Researchers Ask Public For Help As They Look To Uncover More Remains At Dozier

Jan 31, 2014

In a few weeks, University of South Florida researchers are expected to resume exhuming the bodies of boys buried on the Dozier School for Boys property. Already, researchers have discovered more skeletal remains than previously thought on the grounds of the North Florida reform school–a school with a history of alleged abuse. And, researchers are now asking for the public’s help in providing closure to the boys’ families.

What's Been Found?

University of South Florida researchers at first believed there were close to 50 unmarked graves on the Dozier grounds. But they say over the past three months they’ve found the remains of five additional bodies. Attorney General Pam Bondi says that’s even more than official state records show.

“I think they’re over 24 bodies more than anticipated and one of these is a six-year-old little boy with marbles in his pocket—come on—buried out there in mass graves…unmarked graves,” said Bondi, recently speaking to a group of reporters.

Bondi has been instrumental in helping the researchers get a permit to start digging up the unmarked graves to provide closure to families awaiting the return of their loved ones’ remains.

What Fieldwork Is Required?

But, to do that, a lot more work is required. Researcher Christian Wells says there have been more than 10,000 artifacts uncovered so far—the majority: nails from the caskets and the coffins themselves.

“Then, with regard to the individuals inside, the artifacts mostly remaining are shirt buttons and belt buckles primarily,” said Wells.

He says they’re now using artifact analysis to identify the people buried in the cemetery.

USF Researcher Christian Wells looks at artifacts Tuesday in Tampa regarding research on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
Credit AP

“And, one of the ways we can do that is to identify where they were made and the range of dates in which those particular items were produced, and that could help us narrow down this list of 55 individuals into much smaller, more manageable groups, and then we can use DNA and other types of analyses to identify who these individuals were,” he added.

Wells adds they’ve also been collecting soil samples and sending them off for pollen analysis.

“At different times of the year, the atmosphere had different pollen signatures, so we hope to be able to identify the seasonality of different burials, whether someone was buried in Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall. That way if more than one individual was buried in a particular year, we can separate it out and identify who is who,” said Wells.

Researchers Ask For Public's Help

Lead Researcher Erin Kimmerle says a lab analysis of the skeletal remains, including DNA testing, may help match victims with those families who have already provided DNA samples. But she says many families still haven’t come forward, and researchers need help. So far, they’ve found 11 surviving families, but need help locating 42 more on a list they’ve made public.

“And, so our hope is that will illicit some people to come forward who may be related, or if there are web sleuths out there, and genealogy buffs, who can lend a hand, then we appreciate that too. It’s something that we have genealogists working on and are working with the NamUS [National Missing and Unidentified Persons System] program and the Sheriff’s office, but the more help that we can get from the public, then the faster that process will go,” said Kimmerle.

Families Cling To Hope They'll Get Loved Ones' Remains

Kimmerle says her end goal is to turn over loved ones’ remains to the families so they can move forward, as in the case of Ovell Krell. For more than 70 years, the 85-year-old has been searching for answers about her missing brother, George Owen Smith, who she hasn’t seen since his 13th birthday.

In June 2013, Ovell Krell gets her mouth swabbed at USF to use as a DNA sample. Her brother George Owen Smith died at the Dozier School and his remains were never returned to his family.
Credit Edmund D. Fountain / AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times

“Well, it would be the answer to many long years of hopes and prayers and it would give me a chance, if I could get his remains, to put him between my Mommy and Daddy in their cemetery plot in Auburndale, and I feel like they would know he was there,” said Krell.

But, she says even if she never gets that chance, she hopes others will be luckier.

“And, like everybody else in this, we hope we’re one of the lucky ones that gets some closure, if not, I’ll be happy for the ones that do,” she added.

Will There Ever Be Justice?

As for Attorney General Bondi, she says getting closure for the families will continue to be a work in progress, but getting justice for the boys who suffered the alleged abuse is unlikely.

“Am I resigned to the fact that we may get closure for these families, but we’ll never get them justice? Yes, and here’s why…And, we’ve said this from Day 1, there’s no one to be prosecuted who’s really left living. And, these bodies are so decomposed, I don’t want to get graphic, but it’s going to be hard. Hopefully, we’re going to be able to identify most of them,” said Bondi.

A USF spokeswoman says researchers are expected to resume their work in late February or early March.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.