Dozier School for Boys

In 1934, 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and his brother, Hubert, were sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys for allegedly stealing a typewriter.

In 1944, 12-year-old Earl Wilson went to the reform school in the panhandle town of Marianna, Florida, for allegedly riding in a car a friend stole.

Neither Thomas nor Earl ever returned home -- until now. Science and perseverance are finally giving their families some peace.

USF Dept. of Anthropology

University of South Florida researchers will announce Thursday afternoon that they've determined the identities of two more sets of remains buried on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

The Ledger and a release from Senator Bill Nelson's office say that one is Thomas Varnadoe, 13, who died in 1934, a month after arriving at Dozier.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Ovell Krell was only 12 years old when her brother died -- but what she remembers most about him was his musical ability.

"He could walk into a music store and pick up any instrument they've ever made and within two minutes, he could play it," she said.

George Owen Smith, 14, tried to teach his sister how to play music, but those lessons stopped in 1940 when he was sentenced to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys after being caught in a stolen car with a 19-year-old friend.

Shortly after arriving at the reform school in Marianna, Fla., Smith reportedly escaped, but was found dead several months later under a house two miles away.

"Though the family told authorities to hold his remains at a local funeral, as they made their way on the long journey from Auburndale in a borrowed car, they arrived to be shown a mound of dirt by a superintendent who said that they had just buried him in an unmarked burial ground," according to University of South Florida associate professor of anthropology Erin Kimmerle.

That superintendent promised that a name plaque would be placed on Smith's grave -- a promise that was never met. Because of the mysterious circumstances of his death and the nature of his burial, Smith's mother refused to believe her son was indeed dead. That led Krell to make her parents a promise.

"I was searching for him, not only out of my love, but for a vow that I had made my mother and father on their deathbeds that I would find my brother if it was in my power, I would look till I died," Krell said.

Now, Krell has found her answer, thanks to a team of USF researchers.

Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

  It's taken University of South Florida researchers more than three years to provide one family with an answer they've been looking for, for more than 70 years.

The researchers uncovered remains from 55 unmarked graves on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna last year.  DNA testing has identified one set as belonging to George Owen Smith, who's believed to have died at age 14 -- shortly after being sent to the Florida Panhandle school in 1940.

USF Anthropologist Christian Wells says Smith was the first body found, but was in the worst shape.

USF Dept. of Anthropology

As is fitting for a case that dates back to the early 1900's, progress is slow in coming for researchers looking at the mysteries found on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys - but it is being made.

Credit Michael Spooneybarger / Reuters/Landov

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, is asking the governor of Pennsylvania to have state police there work with a team of Florida researchers investigating the circumstances surrounding a young boy’s death at a now-shuttered reform school.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

A shirt button, a plaque saying “at rest” and a stone marble found in what’s believed to have been the coffin of a 6-year-old boy are just some of the almost ten thousand artifacts USF researchers have removed from 55 graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.

Those items - along with hundreds of coffin nails also recovered there - might help investigators identify the bodies buried in the school’s mysterious Boot Hill cemetery and elsewhere on the site.

Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

Researchers at the University of South Florida say they have discovered the remains of 55 people buried at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. That's five more bodies than they expected - and 24 more burials than official records indicate should be there.

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Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

University of South Florida researchers unearthed the remains of two children buried at a former Panhandle reform school that had a history of extreme abuse, and the bones will be analyzed in hopes of identifying the children and determining how they died, the anthropologist leading the excavation said Tuesday.

Based on the size of the remains, the children probably were between the ages of 10 and 13 when they died, said Erin Kimmerle, the USF professor who is heading the project to exhume an estimated 50 graves.

Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

Researchers have begun exhuming remains from unmarked graves at a now-closed Florida reform school. Former residents of the school say brutal beatings were routine, and they believe many boys died as a result. At least 50 grave sites have been identified, and it is believed that there may be many more. Several families of boys who died there are demanding answers. From Mariana, Florida, NPR's Greg Allen reports that researchers hope to determine how many boys are buried there in unmarked graves and how they died.

USF anthropology assistant professor Erin Kimmerle talked to reporters as exhumations began at the Boot Hill cemetery at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL Saturday. USF researchers are exhuming dozens of graves at the former Panhandle reform school in hopes of identifying the boys buried there and learning how they died.

Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

On the second day of an excavation project, University of South Florida researchers worked Sunday on two graves at a former reform school in the Florida Panhandle where students say they were abused decades ago.

The researchers continued the slow, painstaking process of unearthing remains in the hopes of identifying those buried at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School in the Panhandle. The digging and work will go on through Tuesday.

Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

University of South Florida researchers began work to exhume dozens of graves Saturday at a former Panhandle reform school in hopes of identifying the boys buried there and learning how they died.

USF spokeswoman Lara Wade said in a message Saturday that the work had begun, with researcher measuring and marking the site. Researchers then will remove dirt with trowels and by hand to find the remains, which are believed to be 19 inches to 3-plus feet under the surface.

On Saturday, researchers from the University of South Florida will converge on the sleepy Florida Panhandle town of Marianna to start digging up graves at the closed Dozier School for Boys.

Former students have told stories of abuse, torture and death at the reform school dating back to more than sixty years ago.

Many Marianna residents are tight-lipped about the dig. Business leaders won't speak on camera, fearing what their customers might think.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF

University of South Florida researchers are scheduled to begin exhuming human remains on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys this weekend. Now comes word that they'll be getting some assistance from federal authorities.

The U.S. Department of Justice is giving the researchers, led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, $423,528 in federal grant money to help conduct their search of unmarked graves in the now-closed reform school.

The funds come from a DOJ National Institute of Justice grant for universities and other non-profit organizations that use DNA technology to identify missing persons. The researchers have taken DNA samples from a number of living relatives of boys who died decades ago at Dozier, some under mysterious circumstances.

Credit Michael Spooneybarger / Reuters/Landov

University of South Florida researchers are expected to start digging for human remains buried on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys at the end of the week.

Several families have been waiting for years to get closure about their loved ones believed to have died from abuse at the now-closed reform school.

It could take awhile before the USF researchers find the remains of the boys on the grounds of the Marianna school, but they’re expected to start the exhumations during a four-day period this upcoming weekend.

Katy Hennig / USF News

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.

The Cabinet agreed today to allow USF researchers to continue with the next step in a project they started two years ago: to account for all the burials by unearthing the boys' skeletal remains and, hopefully, identifying each of them. The researchers, using ground-penetrating radar, have already tallied some 50 burials in and around a clandestine graveyard surrounded by thick pines, 19 more than state investigators found in an earlier investigation ordered by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

Jessica Palombo / Florida Public Radio

Several more men are telling stories of abuse they say they suffered at the infamous state-run Dozier Reform School in the Panhandle town of Marianna.  A  group calling themselves the Black Boys at Dozier gathered at the campus Saturday calling for Gov. Rick Scott to allow researchers to exhume bodies in unmarked graves on the property.

The men who shared their stories lived on the part of the campus where researchers are trying to exhume at least 100 bodies in unmarked graves. A road separates the area from the rest of the campus.

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