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

Getting Closure Over Dozier: How One Family's Story Keeps Hope Alive For Others

Michael Dye
University of South Florida

The recent ID of the first set of remains of a boy buried on the property of the now-closed Dozier School for Boys in Marianna has helped bring one family closer to closure—some 70 years after the death. And, it’s also helping to keep hope alive for other families awaiting similar answers.

“Ordinarily anybody who knows me, knows I’m never at a shortage to talk. But, I have to say that when Erin [Kimmerle] came to visit me and she revealed to me that they had found my brother, I was totally dumbstruck, said Ovell Krell.

It’s been more than a week since the 85-year-old heard the news from Lead University of South Florida Researcher Erin Kimmerle that the remains of her brother, 14-year-old George Owen Smith, have been identified.

It’s the first big step Kimmerle and her team have now taken to help bring closure to families looking for answers into their loved ones believed to be buried on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys—the former panhandle reform school surrounded by a history of alleged physical and sexual abuse.

In January, Kimmerle’s team announced the discovery of the remains of 55 bodies so far—more than previously thought by the state. Krell is one of nine families that have come forward so far to give their DNA in the hopes of finding a positive match, and Krell is the first—a moment she says she never thought to see in her lifetime.

“I couldn’t believe it after 73 and a half years of fighting and looking and hoping and praying, and I was searching for him, not only out of my love, but for a vow I made my mother and father on their death beds that I would find my brother if it’s in my power…I would look ‘til I died,” added Krell. Well, I’m not dead, but there were times I wondered if after this many years, I was going to find him before I did because Mother Nature has a way of getting ya.”

Researcher Kimmerle says the circumstances surrounding Owen’s death are still a mystery. His last known location after corresponding with his family via letters was Dozier. The family was later notified that Owen’s body was mysteriously found under a house, and later taken back by the school. According to Krell, the family was told he was buried on the grounds of Dozier at an unmarked grave, but they never knew if it was true.

“We see from the remains of his shallow burial an unclothed boy pinned in a shroud, lying on his side along the edge of his grave. It was a hasty burial,” said Kimmerle, speaking during a recent press conference about the official announcement.

Now, Kimmerle says after finding those answers, Krell’s story is an inspiring one.

“Ovell teaches us that it’s never too late for courage, and that we have everything when we have hope. It is our hope that this is the first of many identifications to come,” said Krell. “Through the next years, we continue to work with state leaders to address this dark chapter of our history. We hope to restore justice and continue to find resolutions for all of the families searching for answers, such as a Glen Varnadoe, who is also with us today.”

Glen Varnadoe is one of the first people to come forward looking for clues into his uncle’s fate. He says like Krell’s brother, his uncle, 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe, died under “suspicious circumstances” in 1934, and he was last seen by Glen’s father on the Dozier grounds.

Still, he says he’s very encouraged by the news of Krell and her brother.

“I was happy to see that we had been able to make a positive ID at least one of the 55 bodies that have been unearthed so far. So, that just gives me hope that one of the next 54 could possibly be my uncle,” said Varnadoe.

He says it’s also encouraging for another reason.

“…very encouraging because George Owen Smith was a Caucasian…he was found buried in Boot Hill, which was prior considered the black cemetery. But, it’s obviously a cemetery. I don’t know if it’s the only cemetery. But, it certainly is a cemetery that blacks and whites are both buried in. So, hopefully, my Uncle Thomas will be buried in that same area,” he added.

As for Krell, she says while she’s still very thankful and remains hopeful other families will get similar relief, it’s been a rough week. With finding the remains of her older brother, her baby brother just passed away—which she says kind of put everything into perspective.

“And, maybe, this helped us realize the importance of all of this. But, it’s been a rough week for us, but we’re pretty strong people. And, we’re just thankful we got one blessing and then, we lost a brother who had been very ill. And, this, in a way, was a blessing also,” said Krell.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as well as the Florida Cabinet have agreed to extend the USF research team’s permit to continue their workfor another year. The state is also working on a plan for the reburial of anyone identified.

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.