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Erin Kimmerle

Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media

Sharon Scott and Sheila Williams of Tampa had been searching for their sister, Brenda Williams, ever since she disappeared in 1978.

Last year, the two had their DNA tested to see if it matched a cold case victim they saw at a University of South Florida symposium. It didn't.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Among the $410 million worth of projects struck from the new state budget by Governor Rick Scott's veto pen are a number of items with ties to the Tampa Bay area.

A "body farm" where researchers can study how corpses decompose will open next week in the Tampa Bay area with the burial of four donated bodies.

Officials from Pasco County and the University of South Florida attended a dedication ceremony Friday for the Adam Kennedy Forensics Field, a three and a half acre patch of land on the grounds of the Pasco Sheriff's detention facility in Land O' Lakes, just north of Tampa.

Pool/Edmund D. Fountain/Tampa Bay Times

The state of Florida came a step closer Tuesday to formally apologizing for the abuse of hundreds of children over the course of a century at the state-run Dozier School for Boys.

Pasco Co. Sheriff's Office

When crimes like the Pulse nightclub shooting or the shootings at the Ft. Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport occur, there are two major responses by law enforcement.

First, there's the immediate, tactical reply. Then there's the forensic investigation.

A center that brings training for those two stages together under one roof is in the works in Pasco County, and University of South Florida researchers are playing a major role.

Missing in Florida

According to law enforcement figures, there are more than 3,200 missing persons reported in Florida and over 84,000 nationwide. But those numbers are likely low estimates because cases are either unreported, mishandled or mistakenly closed.

Now, University of South Florida forensic investigators are teaming up with law enforcement to raise awareness of missing and unidentified persons cases.

"Missing in Florida Day" is modeled after similar events held in other states that have led to positive identifications.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Forensic artists at a recent workshop hosted by the University of South Florida wrapped up their week of work by presenting their creations - fourteen clay busts of unidentified victims in cold cases - to local law enforcement.

But in the middle of their presentation, a woman looking at one of the works at the rear of a downtown Tampa conference room broke down sobbing, sure that the face staring back at her was that of her sister, some thirty-eight years after she went missing.

"Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier" debuts Friday, June 3, at 8 p.m. on LMN.
LMN / Part2Productions

The University of South Florida's lengthy investigation of the Dozier School for Boys is the subject of a national TV documentary debuting Friday night, June 3.

"Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier" takes an in-depth look at the more than 100-year history of the Florida Reform School, decades of allegations of abuse, and the mysterious deaths of dozens of students.

USF Department of Anthropology

The Tampa Bay History Center recently hosted a panel discussion on the now-closed Dozier School for Boys. The reform school in the Florida Panhandle has been known for decades for abuse, torture, and even murder.

This week on Florida Matters (Tuesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 3 at 7:30 a.m.), we are bringing you highlights of the discussion moderated by Tampa attorney and History Center Trustee Bob Bolt.

The Florida Senate has passed a bill allowing the state to provide financial help to the families who want to rebury the remains of their loved ones, found on the Panhandle property of the former Dozier School for Boys. Its House counterpart is also heading to the floor.

Florida's Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was a horror tale come to life.

"There's just too many stories," Roger Kiser, who was at the school in the 1950s, told NPR in 2012. "I know of one [boy] that I personally saw die in the bathtub that had been beaten half to death. I thought he'd been mauled by the dogs because I thought he had ran. I never did find out the true story on that. There was the boy I saw who was dead who came out of the dryer. They put him in one of those large dryers."

USF Department of Anthropology

The Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna closed in 2011, after allegations by former inmates of decades of torture and abuse.

University of South Florida researchers have been working for years to identify dozens of remains found in unmarked graves on the site, and they've just released their final report.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

USF forensic anthropologists are getting extra money to crack cold cases. 

They've been awarded a $386,537 grant from the National Institute of Justice - the research wing of the U.S. Department of Justice - to examine 50 unsolved cases. 

Scott, Cabinet Start Talks on Dozier Site Future

Sep 29, 2015
Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet began discussions Tuesday on the future of the shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a former state-run reform school where children are alleged to have been abused and died.

However, no decisions were made as the state officials agreed to await a final report expected in January from University of South Florida researchers, who excavated the 1,400-acre site about 70 miles west of Tallahassee and continue to try identify remains.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

In June of 2013, Robert Stephens of Tampa received a phone call from his sister. She told him that an uncle they had never met had died at the Dozier School for Boys in 1937 under mysterious circumstances.

She added that University of South Florida researchers wanted Stephens to submit a DNA sample to see if they could identify his 15-year-old uncle as one of the bodies believed to be buried in an unmarked graveyard on the now closed reform school’s grounds.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

The University of South Florida's investigation of the Dozier School for Boys is reaching a critical point, but developments continue to give researchers greater insight into what happened at the troubled reform school.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

The University of South Florida announced late Friday afternoon that the USF Forensic Anthropology Laboratory will find an alternate location to train students and law enforcement to process human remains in outdoor crime scenes.

The Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training (FORT) program was proposed on Hillsborough County Sheriffs property in Lithia, but an outcry from residents about possible smells, groundwater contamination and property values prompted a change in plans.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

USF's Forensic Anthropology Laboratory is best known for its work at the Dozier School for Boys. Now, they're asking for approval to use a parcel of land in Lithia as a training ground for identifying real bodies in different stages of decomposition. 

Currently, students are using plastic skeletons to train on. USF Anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle, however, said that real bones aren't pure white like fake ones are. 

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and a University of South Florida anthropology professor are developing a forensic research site, where investigators could study how the humid climate and sandy soil affect human corpses, The Tampa Tribune reports.

Katy Hennig / USF News

UPDATE 3/18/15 10:45 a.m.
Updated headline to indicate the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will conduct "an inquiry" and not "an investigation" into USF's findings.

In an email sent to WUSF 89.7 News Wednesday morning, FDLE Communications Director Gretl Plessinger said, "We are conducting a preliminary inquiry to assess any new information from the January USF report.  If there is criminal predicate, we will open an investigation."

ORIGINAL POST 3/17/15 5 p.m.
With a single sentence, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement indicated it will look into what investigators from the University of South Florida have turned up at the Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna.

Katy Hennig / USF News

Florida Senator Bill Nelson has asked the Department of Justice - and not Florida law enforcement officials - to open an investigation into the Dozier School for Boys.

In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing at the now closed Marianna reform school, despite decades of allegations of abuse of students by school officials.

State of Florida

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is asking the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to evaluate new findings in the history of students at the former Arthur G. Dozier school for boys.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Putnam — who is one of three members of the Florida Cabinet — cited a recent report by researchers at the University of South Florida.

Daylina Miller / WUSF News

2/21 1:30 p.m. 2nd paragraph corrected to indicate location of possible projectile found in one grave

Two more sets of remains were identified today from the Dozier School for Boys.

Lucielle Salomon / WUSF

For years, claims of abuse, beatings, rapes and murder of students by staff have come from those who survived the Dozier School for Boys,  the now-closed state-run reform school in the Florida Panhandle.

Many families are still wondering what happened to their loved ones, and some are getting answers as researchers from the University of South Florida identify remains that have been exhumed from the grounds of Dozier.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

"They brought him here today to be with his brother."

Those were the words of Richard Varnadoe, 86, who was at last able to put his brother Thomas in his final resting place alongside a third sibling, Hubert, at a service at Hopewell Memorial Gardens in Plant City last week.

Hubert Varnadoe's son, Gene, told a small crowd of family and friends, including University of South Florida anthropologists, that it was fitting to place Thomas alongside Hubert for eternity.

Wetherbee family, courtesy USF Dept. of Anthropology

On November 18, 1914, a fire in a dormitory at what was then the Florida Industrial School for Boys is believed to have killed eight students and two staff members.

It turns out that those were among the first of an untold number of deaths at what became the Dozier School for Boys.

The reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna was finally closed in 2011 after decades of alleged abuse and violence perpetrated against students.

University of South Florida researchers have been trying to identify a number of students buried in unmarked graves on the site.

And now, USF will host a conference Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the fire, which was one of the earliest signs of trouble at Dozier.

Katy Hennig/University of South Florida

Both the University of South Florida and the Tampa Bay Times are reporting that USF researchers sent to exhume the body of a boy who was killed at the infamous Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and buried in a Pennsylvania cemetery found nothing when they opened the casket.

Nothing, except for a few pieces of wood.

Here's what the Times wrote:

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.

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.

USF Dept. of Anthropology

In April 2013, the decomposed remains of a woman were discovered behind a truck stop at I-75 and State Road 44 in Sumter County. Authorities there weren’t able to identify her, so they turned to Dr. Erin Kimmerle and the USF Forensic Anthropology Laboratory for help.

Combining a three-dimensional scan of the woman’s skull with photos from the scene and other details, Kimmerle says they were able to use Photoshop and put together a composite image of what the woman likely looked like.

"The more information that we can learn from the scene or autopsy helps inform us about those individual characteristics, for example, using her own glasses in the image," Kimmerle said at a press conference earlier this year. "But it’s really just based on skeletal anatomy and we hope that it will trigger someone's memory or bring new information to light."

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