TAMPA - Secretary of State Ken Detzner has told University of South Florida investigators he does not have the authority to allow them to exhume graves at the site of the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, putting a probe into potential abuse at the school in limbo.
"Under Florida law, human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes," Detzner wrote USF professors Erin Kimmerle and E. Christian Wells in a letter dated and released Monday. The researchers sought an archeological research permit to increase the scope of their work at Dozier, where they have concluded there are more bodies buried than the state has acknowledged and that there may be a second burial site.
Detzner said disinterment of bodies is allowed in very narrow circumstances such as a criminal investigation. The Dozier investigation has not yet risen to that level, but on Monday, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi told the Associated Press that the office continues to support the effort at Dozier.
"We intend to reach out to University of South Florida researchers to see what options are available," Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale told the AP.
A USF spokesman said the researchers would meet with the school's general counsel Tuesday.
Stories of severe beatings, abuse and disappearances at Dozier have circulated for decades. The school, also previously known as the Florida State Reform School, opened in 1900 and closed in 2011.
A group of men who were sent to the facility in the 1950s and '60s formed The White House Boys, an advocacy group named for a cottage on the campus they say was the site of horrific beatings. They eventually gained the attention of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who in 2008 ordered an investigation into the school.
There is little documentation about the cemetery on the school grounds and who is buried there. The USF researchers successfully sought a permit to perform surface-level research to determine the location of gravesites.
Their work contradicted a conclusion of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which said there were 31 graves at the so-called Boot Hill Cemetery -- 29 boys and 2 adults, all of whom had been accounted for.
After using ground-penetrating radar and soil analysis, Kimmerle's group concluded there were at least 50 graves at the Boot Hill site, and that a second cemetery is likely to exist.
Officials in Jackson County, where the school sits, have challenged any effort to exhume graves. A circuit judge rejected a request from Bondi to dig up bodies.
Detzner's decision not to allow the researchers to exhume the bodies came in for criticism from Sen. Bill Nelson, who has met with former Dozier residents and family members and the USF researchers.
"At this point, it's starting to look like a classic run-around," Nelson said in a statement. "This is state-owned land, it's the state's responsibility and the state of Florida needs to do the right thing and not pass the buck."
Later, Nelson posted the following on Twitter: "Too many children unaccounted for at Dozier. Families have a right to know. If the gov. really wanted to do something about it, he could."
Detzner said that though exhumations won't be allowed, the USF researchers could continue their "important work" under the previous permits. He said hoped that research will lead to the truth about whether crimes were committed at the school.
"To be sure, your continued interaction with the Attorney General, the State Attorney and the Medical Examiner will advance this shared goal," he said.