TAMPA — Researchers attempting to identify remains found on the grounds of a Panhandle reform school have begun assembling a DNA database, with profiles of five of the dead now in hand.
A team led by Erin Kimmerle, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida, has unearthed 55 bodies from the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and is conducting forensic evaluations. Kimmerle said Tuesday her team has analyzed the remains of 12 bodies recovered from unmarked graves at the now-closed school, and a laboratory in Texas has completed DNA profiles on five of those samples.
None of the DNA profiles have so far led to a positive identification.
Kimmerle said the team was also creating facial composites from reconstructed skulls. At a news conference Tuesday organized by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, she said that task “was in an effort to put a face back with the names, to try to humanize them.”
At a conference room near Nelson’s office in the Tampa federal courthouse, a poster depicted a composite image of an African-American boy described as 8 to 10 years old.
“There has been a lot of attention on numbers, and it’s easy to get lost in that sort of abstract aspect of it, so it’s important for us to be able to do that,” Kimmerle said.
She also noted that in seven cases where researchers have been able to determine race, the bodies are African-American. That could mean there are two separate burial sites at the school; in the segregation days of the early 20th century, black and white boys likely wouldn’t have been buried side by side.
“I think where she (Kimmerle) is excavating is a cemetery for the African-Americans,” Nelson said. “I think eventually they’re going to find another cemetery. There’s no telling what stories are going to unfold.”
Kimmerle, along with other USF professors and graduate assistants, has been examining the Dozier site for several years after men who attended the school went public and shared stories about abuse, beatings and disappearances.
Some organized as the “White House Boys,” named for a cottage on the campus where the men said they suffered beatings.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the school in 2008. The department concluded that 31 boys were buried in the school’s cemetery and there were no signs of wrongdoing. The school was closed in 2011.
Kimmerle’s group, operating with a $198,000 allocation from the Florida Legislature and a $423,000 federal grant from the Department of Justice, has exhumed 55 bodies from the site. Kimmerle said her team is about halfway through the examination of thousands of artifacts such as coffin hardware and personal effects.
The researchers’ ultimate goal is to identify all the remains and offer them to family members for re-interment.
The search for a second cemetery could be daunting. The researchers have performed ground-penetrating radar studies on only about five acres of the 1,400-acre site.
Meanwhile, USF’s permit to search for and exhume bodies at Dozier expires at the end of August. On Tuesday, Nelson said he would push for an extension of the permit, but that would involve approval by the governor, attorney general and controller — the Florida Cabinet, which oversees state lands.
“I want Dr. Kimmerle to get to the bottom of this,” said Nelson, who has been an advocate of the USF professor’s work. “There are a lot of White House Boys, now old men, that deserve answers about their fellow boys in school — especially the families who don’t know what happened, who don’t know if there was a crime committed, who don’t know how their loved one died.”
At Tuesday’s event, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said his office has helped obtain DNA samples from family members of six boys on a roster of 42 who were recorded as buried at the site between 1914 and 1952.
Those samples can be cross-checked with the profiles provided from the dead by the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center to make a positive identification of remains.