1. News

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 or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 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.


  1. Pat Frank, at a 2016 candidate debate with then-challenger Kevin Beckner. She won. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
    From school board to state lawmaker to clerk of courts, she just keeps on going, Sue Carlton writes.
  2. Researchers from the University of Central Florida and International innovation company, Imec have developed a camera that uses specific wavelength of light to easily find pythons in habitat where they are typically well camouflaged. 
    University of Central Florida researchers worked with Imec to develop the cameras.
  3. Pasco County Sheriff's deputies lead three teenagers from a Wesley Chapel Publix store after responding to reports that the boys had been showing off handguns there in a Snapchat video. PASCO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE  |  Pasco County Sheriff's Office
    The three Pinellas boys were apprehended while they were still walking the aisles of the Wesley Chapel store.
  4. The 59-year-old pastor was arrested Oct. 2 after a young woman told investigators he began abusing her in 2014 when she was 14 and he was senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Winter Park. Orange County Sheriff's Office via AP
    Rev. Bryan Fulwider was released Wednesday night after posting a $700,000 bond.
  5. Sam's Club fulfillment center manager Nick Barbieri explains to a shopper how the new Scan & Go shop works at 5135 S Dale Mabry Highway. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The shuttered store has been reinvented and debuted to the community.
  6. Yogi Goswami
    The Molekule Air Mini is a scaled-down version of its original purifier.
  7. In this image taken from video provided by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, border patrol agents escort a woman to a patrol car on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, at Aventura Hospital in Aventura, Fla. The woman had been detained by border patrol agents when she fell ill. The agent took her to the hospital emergency room for treatment. The presence of immigration authorities is becoming increasingly common at health care facilities around the country, and hospitals are struggling with where to draw the line to protect patients’ rights amid rising immigration enforcement in the Trump administration. (Florida Immigrant Coalition via AP) AP
    Hospitals are struggling with where to draw the line to protect patients’ rights amid rising immigration enforcement in the Trump administration.
  8. Lee Coel pleaded no contest Wednesday to second-degree manslaughter as part of a deal with prosecutors. Punta Gorda Police Department/Facebook photo
    A Lee County judge withheld adjudication of guilt and sentenced Lee Coel to 10 years of probation.
  9. FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooter opened fire on the campus. Parents whose children were killed or wounded during last year's Parkland high school massacre asked the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, to rule that each pull of the trigger was a separate occurrence for which the Broward County School Board should be held liable. MIKE STOCKER  |  AP
    A judge issued an order Thursday to begin jury selection on Jan. 27 in a trial involving the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
  10. Luis Tull, 36, is a suspect in a shooting and carjacking at a Zephyrhills McDonald's on Wednesday night, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said. Pasco County Sheriff's Office
    Luis Tull, 36, was arrested Thursday after stealing three cars and driving at deputies, drawing their fire, the sheriff says.