Sen. Bill Nelson seeking $3 million to exhume Dozier bodies - WFLA News Channel 8

Sen. Bill Nelson seeking $3 million to exhume Dozier bodies

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A team of University of South Florida anthropologists will working to detail the number and locations of graves at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Photo provided by USF. A team of University of South Florida anthropologists will working to detail the number and locations of graves at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Photo provided by USF.
TALLAHASSEE, FL (WFLA) -

On Wednesday U.S. Senator Bill Nelson got a first-hand look at the now infamous Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, a place where former inmates claim beatings, sexual abuse and suspicious vanishings happened.

"[The] first thing is to get to the truth," Sen. Nelson said on the grounds Wednesday. "The second thing is to bring to justice if crimes have been committed."

The state will likely fund $200,000 to cover the cost of exhuming about 50 suspected unmarked gravesites. Senator Nelson is asking for up to $3 million in grants from the Justice Department to cover the cost of matching the DNA from the bodies to potential family members.

"[If] some of these boys died in the 30s and 40s then it's a matter of putting that together and finding the next of kin who's living," said Erin Kimmerle, Ph.D., who's leading the research for the University of South Florida's Anthropology Department. "Because they were children - they don't have direct descendants so it's not that we're looking for their children but rather nephews, nieces, cousins."

THE BACKGROUND

Earlier this month, Florida's Attorney General made it clear she wants answers about what happened at the state's oldest reform school for boys.

Pam Bondi's office filed a petition on behalf of Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Hunter that would allow him to exhume human remains at the former campus of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla. for up to one year.

The school closed in 2011.

Bondi said the petition seeks a court order to exhume bodies from "Boot Hill Cemetery" and surrounding areas, where there may be unmarked graves and unaccounted for bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952 at the school.

"The deaths that occurred at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna are cloaked in mystery, and the surviving family members deserve a thorough examination of the site," stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. "I am committed to doing everything within my power to support investigative efforts to help resolve unanswered questions and bring closure to the families who lost loved ones."

Pinellas County resident Robert Straley went to the school in 1963 at the age of 13 after he ran away from home.

"I would just like to see them find all of the boys that died there," Straley said. "They had to bury them some place."

Straley is one of dozens who have made allegations of abuse for years. He said the beatings happened in a white cinder-block building on campus called the white house.

"They turned on a big industrial fan that made a huge racket. But it was not enough to drown out in that hallow, empty concrete room sounded like a shotgun going off," he said. "You'd hear these boys groans turn to screams and screams turn to begging. They came out with their eyes glazed. They had their hands on their crotches. They were walking like zombies."

"Not every boy that went into that white house came out alive."

But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an investigation and later wrote this:

  • "FDLE interviewed more than one hundred former students and staff members, as well as family members of former students. The interviews confirmed that corporal punishment was used as a tool to encourage obedience, and there was little disagreement regarding the manner in which such punishment was administered. The former students were consistent in stating that punishment was administered in a building known as "The White House" using a wooden paddle or leather strap. Interviews were, however, inconsistent with regard to the number and severity of the spankings administered. Although some former students stated that the spankings resulted in physical injury including blistering and bleeding, there was little or no evidence of residual scarring. Former students also disagreed with regard to any lasting psychological harm resulting from the corporal punishment administered during their tenure at the school. Several former students also claimed that the walls of "The White House" were stained with blood and flesh as a result of the punishment administered there; however forensic analysis by the FDLE Crime Laboratory failed to detect the presence of blood in this location. Some former students also reported that they had been subjected to sexual abuse by former staff members or other students; however, after the passage of more than fifty (50) years, no physical evidence either supporting or refuting these allegations could be found."

Yet in 2011, the U.S. Justice Department said "the state of Florida's oversight system failed to detect and sufficiently address harmful practices at both the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center (JJOC), which together constituted the North Florida Youth Development Center (NYFDC)."

Did it go too far?

Bondi wants complete autopsies and medical investigations to determine the cause of death of the boys.

"Every family that we have talked to has been very supportive, happy that this work is going on ... willing to give a DNA sample," Kimmerle said.

Attorney General Bondi has also supported investigative efforts by working with the Department of Environmental Protection to support a 150-day extension of an injunction barring the sale of the state-owned land.

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