Crime
5:31 pm
Tue August 6, 2013

Governor, Cabinet Approve Search For Bodies At Dozier

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., talks to reporters at the closed Dozier School for Boys in March with University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle (left) and Wansley Walters, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Credit Bill Cotterell / Reuters/Landov

As expected, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday authorized a year-long dig for human remains at a closed Panhandle reform school, saying the state cannot ignore abuse that went on for decades.

Scott and Cabinet members --- Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam --- approved a land-use agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection that allows University of South Florida researchers to search for reportedly unaccounted-for bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952 at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

“We’re not exactly sure what happened there, but we know it wasn't good," Bondi said.

“We have to look at our history," she added. "We have to go back, we know there are unmarked graves currently on that property that deserve a proper burial. It's the right thing to do.”

Putnam said that the search for bodies is not an indictment of the Marianna or Jackson County communities, but against a facility "that was ignored for too long by state."

“There is no shame in searching for the truth," Putnam added. "Families who want closure, who want answers, deserve those things.”

A temporary restraining order, issued in October 2012 by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, has delayed the state's intention to sell the Dozier property.

The efforts of USF researchers have faced opposition from some longtime Jackson County residents who expressed concerns about what effect exhuming bodies from lands around the one-time "high risk" reform school will have on the local economy and the image of the community.

Sid Riley, publisher of the Jackson County Times, implored Scott on Aug. 1 to deny USF's request "to dig up those Christian buried grave sites at Dozier."

Riley expressed concern about how removing of bodies will impact the local economy and that survivors will try to use what may be found to seek "reparations" from the state.

"The bad publicity which will ensue during the year or more of time which will be involved will seriously hamper our local tourism development programs, as well as economic development efforts for our county," Riley wrote. "Please do not allow them to engage in this greed motivated waste of money."

Cooper's order allows the research work to proceed until the body of Thomas Varnadoe is exhumed.

Varnadoe died a month after arriving at the school in the 1930s. He was 13. A family member from central Florida has sought to move the remains to a family graveyard.

The researchers have been investigating the Panhandle school, which at one time encompassed 1,400 acres, to determine whether boys at the reform school were possibly killed and buried on school grounds.

Robert Strayley, 66, who was sent to the school in 1963 after running away from his home in Tampa several times, recalled that floggings were still being administered to boys at the school throughout his 10-month stay.

"This is a historic moment for Florida because they reached into a past for Florida that was so dark that nobody wants to talk about it," said Strayley, who attended the Cabinet meeting with others who had been sent to the school and are known as the "the White House Boys" and "Dozier Boys."

"Even after they banned flogging in 1922, by Gov. (Cary) Hardee, as being too cruel punishment for even the most hardened criminal, it went on at this boy's school," Strayley said.

Researchers using ground-penetrating radar have identified potential graves on what is considered the "colored" cemetery within the site and believe there should also be a "white" cemetery on the grounds.

The Legislature put $190,000 into the state budget to fund the research, determine the causes of death, identify remains, locate potential family members and cover the costs for any re-internment.

However, the excavation work has been on hold as researchers have been unable to get needed approval to dig.

On July 15, Secretary of State Ken Detzner denied a permit sought by the USF researchers to dig at the Panhandle site.

Detzner said his department's Bureau of Archaeological Research didn't have the authority to approve the excavation, noting that the department is "restricted to the recovery of objects of historical or archaeological value," but "not human remains." 

In May, Jackson County Circuit Judge William L. Wright denied a request by Bondi's office that also could have cleared the way for exhuming remains.