

There's no way this is going to happen to you again, one of the deputies told him.

They sent him to live at the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee, a brand-new state-run facility for troubled kids and orphans and wards of the state, where that deputy's promise fell apart.

The boy was accused of planning to run away. Guards handcuffed him to a cot, he says, and beat him with a leather strap until blood soaked his jeans.

"It was torture, plain and simple," said Johnson, 68, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn. "They beat us kids. Some of us they beat to death."

Johnson and other men scarred from their experience at the reform school here have prompted the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office to launch an investigation into a dark period in Florida history. Some say boys were killed by men whose paychecks came from the state. They say there are bodies buried on campus. The Sheriff's Office is taking those claims seriously.

"Any time there's an accusation like this, we have to check it out," said Capt. John Rhoden, who is leading the investigation. "If there's a body out there somewhere, I'd sure like to find it."

• • •

By the mid 1950s, the notorious Florida School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna was so full that kids slept head to foot, two to a twin bed. Since its opening in 1900, it had grown to be one of the largest reform schools in the country.

To ease the overcrowding, the state sank $4 million into a new facility modeled after Marianna on 1,800 acres north of Lake Okeechobee. The town celebrated the new jobs.

"Sunday, December 1, 1957, will be a day long-remembered in Okeechobee, for on this day comes a turning point in the welfare and the way of life in this area," gushed the Okeechobee News in a front-page story about the groundbreaking, attended by 1,500 residents and then-Gov. LeRoy Collins. The paper said the new school "will grow to be the finest school of its kind in the world."

Two years later, the state crammed kids onto buses in Marianna and began shipping them to the new facility, designed to hold 500 boys. Key staffers were transferred as well to run the school, the same men accused of administering beatings at Marianna.

It wasn't long before the tenor of the headlines changed.

"Outburst of Runaways Irks Officials at School for Boys," read one.

What no one seemed to realize was that the form of discipline employed at Marianna — extreme beatings with a leather strap — was being employed at Okeechobee as well.

"If you saw it from the outside, you'd think they were being really nice," said Louis Alexander, 64, who was committed to the school in 1963, at the age of 14. "But there was no niceness in these people. No compassion."

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"We were tortured, mentally, physically and emotionally, by a small group of men," said Gary Rice, 63, who was sent to Okeechobee in 1966 for running away from a children's home. He remembers hearing the guard's keys jangle as he got a beating in a building known as the "Adjustment Unit."

"If they didn't hit your a-- at 150 miles per hour, they didn't hit you. These were wickedly cruel men."

Rice says that after a beating he was put in solitary confinement for weeks with nothing but a New Testament. Officials wouldn't let his adoptive mother see him when she showed up on campus. He also remembers one traumatizing night in lockdown.

"I'd been in there quite a while when they brought this black kid in. When they brought him into the light, I thought, 'My God, he's so tiny.' He looked like he was 9 or 10 years old. He was just a baby. They took this kid into a room by himself and they beat this kid and they beat this kid and they beat this kid. I was in tears. I counted 90 licks before the kid passed out. But they kept going. About 105, he woke up and started screaming again.

"I lost count around 140. I never saw him again on campus. I think they killed him. How could a kid that little take that kind of a beating?"

The Tampa Bay Times interviewed a dozen former wards of Okeechobee, and their stories of abuse are similar.

"From where my cottage was, we could watch the man with the strap, could see his silhouette," said Mike Sapp of Fort Pierce. "Sometimes you could hear the kids screaming. It was terrifying, man."

"A friend of mine said he could hear it from the hallway of the school. He lost count after 80," said Johnny Marx, a pastor in Sarasota who was sent to Okeechobee in 1959. He learned how to slip his jeans on without ripping off the scabs.

Roger Puntervold, 59, who now lives in Roanoke, Ala., says he got 60 licks for trying to run away, through thick swamp and wait-a-minute vines, and spent two months in solitary confinement, naked, as the sores on his backside grew infected. Years later, when he was a man, he drove to Okeechobee with a .38 snub-nosed revolver and sat outside the front gate.

"I knew where they all lived," he said. "I can't tell you why I didn't go in the school, why I didn't go in and kill somebody. I remember being really mad, sitting there, thinking about those beatings."

• • •

Rhoden, of the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office, met in May with the men who had complaints. They are part of a group called the White House Boys, made up of more than 500 former wards of the schools at Marianna and Okeechobee, and they've been pushing state officials to acknowledge abuse they endured and apologize. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the claims in Marianna but found no prosecutable offenses.

Rhoden has scoured the archives of the Okeechobee News for stories about the school and interviewed elderly residents who worked there.

The detective, who has a Barney Fife poster on his office wall, believes the stories about beatings. "In my mind, that happened." But most, if not all, of the accused are dead, and the statute of limitations has expired on all crimes besides murder and rape of a child under 12, he said.

"We're looking only at prosecutable offenses," he said. "I'm looking for bodies."

Several former wards remember deaths at the school, and some remember seeing an unmarked cemetery behind the dairy barn. But their memories are crusty, and details are few.

"One of the hardest things is you've got a lot of word of mouth," Rhoden said. Folklore. "It's hard to get somebody who says they actually saw it."

Joseph Johnson says he remembers hiding behind a bush and watching men carry a boy outside after a beating, load him into a car, and drive him behind a barn. When they came back, the boy wasn't with them. The next day, Johnson and his buddy walked behind the barn and saw freshly dug earth. But who was the boy? And how do you find a hole 50 years later on a campus that has changed considerably?

The newspaper archives show that four youths were killed trying to escape between 1959 and 1968. Two were killed in a car wreck as they fled the school. One was shot by a woman who lived near the school when she caught him in her house. One boy named Cherry Black was found dead inside an above-ground septic tank weeks after he went missing.

The students were told he ran away and drowned while trying to hide from guards.

"I believe they killed him," said Nate Dowling, 71, of Bradenton, who was there at the time. "I'm quite sure they did."

Rhoden needs more than speculation, though, and investigating a 50-year-old death is proving difficult. He said he has to limit his focus to Okeechobee and disregard reports about the similar school at Marianna, where anthropologists have unearthed 55 bodies from a cemetery, nearly double the number the state said were buried there.

Rhoden is waiting for more specific information before he searches for burials on the campus, which is still open and run by private contractor G4S.

Rhoden's investigation, even if it's incomplete, has brought a sense of relief to the men who spent time at Okeechobee. Many of them blame the experience for years of mental anguish, drug addiction, busted relationships. That someone believes them at all is therapeutic.

Johnson has been haunted by anxiety and nightmares for years. He dreams about a peg-legged man named Frank Zych coming to get him at night, making him dig a grave, locking him in a septic tank. The man is always on the edge of his mind, the shadowy legacy of a failed juvenile justice system.

Now, after 50 years, he can fight back.

"It's like I can finally say, 'You ain't getting away with this,' " he said. "Now the truth is going to come out."

Contact Ben Montgomery at or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.