USF gets OK to exhume bodies at Dozier school
TALLAHASSEE — The ghosts of Dozier may finally rest.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously Tuesday to allow University of South Florida researchers to locate, exhume and identify human remains at a defunct but still-notorious boys’ reform school in the Panhandle.
“We know there are unmarked graves on that property (with boys) who deserve proper burial,” Attorney General Pam Bondi, who championed the search, said just before she and the rest of the Cabinet cast their votes. “We must do what is right.”
Former students at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna have said the school, opened in 1900 and closed in 2011, was the scene of physical and sexual abuse and even wrongful death. A building called the “White House” was known for floggings and other beatings.
USF anthropologists previously found at least 50 gravesites on the grounds, about 70 miles west of Tallahassee. They suspect there may be as many as 100 and possibly more.
“A lot of us are seeking closure,” said John Bonner of Tampa, who was a Dozier resident from 1967 to 1969. He was sent to the reform school after a juvenile breaking-and-entering charge.
“A lot of people were abused there. A lot of people’s rights were trampled on,” Bonner said. “I was strapped with the belt so many times, one time just for looking at a supervisor the wrong way.”
Bonner and other students “had no recourse, nobody to turn to,” he added. “Nobody cared about us. Nobody.”
Tuesday’s land-use agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection enables the USF anthropology department to investigate the grounds for one year. The Cabinet acted in its capacity as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund. The school grounds are still state property.
In 2011, a team led by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle got permission to use ground-penetrating radar and do surface digging in a cemetery known as Boot Hill on the grounds.
They found more bodies than were listed in official reports at the time and discovered that a series of crosses that supposedly marked graves didn’t match burial records.
The team also learned that some of the makeshift graves were adjacent to a garbage dump and others were in danger of being destroyed by roots and water seepage.
USF applied to a circuit court judge to expand the investigation and remove remains from the site, but was denied. The university then went to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who declined to grant the necessary permit, saying it was outside his department’s jurisdiction.
Detzner was appointed by and reports to Scott. The governor, who previously extended his sympathy to family members of boys buried in Marianna, ignored a question Tuesday about the Dozier decision at his customary post-Cabinet meeting news conference.
Still, he joined in the unanimous vote with Cabinet members Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Putnam told USF deputy general counsel Gerard Solis he was happy to help.
“I don’t know why the Department of State was unable to find the appropriate rationale … but I’m delighted this Cabinet can provide you with the remedy to pursue the search for the truth,” Putnam said.
With the Cabinet’s OK, researchers now can try to identify remains and let families bury their dead. Family members of former Dozier students have provided DNA in hopes of identifying remains. The team’s findings might lead to a larger investigation into how the boys died.
“I never thought we’d get this far,” said Robert W. Straley, another Dozier student. He was there in 1963 and 1964 for running away from home four times.
“When Erin Kimmerle came out and found all those graves, and we realized there was a bigger picture, then it was all about finding those boys, and getting them up out of the darkness and into the light,” Straley said. “That’s the way it should be.”