© 2024 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Families Hopeful Researchers Will Uncover Loved Ones' Remains On Dozier Grounds

There are at least ten families awaiting the return of their loved ones’ remains from the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. They’re hoping researchers who spent last weekend at the school can match DNA samples they’ve provided to DNA found at the site. It’s the latest step in closing what, for some, has been a decades-long mystery.

University of South Florida researchers are set to come back later this fall to continue exhuming the remains of the buried boys at the now-closed Marianna school.

In the same spot–known as Boot Hill Cemetery–where 50 unmarked graves were found last year, a team led by USF Anthropologist Erin Kimmerle found two skeletal remains of boys believed to be 10 to 15 years old during their Labor Day weekend dig.

“We actually found a little bit of coffin hardware, a little bit of coffin wood—that was unexpected given the amount of time that’s passed—dental and skeletal remains. So, we have samples to send off for DNA,” said Kimmerle.

In addition to the ten families already on the list, Kimmerle says researchers are now in the process of locating more families who want their relatives’ remains returned once her team identifies them.

“It’s a very long process because as children they didn’t have direct descendants and the parents had the last known address over 50 years ago. So, you have to really find the aunts and uncles and then the cousins and then go down a generation or two and find where are these people living today and how to reach them,” she added.

One new family that’s come forward is the Due family from Georgia. In a CNN video shot during the recent dig, John Due, the family’s patriarch, goes to the cemetery at the start of the dig, surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson.

“When we heard that the state of Florida permitted University of South Florida to proceed to help identify these bodies, we hope we can find my wife’s uncle, Robert Stephens,” said Due.

The 78-year-old and his family also held a memorial for his wife’s relative on the Dozier grounds. Records show Stephens died in the late 1930s after he was stabbed by another student.

“Now, we’re not here to castigate the state of Florida, but it was important to me to make sure my grandson understands the history of why his great-uncle is here, so that we can continue to help develop a reconciliation so we can move forward,” he added.

Another family hoping to move forward is the Varnadoes. They’re one of the first families to ask for the exhumations. 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe died in 1934, after about 40 days at the reform school. Glen Varnadoe says both his uncle Thomas and Glen’s father were sent to the Dozier school, but only Glen’s father was released.

“They checked in late September and by October 26th, my uncle was dead. And, he was dead and buried within 24 hours with no autopsy, no funeral procession, no notification to the family, no anything,” said Glen.

He says he hopes Kimmerle’s team finds his uncle so he and his family can close this chapter in their lives. Still, he’d like some answers about what he calls the “suspicious circumstances” of his uncle’s death. School records show he died of pneumonia.

“If you go back and review the number of cases of the number of children who died of lobar pneumonia on death certificates, you’ll see a pattern, and when you couple that with the fact that about 20-percent of the kids who checked in there were dead within 35-40 days of checking in, there’s also a pattern there,” he added.

Researchers may come back next month, but unfavorable weather conditions could delay their return.  Kimmerle says she believes with state help and federal grant money they’ve received, the team is on target to meet its goal of completing the dig within a year.

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.