Sen. Nelson seeks money to investigate bodies at reform school
TALLAHASSEE — A University of South Florida forensic anthropologist joined U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and the head of Florida's juvenile-justice agency Wednesday for a tour of a burial ground outside the Dozier School for Boys. The state hopes to soon begin exhuming remains of long-dead boys to see if they were victims of violence and abuse.
Erin Kimmerle rolled out a map for Nelson at the edge of a small graveyard where 31 small white crosses are symbolic of bodies already detected by ground-piercing radar. Attorney General Pam Bondi and other state officials are seeking a court order to exhume remains in the area, and Nelson last week was notified that the Department of Justice can make up to $3 million available for continuing the search.
“For most of this, it is historic -- this happened 50 years ago, 100 years ago -- but for families who have questions, and have been searching for their brothers' remains, it's not the past, it's the present,” Kimmerle said as she left the burial area. “They seek resolution and I think for them it's critically important.”
After a media tour that drew network television crews and reporters from papers as far away as the New York Times, Nelson, Kimmerle and Wansley Walters, head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, ducked into the notorious “white house” -- a white-washed brick citadel where survivors said boys were brutally flogged with thick straps and often sexually abused.
The decaying building, doors long ago removed from its nine tiny isolation cells, is abandoned -- although the grounds of the huge juvenile prison are well-maintained as the state looks for a buyer of valuable land near a major I-10 interchange.
Nelson said an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement turned up evidence of 31 buried remains. He said Kimmerle's search of written records and soil samplings turned up about 19 more.
“The 31 was the best estimate, based on what people had memories about and what evidence could be found,” said Kimmerle. “We've come up with a good estimate, but we don't really know.”
Even if exhuming the bodies shows evidence of abuse, State Attorney Glenn Hess said it will be almost impossible to prosecute anyone. He said only one or two employees from the era are known to be alive and that they are too old for prosecution, even if witnesses or evidence could be found.
“The question is, can we establish probable cause that a crime has been committed, and who did it?” he said. “That's the hard part.”
Hess said the county coroner “is on board” with the request for an exhumation order. If a court grants the order, Nelson said, the federal money and a pending $200,000 state budget item would get Kimmerle's crew back to work in the tall pine country near the Georgia-Alabama border.
Kimmerle said a search of official records showed the earliest deaths were reported in a fire in 1914. But she said documentation wasn't kept until 1919 and was “fraught with inconsistencies.” The last recorded burial in the area was in 1952.
Kimmerle said scientists would be able to learn a lot from fragments found from an exhumation.
“Skeletal analysis tells us a lot about the individual profile of a person -- how old were they when they died, their ancestry, their diet and activities,” she said. “If there are disease processes or trauma that affects bone, then that will also be evident if the preservation is good.”
Dale Landry, regional president of the Florida NAACP, said when he was growing up, kids called Dozier “the 'formatory school.”
“We knew it was the reformatory school, but we just called it the formatory school,” he said. “It was a fearful site, very fearful.”
Landry said the civil rights organization is interested in the investigation because “the reality of it is, those kids are buried out there.”
Kimmerle said the “boot hill” area she showed Walters and Nelson was for black juveniles. Nelson said there may be another area of the school where white youths were buried during an era of rigid segregation.
The anthropology professor said precise numbers of burials may never be known, but it is important to try.
“We really don't know exactly how many, or who they are,” she said. “All the focus on exact numbers is not really the issue. Whether it's one or 20 or 40 or 60, we are talking about a child and families that are asking for information.”
Nelson said “this was a very sordid period of our history” but that descendants of “the white house boys” deserved answers.
“What happened? How many?” he said. “Were there crimes committed? Even after all these years, we need to know.”
Walters said Gov. Rick Scott closed Dozier after his election in 2010 because the state had to get away from incarceration of young lawbreakers and concentrate on education, prevention and rehabilitation.
“This facility is the prime example of why we can no longer ignore children in the juvenile justice system; they can no longer be marginalized and forgotten,” she said. “I suspect at this particular school, there were no bankers' and lawyers' and doctors' and politicians' children held here. These were poor people.”
Contact reporter Bill Cotterell at (850) 566-4313