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Dozier Update: DNA Tests, Facial Composite & A Second Graveyard?

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.

The lead investigator, University of South Florida anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle, and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee updated Sen. Bill Nelson on the investigation in downtown Tampa Tuesday.

Kimmerle said that her team has completed skeletal analysis of 12 young men whose bodies were among 55 the investigators excavated last year from the Boot Hill Cemetery at the now closed reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna. In addition, DNA testing has been done on five of those bodies - but that doesn't mean their names are known just yet.

"The result from that testing is a DNA profile, which is entered into a number of databases, and every time we submit more references from families, they're compared and hopefully eventually they will be matched," Kimmerle said.

She added that family members of six more young men who were buried at Dozier between 1914 and 1936 have come forward to submit DNA samples. Investigators are hoping to find surviving family members of three dozen more boys who were also buried there.

Also raised at Tuesday's meetings was the possibility of a second graveyard where more former students' remains might be found - a possibility that Sen. Nelson backs.

He bases his belief on the fact that of the dozen bodies Kimmerle's team has completed skeletal analysis on, seven of them are African-American (there are no results yet on the other five). Combine that with the fact that there's long been rumors of other graveyards on the property and Nelson has a theory.

"I think eventually they're going to find another cemetery, because back then they did not bury the two races together, and so no telling what stories are going to unfold."

Kimmerle notes that they've thoroughly mapped out only a small portion of the grounds, but so far have no solid evidence of other burial sites.

"We have done extensive ground-penetrating radar (GPR) work and ground truthing and have not found burials in those locations, but it's 1,400 acres of land and a hundred years of occupation," Kimmerle said. "So we're continuing that search, we're not finished yet, there's still a number of areas we need to look at."

The search has also taken investigators out of Florida. They want to exhume the remains of a former student buried in Pennsylvania. The boy, 15-year-old Thomas Curry, was admitted to the reform school in 1925. 

Nelson has sent a request to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett requesting assistance, saying Curry died "violently and mysteriously" one month after he was admitted to Dozier.

The coroner’s report says the boy’s death was caused by “a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause.”  The USF researchers are now trying to determine more about the nature and cause of his death. 

And Kimmerle also unveiled the first facial approximation of one of the sets of remains excavated from the site: an African-American boy believed to be between 10 and 12 years old. Researchers reconstructed his skull from bone fragments and then used a computer program to superimpose an approximate image of his face on it.

"We don't have anything specific as to cause of death, the condition of the remains just don't allow for that," Kimmerle said.

She added that the team is about halfway done going through the thousands of artifacts found buried with the bodies, including a shirt button, coffin nails and hardware, and a stone marble. Those materials may help investigators narrow down the time period when a body was buried - and soil samples could even help identify the season a burial occurred.

Dozier was closed in 2011. Some former students allege staff abused them, and claim that some boys were murdered and buried in unmarked graves.

"I describe it - where there's smoke, there's fire," Nelson said. "And we owe it to the families to get to the bottom of this so that they can bring closure on what happened to their loved ones."

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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