The excavation will soon begin to unearth the remains of boys believed to have died from alleged abuse at the Dozier School for Boys.
The Florida Cabinet today approved the request of USF researchers to exhume the bodies at the now-closed Florida Panhandle reform school to provide closure for the boys’ loved ones.
For months, University of South Florida researchers have been trying to dig up the bodies at the Marianna school, but their request has been denied several times, twice by the state, which is why 66-year-old Robert Straley, a former Dozier resident, says he was happily shocked when Governor Rick Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet approved the researchers’ request Tuesday.
“I never thought we’d get this far, to tell you the truth," Straley said. "But, we finally got far enough where this will all happen. You know, our little part is over in this dark history of the Dozier school.”
Straley is part of the so-called "White House Boys," a group of older men who several years ago brought attention to their claims of decades of abuse in a white house on Dozier's grounds.
Richard Huntly, the president of a group called "Black Boys at Dozier Reform School," which alleges similar mistreatment, also expressed relief at the decision.
"I've been screaming out of a hole for help. Just throw me a rope, somebody help. Today I caught that rope. Today somebody pulled us up out of that hole and I thank God," Huntly told WTSP. "I'm happy in my heart. I'm really happy in my heart. They say when a grown man cries, it's something that's really touched him. Today I was touched."
Lead investigator, USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle told CNN, "It's a relief. The real work has yet to begin, but now we can now move forward. We will go slow and test our methods and really be able to make progress when it dries off."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was quick to speak up, releasing a statement saying, “This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation. Nothing can bring these boys back, but I’m hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve.”
Nelson has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of the USF research team's efforts at Dozier.
He's backed their request for a Department of Justice grant to help with their forensic research, and last month, after Secretary of State Ken Detzner denied their request for a permit to begin exhumations (an assessment researchers disagreed with), Nelson challenged Gov. Rick Scott directly, calling him out for what he termed as a "lack of leadership."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who voted in favor of the land use agreement, also released a statement:
"From the beginning, I have supported efforts at the Dozier School for Boys in order to provide family members who lost loved ones with closure. I was proud to vote in favor of the land use agreement that authorizes the University of South Florida to continue their work to return the human remains to the families and provide them with proper burials."
As did Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam:
"In a state as old as Florida is, we're going to have chapters in our history that we're more proud of than others, but there is no shame in searching for the truth, and the families of the victims who want closure, who want answers, deserve those things."
Bondi and Putnam were joined by Gov. Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater in the unanimous vote to allow the USF team to start the exhumations, likely later this month. They've already been in the process of taking DNA samples from relatives of boys suspected of being buried on the former reform school grounds in hopes of identifying the bodies.