Dozier graves yield more names, but how young boys died still a mystery

Dr. Erin Kimmerlee addresses reporters at USF on Thursday to announce the identities of the remains of two more boys unearthed from a graveyard at Florida's notorious reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Dr. Erin Kimmerlee addresses reporters at USF on Thursday to announce the identities of the remains of two more boys unearthed from a graveyard at Florida's notorious reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 11, 2014

TAMPA — The red dirt outside the little Panhandle town of Marianna continues to give up its secrets.

Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of two more boys unearthed from a graveyard at Florida's notorious reform school. The remains of Thomas Varnadoe and Earl Wilson, who both died under suspicious circumstances while in custody at the Florida School for Boys, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, will be returned to their families.

"It's been a long road for me and my family," said Glen Varnadoe, nephew of Thomas Varnadoe. "It gives me great pleasure and spiritual relief that Thomas will not spend eternity in the humanly demeaning surroundings, but will rest in peace in eternity with his brothers and family members who have not forgotten him."

The identifications are the second and third made by forensic anthropologists and archaeologists from the University of South Florida who have excavated 55 burials from the campus of what was once the largest reform school in the country.

Thomas Varnadoe was 13 when he was sent to the school in 1934. He never came home. The mystery surrounding his death and burial has disturbed his family for 75 years.

Thomas was sent to Marianna with his brother, Hubert. Hubert's son Glen has heard that the Brooksville boys were convicted of malicious trespassing. He knew his father was released in 1935, and that until the day he died he was deathly afraid of authority. Hubert would never talk about what happened to his brother.

Glen always wondered: Why wasn't Thomas buried in the family plot in Hernando County?

In the early 1990s, Glen went to the school looking for answers. After some haggling, a staffer opened a big bound ledger. He ran down the pages of boy after boy until he found his uncle's name and this: Deceased after an illness of pneumonia. 10/26/34. That he died a month after he was admitted never set right with Glen, who first spoke publicly with the Tampa Bay Times in 2009.

The school newspaper reported that Varnadoe had been ill for a long time upon arriving at the school, but the family says that's not true. Thomas was a spry, healthy boy.

The state closed the school in 2011, after 111 years in operation and dozens of scandals. When Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF who is leading the research, approached the state about trying to determine how many boys were buried on campus, the state refused because it had put the school up for sale. Glen Varnadoe, former CEO of a chemical company in Mulberry, sued the state and a judge halted the sale to give researchers time to find Thomas' remains.

Richard Varnadoe of Salt Spring, 86 now, was overwhelmed by the news his brother had been found. "I had to grow up without Thomas," he said. "I'm still emotional about it."

The circumstances of Earl Wilson's death remain a mystery as well.

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Earl was 12 when he was sent to the school in 1944 on a larceny charge. He died 72 days later while detained in a tiny 7- by 10-foot building with eight other boys, ages 11 to 17. Known as a "sweat box," the shed had a bucket for a toilet, a bucket for drinking water, one set of bunk beds and a constantly burning light bulb. Some of the boys had been there days, others weeks.

Earl's death certificate says he was autopsied and the cause of death was "Head Injury, Blows on Head." But the doctor's conclusion was inconsistent with the testimony of the boys confined with Earl. Four boys were convicted of murdering the 12-year-old and sentenced to life in prison. The prosecutors relied on testimony from the four other boys.

Earl's family heard from another boy later who said Earl died when school officials stuffed his nose with cotton as punishment for smoking. The boy also said staffers would administer beatings three or four times per day.

"My parents were distraught," said Earl's sister, Cherry Wilson, 76. "They didn't even know how he got picked up."

Her son, Wayne Wilson, said the find has brought them relief.

"You can't explain it," he said. "It was like a release of pressure."

The remains were in poor condition and researchers have been unable to determine cause of death. But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said that the circumstances call for deeper investigation.

"We've seen a pattern of these things," Nelson said, "and if you talk to these White House Boys … then you start to see a pattern of behavior that leads you to suspect that there might be crimes committed."

The White House Boys are old men who were severely beaten in a building called the White House during the 1950s and '60s.

Thomas Varnadoe and Earl Wilson were identified by the University of North Texas Health Science Center's Missing Persons Lab in Fort Worth using DNA from family members.

The USF team plans to continue searching the campus for other burials.

"Our ability to provide answers and the physical remains of those who died to their brothers and sisters after more than 70 years is a remarkable privilege," Kimmerle said. "We recognize the need to help victims and families find resolution no matter how many decades pass."

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