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Thursday, Mar 23, 2017
Crime & Courts

Lingering question from Dozier school report: What to do with remains

TALLAHASSEE — A University of South Florida team of anthropologists has dug up its last body at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, but the task of identifying them all and finding their surviving family members could take years.

Also ahead are questions of what to do with the bodies that haven’t been identified, what kind of memorial to build for the boys of Dozier, getting state money to help with the burials, and deciding what to do with the land, which turns out to be laced with contaminants.

“We are finished with the field work and lab work, but we are still working on some identification issues,” said Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthropologist who began the project of finding and identifying the bodies at the 1,400-acre campus in 2012.

Kimmerle delivered the team’s final report to the Florida Cabinet on Thursday, presenting Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam with photographs and artifacts of the dig.

“I don’t think it takes an act of the Legislature to say what needs saying, but I’m really sorry for what those boys endured as wards of the state,” Putnam said.

Also at the hearing were Marianna and Jackson County officials and civic leaders, relatives of former inmates, and members of the White House Boys — a group of former inmates at Dozier who get their name from a building where they were taken to be whipped.

Putnam encouraged them all to get together with the Departments of State and Environmental Protection to come up with an appropriate memorial.

“We need to remember these victims and have an opportunity to heal by doing something with that property,” he said.

Over three years, a team that included more than 100 volunteers from 20 agencies excavated 55 graves around an area called the Boot Hill Burial Ground, marked by 31 white metal crosses, as well as the site of a 1914 dormitory fire and the south campus.

They found 51 bodies, but three were charred too present any usable DNA remains, Kimmerle said.

To identify the remains, the USF team exhausted every credible lead, all developed by examining ledgers, talking to witnesses and pursuing stories, Kimmerle said.

“At this point, we have gone down all those different paths and have no more information to say we need to look here,” she said. “If I believed there were more, I’d still be up there doing the work.”

The bodies of seven boys have been identified to date, four of them returned to their families and buried. The relatives include Robert Stephens, whose paternal nephew was traced to Tampa.

The three other bodies are pending “repatriation,” Kimmerle said, including the two most recently identified — Loyd Dutton of Lee County and Grady Huff of St. Petersburg. Dutton, who died in 1918, had the oldest DNA sample found, she said. Investigators traced his DNA to a great grand-nephew. His time of death coincided with an influenza outbreak at the school, but the cause of death is unknown.

Huff died in 1935 from “acute nephritis, followed by hernia” 211 days after his arrival at Dozier. They matched his DNA remains to a maternal cousin and three other cousins.

“We don’t even know who these children are except through scientific and DNA analysis,” said Jerry Cooper, president of the White House Boys. “I’m disgusted at the way children were taken care of and the way they died.”

USF will continue its partnership with the University of North Texas, where DNA samples were sent for analysis, said Greg Thomas, a master detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

“It may be many years before we get a hit on a particular DNA sample,” Thomas said.

Working on the project confirmed the effectiveness of forensic anthropology in helping police identify bodies, Thomas said. “So far the record proves technology and biological analysis works, especially with degraded remains.”

Kimmerle has been helping the sheriff’s office for years. Thomas first worked with the USF anthropologist on a 2010 murder investigation, identifying a body that had been found under a concrete slab in a yard in Plant City. Kimmerle identified the body as missing lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the Panhandle reform school in 2009 only to confirm what school records reported – the 31 boys buried at Boot Hill were all accounted for and were not victims of foul play. The school was shut down in 2011.

Kimmerle and her team found otherwise.

Assembled with the financial assistance of the Legislature, the USF provost’s office, the National Institute of Justice, and private donations, the team set out to locate and identify missing children buried at the 1,400-acre Dozier campus.

The team found 20 more unmarked graves than they were expecting.

“They need to continue to search,” said Peggy Marx of Lake City, widow of Frank Marx, one of the White House Boys. “They need to take the men that dug the graves on the site and show them where they dug.”

Some mysteries remain unsolved, such as how the children died. Some died in the 1914 dormitory fire, others died during the 1918 influenza outbreak, but records only mentioned the number of deaths and didn’t give their names.

Family members and former students who are now adults have said for decades that children were killed by guards or disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

Andrew Puel, who co-authored several books with Roger Dean Kiser, founder of the White House Boys, told the Cabinet about an inmate who worked in the kitchen and saw a boy chased into the woods by an employee who drew his pistol and shot the boy.

The USF investigation didn’t address those reports. A lack of documentation and incomplete records made proving cause of death nearly impossible, researchers said, and “many questions persist about who is buried at the school and the circumstances surrounding their deaths.”

The investigation also found that three-quarters of the unnamed missing children were African-American. “This investigation showed the impact of segregation,” said USF anthropology profess Antoinette Jackson.

The school was segregated until 1968.

Tallahassee NAACP President Dale Landry said something needs to be done with the bodies, which are currently being stored at USF’s forensics lab.

“The state has a responsibility for the remains until they are returned to their families, which might be next year or 20 years from now,” Landry said.

The church at Dozier could be turned into mausoleum, he told the Cabinet.

“They’ve got to keep in a sacred place,” Landry said. “What better place than that church at Dozier.”

Legislation has been introduced by Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, to preserve records, archives, artifacts and other historical resources, maintain a memorial to the victims, and provide money to help families to reinter the bodies of their loved ones once they are identified.

USF anthropology professor Christian Wells, the lead archaeologist on the investigative team, said soil samples uncovered a potentially deadly chemical contamination on the Dozier campus. His samples found traces of mercury, lead, arsenic and asbestos.

“Some portions of the campus could be very unhealthy and needs an environmental assessment,” Wells said.

The cabinet, sitting as the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, needs to decide how to move forward, said Jon Steverson, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The ball may be in DEP’s court next.

“It seems like the direction was to take a look at the environmental situation,” said David Clark, director of the department’s Office of Cabinet Affairs.

jschweers@tampatrib.com

(850) 758-1546

@jeffschweersTBO

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