Recent findings by the University of South Florida show there is nearly double the amount of graves found in the now-closed Dozier School for Boys than previously reported by the state years ago. Alleged victims of abuse at the Marianna reform school say an outside source, like the U.S. Justice Department, would be better suited to uncover the truth than state investigators.
For years, there have been stories of abuse and deaths surrounding the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in the Panhandle that closed down last year amid questions about abuse and deaths at the school.
An investigation two years ago by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement came up with about 30 graves found.
But, according to a group of University of South Florida researchers, that’s not the case.
“The current Boot Hill Cemetery is marked by 31 metal crosses, and based on this and the archival research, we anticipated maybe finding between 25 and 30 burials," said USF Archeologist Christian Wells. "But, in fact, what we found was closer to 50 burials.”
Wells is part of the research teams that worked to document and study the historic Boot Hill cemetery near the Dozier School. The team is led by USF Anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who says there’s more work to do, since she feels there’s more even than the 50 gravesites that were found.
“Additional field work in the other areas surrounding Boot Hill, including test excavations, in areas that were marked by anomalies. We suspect that there may more burials there," said Kimmerle. "We also want to identify specific individual graves and get an accurate account. And, additional research and interviews, including all the various stakeholders involved.”
Kimmerle’s reasoning that there could be more graves has sparked renewed interests in finding out what really happened at Dozier. At a recent Cabinet meeting, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey about the contrast in the reports from USF and his agency.
“There was some significant discrepancies in the two findings," remarked Putnam. "This is just a real black mark on the history of Florida. And, I’d like at some point, to meet with some of your folks to understand better what we’re looking at here as we peel back this investigation.”
“We would be more than happy to meet with you and bring you up to date on what we know. I have not actually seen the report put together by the University of South Florida,” replied Bailey.
Following the meeting, Putnam told a gaggle of reporters what’s really important is doing what’s right for the families.
“Well, we have a family of a child who was kept in the Dozier School who died at the Dozier school, and the family would like to retrieve the remains and bury them in the family plot," said Putnam. "Obviously this is wrapped up in this question of where they are, how many gravesites there are. There’s a question about whether there’s an entirely different gravesite, perhaps where African American students, who died at the school would have been buried.”
“In those days, if there was blacks and whites in it, they would be separated by the distance, so it’s possible the white graveyard is over there and they haven’t found it yet," said Robert Straley.
Straley is one of the boys who says he was abused at the Dozier School. He was 13 at the time. The now 66-year-old says where the USF researchers were digging is believed to be the black side, and he hopes more graves will be uncovered in what could be the white side.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson asked the U.S. Justice Department to step in and assist the USF researchers, which Straley says is necessary because he and the other alleged abuse survivors don’t trust the state to investigate again.
“That is what we need is somebody big in politics who can ask the Justice Department to step in," said Straley.
"The FDLE investigating the FDLE? It just wasn’t going to work. You can’t have them investigating themselves. Just what are they going to do? Investigate the incompetence of the last team?”
Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott says he’s considering all options, including whether there should be another state investigation.
“Well, DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice], as you know, shut down that facility, and I want to look into that we do the right things there for the families. So, I’ll be looking into that,” promised Scott.
But, Straley is not so sure the state will do its best to investigate because he believes they could be trying to deliberately hide the truth.
“It’s worse than an example of sloppy book keeping. It’s just a deliberate attempt maybe to hide some of these for some reasons. We don’t know! We don’t know the answer to that,” said Straley.
“Like Professor Kimmerle told me when we first talked, anytime you find this many bodies in a woods, buried and hidden from sight, and they’re children, this sets up a great big red flag that something is very, very wrong, and I don’t think anybody said it better than that.”
For now, FDLE Commissioner Bailey says he is looking into getting the USF report, and will likely brief the Cabinet at a later date.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.