University of South Florida researchers have now identified two more sets of remains of the boys buried on the Panhandle property of the now defunct Dozier School for Boys. While one boy is the first black student identified, another belongs to the family that helped spark renewed interest into finding answers about what happened at the Marianna school surrounded by a history of alleged abuse.
Back in 2012, there were discrepancies in a report between the state and a report by USF researchers about the remains found, which Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam brought up at a Cabinet meeting.
“We’ve had family members reach out to our office who would like to exhume loved ones bodies and put them with the family, and this is just a real black mark on the history of Florida,” said Putnam, at the time.
That family was the Varnadoe family, who were looking for closure into what happened to 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe who died in 1934, about a month after he was admitted to the school.
Glen, his nephew, says his uncle died under suspicious circumstances, and had been searching for the body for years.
“In October of 2012, literally fulfilling a death bed promise to a sister to find Thomas, I reached out to the state and many federal representatives for help,” said Glen, which is why he's grateful to Putnam for renewing interest in the search for clues.
“I’d like to thank him for his willingness to help, for his heartfelt, and kind staff, for bringing up the Dozier subject with the Florida Cabinet, for his support of time and funding for USF to investigate and discover the remains of our family member that has now been rescued and after 80 years, we’ll finally have closure,” he added.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday in Tampa, Glen says he and his family are happy with the news from lead USF researcher Erin Kimmerle. She announced her team had finally found those remains of Thomas, after a positive DNA match to his older brother, Richard.
“We found Thomas in a grave very close to George Owen Smith, who we identified last month,” said Kimmerle. “It was a simple wood casket without handles or distinctive hardware located in the woods. There was no evidence of clothing or a shroud. We cannot tell Thomas died as the condition of his remains are not such that we can determine cause of death.”
According to his death certificate, Thomas died of pneumonia, which his family does not believe. Meanwhile, Kimmerle and her team also announced they’d found the remains of 12-year-old Earl Wilson, the first African American identified.
About two months after he was admitted to the school in August of 1944, Earl was beaten to death by four students in small confined cottage referred to as the “sweat box.”
“Like Thomas, the story of Earl Wilson is a pointed reminder of what juvenile justice was like for children in custody,” added Kimmerle.
And, Wayne Wilson shared his gratitude for finding his uncle Earl. He says he remembers growing up and always hearing about Earl from his mother.
“I didn’t know that Earl left the House and never came back, but when I heard about it, it really bothered me to see her brother leave the House and never get to see him again,” said Wayne.
That’s why he says when his family got the news that they had gotten a positive DNA match, his mother was especially grateful for the news.
“It was a big relief to her, me, and my other brothers, and to think of all of her sisters that all had passed, they didn’t get a chance to get this closure, and her other brothers that passed who didn’t hear what happened today. I can’t thank enough what everyone has done. It’s wonderful and I just want to say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’” he added.
Other officials, like Attorney General Pam Bondi and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, were also instrumental in making sure the issue stays alive, and Nelson says there’s still more work to do.
“The closure for three families is in large part due to the fact that Erin Kimmerle will not be deterred, and I suspect there will be many more in the future,” said Nelson.
And, Glen Varnadoe had a similar message for other families still awaiting results. He was in that position last month, when researchers had identified George Owen Smith’s remains, the first to be identified.
“May God bless you all, and may those still waiting to bring home loved ones keep the faith,” said Varnadoe.
Researchers recently got an extension to work through August 2015 to ID more than the three recently identified remains of the 55 unmarked graves found on the property.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.