TAMPA — By collecting DNA from relatives and hoping to match it with bodies exhumed from unmarked graves at a Panhandle reform school, investigators hope to bring some sort of solace and closure to the families of those who died there.
That peace of mind may be all those connected to the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys will come away with.
Efforts to compensate victims of alleged abuse have been shot down, and officials aren’t eager to address the possibility of reopening a criminal case surrounding the treatment of boys at the school.
Last week, investigators from the University of South Florida reported that they had discovered 55 bodies at Dozier, five more than previous field work indicated and 24 more than an official state count.
Those bodies have been exhumed and are now being studied. Erin Kimmerle, a USF professor of anthropology who is leading the investigation, said bones, teeth and other objects were recovered from all 55 graves.
Material from five graves has been sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. Eventually, all of the bodies will undergo DNA analysis there.
The Texas center maintains the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a national clearinghouse for missing person cases, unidentified remains, unidentified living individuals and unclaimed bodies. It has processed more than 5,000 human remains since 2003.
❖ ❖ ❖
Relatives such as Glen Varnadoe are hoping for a match.
Varnadoe sued over plans to sell the Dozier property in 2012, eventually reaching a settlement with the state that allowed USF to search the site until August of this year.
Varnadoe’s uncle, Thomas Varnadoe, died at the school in 1934.
“I’m not interested at this point whether he was killed or died of natural causes,” Varnadoe said. “All I’m interested in is recovering his remains, which I have a civil right to do, and the state has the obligation to deliver him to me.”
Varnadoe said his father, Richard Varnadoe, who died in 1992, was sent to the reform school at age 13 along with his uncle, then 15. “My father was affected by this for the rest of his life,” Glen Varnadoe said. “To watch his brother die and be buried the way he was, it was just a horror for him.”
Glen Varnadoe intends to have his uncle’s remains interred in a family plot in Brooksville.
Orvell Krell is also hoping for a positive DNA match. Her brother, George Owen Smith, was sent to Dozier in 1941 at age 14, and she never saw him again.
“This has always been my wish, all my life, if there was just some way we could go back and get him — especially after I lost my parents,” Krell said.
She intends to inter her brother’s remains at a family plot in Auburndale.
Researcher Kimmerle said her team would attempt to answer as many questions about the timing and circumstances of Dozier deaths as possible, but the purpose of their work is finding graves and identifying the boys in them.
“This project has always been about fulfilling a fundamental human right,” she said at a Tuesday news conference. “Families, like all of us, have a right to know what happened to their loved ones.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Some of the men who spent time at Dozier and their families have sought more than just the cooperation of the state in identifying bodies. In 2009, four men seeking class-action status sued several Florida agencies and two employees at the school seeking monetary damages.
A judge dismissed the complaint, citing statutes of limitations on assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other claims cited in the suit, along with other technicalities.
The suit includes graphic allegations of brutality. It states boys at the school were subjected to physical and psychological abuse “which falls below all standards of civilized conduct and decency, and which would more likely be expected to occur in a torture chamber located in a concentration camp.”
The lawsuit stated that children were subject to beatings “during which they were required to lay face down on a cot with their faces in a pillow which was stained with blood and mucus from other boys who had been abused. The boys were ordered to hold the rails on the bed, as they were struck on the buttocks, legs and back with a weighted leather razor strap.”
It said boys were at times taken to the infirmary to have small pieces of their cotton underwear extracted from their flesh with tweezers and surgical tools.
The suit accused employees of sexual assault, and said boys were sodomized with a “probing rod.”
In 2010 and 2011, claims bills were introduced in the state Legislature that would have compensated Dozier attendees, but a special master blocked it.
“No one could even come close to imagining what those young boys had to deal with, and of course, now we’re finding out that many more are dead and buried at the site,” said Mike Fasano, who as a state senator in 2011 submitted the claims bill.
“Not only should survivors be compensated, but the families of those that are no longer alive, they also should be compensated,” Fasano said. “A ‘sorry’ is not sufficient.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Greg Hoag, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the 2009 suit, said a future claims bill remains an option.
Such reparations are not unprecedented. In 1994, lawmakers passed a bill awarding $2.1 million to survivors and descendants of victims of the 1923 Rosewood riot, when a white mob killed four black men and burned the town near Cedar Key to the ground.
Hoag said he and hundreds of potential plaintiffs are “just monitoring the work that USF is doing.”
It is conceivable that if the USF team discovers evidence of wrongdoing, a criminal case could result. But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2009 investigated allegations of abuse at the school and presented the results to State Attorney Glenn Hess, who oversees the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit in the Panhandle. Hess ruled there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges.
Hess did not respond to a request for an interview, and a spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said no one was available for an interview.
“I’ve talked to every office in this state, and they’re not going to do anything,” said Jerry Cooper, head of the White House Boys, a group of former Dozier wards who named themselves for a cottage where they say the beatings took place.
“It’s a sad situation. It’s a black situation, and it’s a sick situation,” Cooper said. “You’d never think that something like this would happen in the United States of America. It just shouldn’t have happened.”