For most of the last decade, Erin Kimmerle has led a team that has tried to find the bodies of students who were buried at Dozier School for Boys – some of whom died throughout the last century under mysterious, possibly violent, circumstances.
Now, the University of South Florida forensic anthropologist and her fellow researchers are returning to the Panhandle town of Marianna to see if they can find any more.
The team exhumed the remains of more than 50 people from unmarked graves in 2013. They returned this past summer after a contractor using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) found some anomalies that turned out to be little more than tree roots.
But Kimmerle, the director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, says they're going back again this month to do a number of different things.
“One has to do with more remote sensing, basically using LIDAR – think of it as like a 3D scan of the ground surface that can be done by scanning on the ground and…with drones,” said Kimmerle. “Some pedestrian survey, which means walking the ground, following up any additional leads that have come in and then taking all the remote sensing we had done over the years and going back to 2014 and around that time, and putting that into the same database.”
“So the charge is basically to use any additional testing, remote sensing, that could help identify potential areas where there may be burials,” she added.
Kimmerle said that the investigation is reaching beyond the Boot Hill cemetery that was the focus of their earlier investigation.
“We're trying to apply this across the entire property,” said Kimmerle. “We did extensive GPR throughout a lot of that property in the past. This is more about filling in any areas that we maybe didn't look at and or applying additional tools so we get more data. Sometimes it's just about adding these different layers.”
She said the biggest challenge they’ll face is a pine forest that was planted on the grounds in the 1980s.
“Forests are always difficult for looking for cemeteries and burials because of the way they're planted because of the root structure. They just create a lot of underground disturbances,” she said.
Those disturbances are what the researchers found when they returned to the site in June.
New South Associates, which had been sub-contracted by a state-hired company doing pollution cleanup of the Dozier property, used GPR to survey almost two acres. They said they found 27 “anomalies” similar to those of unmarked graves.
However, after conducting excavations and other work, Kimmerle and her team instead found tree roots and similar disturbances – but no remains.
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Kimmerle was surprised that New South Associates put out a report claiming the anomalies without much more to go on than the GPR survey.
“It may be just the difference in methods, but the way in which we do that type of work of remote sensing, we always combine it with a lot of historical research and excavation, test pits, trenches, things to really make sure that we know what we're looking at, especially in cases that are high-profile or particularly sensitive,” she said.
“And so that was a big difference in what they did when they put the results out. They did not do any ground testing,” added Kimmerle. “And so that just as a method, the science of it, makes me think, well, we have to be extremely cautious.”
She said an example of her group’s conservative approach to such sites was demonstrated by what they reported when they conducted their excavation of the Boot Hill Cemetery about six years ago. Going in, previous investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said there were 31 bodies in the unmarked cemetery.
“When we did all of our work and put out our preliminary report, we estimated 50 possible burials and found 55,” said Kimmerle. “So we tend to err on the side of caution, and then try to ground truth as much as possible, especially in an area like this.”
Kimmerle recognizes what’s riding on the next round of work, as many family members of students who died and have never been found, as well as students who allege that they were physically abused by school staff, hold out hope that there may still be answers hidden underground.
“I know that there's a lot of stories and information out there about possible individuals who died and were buried. We tried to follow up on every one of those leads that we could, where we could ground truth it or examine it,” she said. “But I know that because you don't find something doesn't necessarily make people believe that it didn't happen. So in that regard, I'm not surprised that a lot of families believe that there may be more (bodies).”
“There may be, there may not be. I don't know,” Kimmerle admits.
READ MORE: Complete Dozier School coverage on WUSF.org
But the years of work have led to answers for at least a handful of families. So far, researchers have positively identified eight people and returned their remains to their families. Another 14 have been presumptively identified, meaning researchers believe they know who those remains are, but they don’t have something specific like DNA to make a more definitive match.
Those presumptively identified remains, along with the more than 30 other sets that remain unidentified, have been buried at sites in Marianna and Tallahassee.