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Close To 50 Unmarked Graves Found, Linked To Abuse Claims At Infamous Dozier School

Several University of South Florida researchers discovered what could be as many as 49 graves belonging to boys connected to the infamous Dozier School for Boys. The graves are of those believed to be killed at the school, from abuse gone too far. And, the discovery was made at an old small cemetery in the north Florida town of Marianna.

At a small cemetery known as Boot Hill Cemetery near the Dozier School for Boys, there are 31 crosses for the boys who died at the institution, that was shut down in June of last year. Several investigations into the school have shown there was no abuse, but men, calling themselves the White House Boys, who claim they survived the abuse, say there are many people unaccounted for.

“From 1900 to 1910, God knows how many died! Because the conditions were even worse. The boys were in welded chains, they were beaten if they didn’t do a man’s work, which means they got beat every day, they were thrown in with the men at night and raped, bad food, sickness…"

Robert Straley is one of the so-called White House Boys, who says he was abused in the mid-1960s when he was just 13 years old in a room known as the “White House.” The now 66-year-old says records show 84 boys died at the institution between 1910 and the mid-1970s. Ten years before that period, there are no records. So, Straley says he and other survivors from the school believe there could be hundreds of boys buried who haven’t been found.

That’s why University of South Florida researcher Erin Kimmerle decided to conduct a search in that area and see for herself. And, so far, what she’s discovered in just months, is 49 graves in a wooded area off the Interstate. It’s a discovery Straley says that leaves him with mixed emotions:

“Well, I was surprised that she found them as fast as she did. But, I wasn’t surprised that she found them because we’ve known all along that there are graves all over that facility," said Straley. "The brutality there is so bad and was so bad, and it’s 111 year old actually, that not every boy who went into that torture room came out alive simply because of shock from one of these beatings, where they gave you 60, 70, or 100 lashes, enough to kill you.”

Using what’s called “ground penetrating radar,” Richard Estabrook, who’s also been helping with the search, says researchers collect data that is then spliced together for a 3D picture of what’s below the surface:

“So, what we were looking is not so much the bones or the coffins or anything of that sort, but the grave shafts that were dug into the soil. Where the soil was dug out and the graves were put in, that soil is of a different density than the soil around it. It’s been disturbed and that reflects very well on the radar," said Estabrook.

And, lead researcher from USF Kimmerle says while they’re continuing the search, they have their next step in mind.

“What is it that the family wants to happen? What does the community want to happen? How should they be marked? How should they be commemorated? Those are very important questions, "remarked Kimmerle. "And, not questions that I can answer right now. It’s ultimately up to those families.”

The search almost came to a halt when the state Department of Juvenile Justice made moves to sell the property. But, one family of one of the missing boys got a judge to halt the sale until the remains of their loved one is found. The state is also working with the researchers to give them access to the rest of the grounds of the schools to help with the search.

Several investigations about the abuse initially showed there was no abuse at the school, until a federal probe last year indicated that there was, and the same could be rampant in the state’s juvenile justice system.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.