Human remains believed uncovered in search at Florida boys school

By Matt Hamilton

September 1, 2013

Los Angeles Times,0,1449629.story

The first of many to die at a Florida reform school infamous for inflicting beatings and abuse is identified in official records only as “Unknown colored boy.”

Researchers say he died in 1911. But his name, final resting place, and the reason for his early death remain a mystery.

He’s not alone.

The whereabouts of nearly two dozen others who died at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys are also unknown, researchers said.

Those who once stayed at the reform school -- and were subjected to regular lashings by school officials -- say many more could be buried on the property of the now-shuttered state-run school, located in Marianna, a small town in Florida’s panhandle.

“I think there’s at least 100 more bodies,” Robert Straley, who was at the school for 10 months starting in 1963, said in a telephone interview.

“From 1900 to 1940 were the most brutal years in that place. Back then, a white boy’s life wasn’t worth much and a black boy’s life wasn’t worth anything.”

A clearer view of who died at the school, and why, may soon surface. On Saturday, a team of researchers began a year-long exhumation of burial sites on the school’s property.

After one day of excavations, the team of University of South Florida researchers uncovered what they believe are human bone fragments along with cloths and pins resembling those used in burial shrouds, reported the Jackson County Floridian. Also uncovered were hinges, believed to have been used on wooden coffins.

The excavation site falls outside the boundary of what for years was the school campus’ main cemetery.

Former residents at the school, including Straley, have led the push for setting the record straight about the school’s treatment of its young inmates, which came to light in a 2008 expose in the Miami Herald.

An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded in 2010 that, although it found dozens of graves, there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges related to allegations of physical and sexual abuse of boys at the school.

The state’s Department of Juvenile Justice closed the school in 2011 as the federal government was investigating allegations of maltreatment and abuse. The federal government ultimately faulted the state for poor oversight and violating the rights of the inmates.

Researchers at USF took up the cause and used radar technology and soil analysis to identify 13 more graves than state investigators had found. Some of them were in a wooded area that had to be cleared of trees and brush.

Former inmates told researchers that they had heard of other burial sites on the property. One former inmate said he personally dug a grave on a section of the property different from the main cemetery.  And since the cemetery sits on what was then the “colored” section of the reform school, many believe there was a separate burial site for white students.

“All these graves of the children and the two employees that died at the school and are buried here -- they’ve been quite literally lost in the woods, ” said Erin Kimmerle, one of the lead researchers and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, as reported by the Jackson County Floridian.

Kimmerle and other USF researchers determined that there were 98 deaths on the property; in 22 cases scant documentation of the deaths exists. But securing permits delayed an exhumation.

In August, state officials approved the USF researcher’s permit, paving the way for Saturday’s launch of the research process.

To Straley, who said he once wrote to more than 100 journalists asking them to cover the story of abuse at Marianna’s reform school for boys, the start of the excavation was “a huge victory.”

Haunted by his abuse, Straley said he’s also troubled by the delays in setting the record straight.

“Somebody should have blown the whistle on Marianna long ago,” Straley said.


Florida school exhumations revive ghosts of a grisly past

Relatives and survivors wait as researchers excavate the grounds in search of graves. Dozens are believed to have died at the school for troubled boys.

By Benjamin Mueller

Los Angeles Times

September 2, 2013,0,5406246.story

The men remember a manicured campus stained by the blood of teenage boys. They remember the explosion of the leather strap — 30 lashes, 50 lashes, more than 100 — and the bloody classroom chairs they scrubbed down later.

For more than a century, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna took in damaged children and turned out shattered men.

The state closed the school in 2011 after the U.S. Justice Department documented some of the abuse. But the sprawling campus may still be hiding horrors.

On Saturday, researchers began excavating the grounds in search of graves. Records show that 96 boys died at the school between 1914 and 1973. Among them were 20 who died from influenza and pneumonia and eight who burned to death in a locked dormitory.

Just how many bodies are buried there is unclear. A team of researchers from the University of South Florida used ground-penetrating radar last year to detect 50 bodies. But that was 19 more than officially accounted for. The excavations, which continue until Tuesday, promise to rewrite patchy records and have drawn attention from across the state.

Among those waiting to see what the work reveals are three people with special ties to the school: Jerry Cooper, who watched a classmate die; Erin Kimmerle, who conducts research on society's most vulnerable; and Ovell Krell, who wants Florida, after all these years, to let her bury her brother.

A young witness

At 2 a.m. one night in 1960, a 15-year-old quarterback for the Dozier School for Boys football team was sleeping in Roosevelt Cottage when two men woke him up. They wanted information about a boy who had fled the school, a "runner."

Soon, Jerry Cooper was being dragged in his nightgown to the White House, a small concrete chamber where boys were beaten. A leather strap sliced through the dank air and slashed his back. Later, Cooper would remove pieces of nightgown from his torn, purple skin. A boy in another room counted 135 lashes.

"They thought this would heal some troubled boys," said Cooper, now 68. "But it turned a lot of men into monsters." He still battles anger problems that led to an arrest record nearly 40 assaults long.

In August, Cooper drove 500 miles from his home in Coral Gables to Tallahassee, where he watched Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet vote unanimously to allow researchers to dig on school grounds.

The work may turn up a friend, Edgar Elton, who stopped breathing feet away from Cooper during a football practice. Elton had asthma and told Cooper that instructors forced him to practice even though a doctor's note prohibited him from playing.

Cooper, who is white, says he knows only half of what happened at the school. White and black students were segregated until 1968, heirs to a history of discrimination in Marianna that some trace to a Civil War victory there by black Union soldiers.

A black student and friend of Cooper, Johnnie Walthour, recalled being asked to dig a grave for a friend who was beaten to death. They made Walthour pull plows "just like a mule," he said.

That kind of abuse wasn't uncommon in parts of northern Florida well into the 1900s, Cooper said. In 1934, residents of Marianna famously lynched a black farmhand, Claude Neal, who was suspected of killing a white woman.

Cooper hopes the exhumation offers victims' families closure. But he's just as eager to unearth a period of racial violence he says too many have ignored.

"It's gonna get nasty."

A civil rights story

Erin Kimmerle reads history in buried bones. A forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, she's studied the aftermath of atrocities in Nigeria and Kosovo.

Now the leader of the university's excavation team, Kimmerle is digging for more than forensic evidence; she also wants people to remember how Florida once discarded its boys.

"Cemeteries are a reflection of who we are as a society," she said. And criminal justice in Florida, she said, was conducted as a for-profit operation.

Until 1923, Florida practiced the convict lease system, an arrangement with origins in the Reconstruction-era South that provided largely black prisoner labor to private bosses for a fee. "It's been described as modern-day slavery," Kimmerle said.

The school sold 20,000 bricks a day, all produced by students. In 1921, one superintendent had students cut timber on his private land, then sold the timber to the school for over $9,000.

Kimmerle said it's easy to forget an era when the state could handle criminals for profit and hide its bodies. "To be buried in unmarked graves and lost to time and place doesn't register to most of us."

And yet it happened, one chapter in a longer-running drama. "This is a story of civil rights," she said.

A sister's grief

Ovell Krell was 12 years old when her older brother's body was buried somewhere at the reform school in 1941. Officials said Owen Smith had escaped Dozier and died while hiding under a house in Marianna. That story never sat right with his sister.

"I knew it then, I know it now," Krell said. "I don't think a 14-year-old boy is going to crawl under a house and lay there to die."

Owen left home one day in 1940, maybe heading to Nashville to play his guitar, but Krell is only guessing. His parents got word that he had been arrested in Tavares, Fla., charged with stealing a car even though he didn't know how to drive. He was hauled to Dozier after a hearing to which his parents were never invited.

Owen wrote to his parents, once saying he'd been hauled back to campus after trying to escape: "I got what was coming to me."

Then Owen stopped writing. Frantic letters from his mother, Frances Smith, went unanswered. When the superintendent replied that Owen was missing, Smith threatened to pay a visit.

She never saw her son. A day before she arrived, the family was told Owen had been found under a house, his body decomposed. An invitation to retrieve his body was rescinded when police said he'd accidentally been buried already. Krell knew this wasn't how it was supposed to work.

Smith stopped cooking and cleaning, and practically quit raising her children. "She never was my mom hardly at times," Krell said. Krell's own grief hardened quickly, and she took up the task of raising her younger siblings.

Now 84, Krell is sober and reserved, grateful for the excavation work but doubtful her brother will ever be identified. She's a former police officer and a realist.

And then abruptly, in a telephone interview, the cop persona gave way to that of a desperate sister hoping for news. Krell echoed her mom's doubts that Owen was really dead: "We never knew — we don't know till now, even."