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USF report reveals more deaths and graves at Dozier than state admitted

Robert Straley, left, and Jerry Cooper, who say they were abused at Dozier, listen Monday as the USF researchers present their findings from excavation work at the reform school.
Published Dec. 12, 2014

TAMPA — The boys, many of them, were charged with victimless crimes like dependency, truancy and incorrigibility, and they were sent to the state-run reform school on 1,400 acres outside the Panhandle town of Marianna. Nearly 100 of them, ages 6 to 18, died in state custody, a number much higher than state officials have reported.

In a report released Monday, a team of anthropologists and archaeologists from the University of South Florida said it found 50 unmarked graves on the campus using ground-penetrating radar during a months-long survey. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the same cemetery in 2009 and concluded "Boot Hill" contained 31 graves.

The USF team, led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, also said records show there were at least 98 deaths at the school, and there is likely another burial site on the side of campus where white inmates were housed until desegregation in the late 1960s. The FDLE investigation uncovered 81 deaths.

"In the absence of any additional evidence we do not anticipate further criminal investigative action," said Keith Kameg, communications coordinator at FDLE.

The school was founded in 1900 and operated until the state shut it down in June 2011. Once the nation's largest reformatory, the school — known recently as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys — has been the subject of numerous investigations and dozens of scandals.

Child prisoners were tortured, kept in solitary confinement for weeks and beaten with a weighted, leather paddle in a dank building known as the White House. In 2008, five former wards from the 1950s and '60s told stories of sexual abuse and beatings that embedded their underwear in the wounds on their buttocks. Hundreds of men then shared similar tales.

They also told of peers who disappeared without explanation, raising the possibility of homicide and secret burial on the campus. Former Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into the claims in 2008, after newspapers published the accounts of the former wards. The following year, the FDLE concluded there was no evidence of foul play, no secret burials and that all deaths were accounted for in school records.

Former wards said the USF investigation was far more thorough and raised more questions.

"Where is the white graveyard?" said Robert Straley, 66, of Clearwater.

Daniel Holloway, 54, of Lake Wales, remembers seeing rows of wooden crosses on the south campus, far from the known cemetery. He asked his supervisor who was buried there.

"He said, 'You could be there next, if you don't behave,' " said Holloway.

John Bonner, 60, who was sent to Dozier three times in the 1960s, said he had heard rumors of additional graveyards.

"I worked in the kitchen and early in the mornings . . . you had to go outside the kitchen to throw out the trash," he said. "There was a fence and there was an opening. We always heard there were graves over there."

Customs in the first half of the 20th century dictated racially segregated burial grounds. "Segregation permeated every aspect of life," said USF anthropology professor Antoinette Jackson. "So one of the opening questions is: Is there another cemetery?"

The USF team found evidence of boys being paroled to locals for work. It found documents that suggest those in charge of the school encouraged state lawmakers to enlarge the inmate population to boost revenue. Besides operating a farm, the boys made bricks for sale and for many years printed state documents.

Despite repeated state investigations that found children being chained like prisoners and living in squalid conditions, state law changed to allow boys to be imprisoned for noncriminal activity, such as dependency, truancy and incorrigibility.

Among the USF team's findings:

• Even though Florida required death certificates starting in 1917, the team found death certificates for just 47 of the 98 known deaths.

• Burial details were listed in 65 cases in which boys died, leaving unknown the resting place for 22 children. Cause of death was often listed as "unknown" and death records often conflicted with other documents.

• Seven boys died during or after escape attempts, including two from gunshot wounds. One runaway died from "a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause," according to his death certificate.

• The two youngest boys who died in state custody were 6 years old. One boy, George Grissam, had been sentenced "until 21 years old" for delinquency. He was paroled to a local, then returned to the school terminally ill. He died in 1918.

The team is continuing to investigate the possibility of a second lost cemetery on the property. Relatives of two boys who died in custody are supporting the effort and wish to have those boys' remains found, exhumed and relocated.

For years, Richard Varnadoe, 83, has wondered where the state buried his brother, Thomas, who died at 13. School records said he died of pneumonia a month after he arrived in 1934, but he was a strong, healthy boy when he left home, Varnadoe said.

"Nothing we say today is going to bring my brother back," Varnadoe said. "But I smell something, and it don't smell good. I smell a cover-up."

The USF team also wants to do additional ground-penetrating radar exploration, test excavations and clearing with bulldozers to determine the locations of graves. Eventually, Kimmerle wants to exhume the remains to identify the dead and determine cause of death.

The Department of Juvenile Justice said it will cooperate.

"One of the decisions I am most proud of is that this administration closed (the facility) in 2011," said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters. "As we have in the past, we will continue to work with the researchers at the University of South Florida on how best to provide them access to the site."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com.

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