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Researchers find more graves at Dozier than state said existed

Glen Varnadoe and sister Barbara Caccamisi hope to identify Thomas Varnadoe’s remains and to have them reburied at the family’s plot.
Published Dec. 12, 2014

For years, Richard Varnadoe has longed to know where the state buried his brother, Thomas, who died at 13 as a ward of Florida's oldest reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna.

"I feel an obligation that the truth has to come out, what happened to him," said Varnadoe, 83. "I am the last hope. . . . I'm the last sibling."

New evidence unearthed by researchers at the University of South Florida may shed light on where Thomas and dozens of other boys who died in state custody are buried. The team has identified at least 49 graves in and near the notorious school's known cemetery, north of the campus. That's 18 more than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found during a 2009 investigation.

Researchers have also found "sufficient evidence" to conclude there's likely another clandestine cemetery on school property, in a patch of woods on the south side of campus, which had been reserved for white students during segregation.

Led by Erin Kimmerle, associate professor of anthropology at USF, the researchers petitioned the state to use ground penetrating radar to try to find the second cemetery and determine how many graves it contained. But the state denied the petition in August because it intended to sell 220 acres at public auction. The school, widely known as the Florida School for Boys or Dozier School for Boys, closed in 2011, after 111 years of operation.

The Department of Juvenile Justice reversed its stance Thursday afternoon, a day after Thomas Varnadoe's nephew, Glen Varnadoe, filed a lawsuit to put a stop to the sale.

"After careful consideration, we will work with the researchers on how best to provide them access to the site," said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters.

Late Thursday, a judge ruled that the state could not sell the property for 120 days, or until Thomas' remains are found. He also ruled that the state must give the USF researchers access to the south campus.

"I'm quite pleased that the state has chosen the path they have taken," Varnadoe said. "I think it's the right thing to do, and I'm very pleased with the outcome. I think in the next 120 days, Dr. Kimmerle and her team will discover burial plots on the south campus and possibly in more than one location."

Kimmerle suspected there was a second cemetery on the property when her team discovered no segregation between graves at the known cemetery, called Boot Hill. Until 1968, it was customary for cemeteries to have defined separate areas for whites and blacks.

Former wards of the state, and family members of those who died in custody, also told researchers they had seen a cemetery on the south side of campus. Among them was Ovell Krell, a former Lakeland police officer, who suspects her brother was killed by guards in 1940.

Krell said her family drove to Marianna to investigate her brother's reported disappearance from the school. By the time they arrived, they were shown a pile of dirt in a cemetery south of campus, which the superintendent identified as her brother's grave.

Researchers John Powell and Richard Weltz also matched an aerial photograph of a cemetery from a Jackson County historian to a spot on the south campus.

"It's too much evidence from too many sources to say it's nothing," Kimmerle said.

Since 2008, former wards, mostly from the 1950s and '60s, have spoken publicly about being abused at the school. Hundreds told of being hit with a leather strap until they bled in a building called the White House. Some have reported that bunk-mates were taken to the White House for punishment and never returned.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation in 2009 after news spread of a cemetery in a small clearing in the woods dotted by 31 white metal crosses. Relying heavily on the school's own records, FDLE determined that at least 81 boys died in custody, and that 29 boys and two men were buried at the cemetery.

USF's Kimmerle, along with archaeologist Richard Estabrook and a team of students, used ground-penetrating radar and other "ground truthing" techniques and determined that the actual cemetery extended 20 meters north of the marked site, into a heavily wooded area. And they found a minimum of 49 graves, which Kimmerle called a "conservative estimate."

"That's a minimum number," she said. "These are the ones that we are confident saying these are grave shafts."

Kimmerle said it's also possible that some graves may contain more than one child.

"This is the worst case of child abuse in American history," said Robert Straley of Clearwater, who was abused at the school when he was 13. "They have an obligation to make that into a real cemetery, where the relatives of boys would be allowed to go in there and pay their respect and they should build a monument to all the boys who died and were never identified."

The Varnadoes hope someday to identify Thomas' remains, and to have them disinterred and reburied at the family's plot in Brooksville, beside his mother.

"Our interest in this is a 13-year-old child that never got to come home to his mother," Glen Varnadoe said. "Our interest is in bringing this child home so he can spend the rest of eternity with his family."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Finding the cemetery

Family members of a boy who died at Dozier want to block the sale of the 220-acre parcel for which state officials are seeking a minimum of $300,000.

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