DNA from Dozier families could help ID bodies - WFLA News Channel 8

DNA from Dozier families could help ID bodies

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USF researchers take DNA samples from family members of former Dozier students USF researchers take DNA samples from family members of former Dozier students
Boot Hill Cemetery at Dozier School for Boys Boot Hill Cemetery at Dozier School for Boys
Buildings at the now-closed Dozier School for Boys Buildings at the now-closed Dozier School for Boys
TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

Joseph Richard Varnadoe didn't even know if he would live to see this day. The 84 year-old was recently in the hospital fighting for his life because of pneumonia. Friday, at the University of South Florida, he was fighting back tears instead.

"I was afraid…afraid I might not make it," he said as his voice broke. "This has been an emotional trip. Thank God I'm here."

Varnadoe was one of three people who gave DNA samples Friday in an effort to solve mysteries at the old Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, near Tallahassee. For years, people have made accusations of decades of abuse and possibly murder by staff members at the school that closed in 2011. Adding even more fuel to the fire: A USF researcher discovered at least 50 unmarked graves near a dump on the school grounds.

"Those secrets are going to now be exposed," said Sen. Bill Nelson, who was at a news conference to mark the collection of DNA. "You can't do something by not doing anything when you find 50 bodies that were unaccounted for and the state can not simply walk away from this."

Varnadoe's brother, Thomas Varnadoe, could be one of those buried in the graveyard called "Boot Hill." Joseph says Thomas went into the boys school in 1934 but never came home.

"I remember he was a healthy boy when they took him away. There was nothing wrong with him," he said. "He lasted 34 days after he got to Dozier. Then he died"

Staff told the family Thomas died of pneumonia.

"We have no way of knowing what did happen but nobody ever believed that."

Before USF researcher Dr. Erin Kimmerle can exhume the remains there to try and match DNA with family members, she must first get the okay from the State Archaeologist and Chief Mary Glowacki.

She was hoping to get that green light Friday but instead received a letter, requesting more information about the plans and what she found at the site.

"As it stands now, Boot Hill is not only a mystery but is far from a respectful, orderly and dignified resting place for children who were in state custody at the time of their deaths," Kimmerle said. "It is not about assigning blame for Dozier. It is not about shaming the community of Marianna. It's not about criminal prosecution or seeking reparations for families. This is project is about fulfilling a fundamental human right for families, who like all of us, are entitled to bury their relatives in the manner in which they deem proper."

Kimmerle said, if the state allows her to exhume the remains, it would take about a year to complete the work and DNA testing.

"The graves do not appear to have been created in chronological order so we don't have a way to exhume just those remains that belong to these families and leave the rest intact," she said.

As of right now, seven families are asking for repatriation of their brothers' and uncles' remains. Their loved ones are listed below:

  • R. Bennett Evans who died on 11/18/1914
  • Charles M. Evans who died on 11/18/1914
  • Nollie Davis who died on 1/30/1926
  • Thomas Varnadoe, who died on 10/26/1934
  • Joshua Backey, who died on 3/16/1935
  • Grady W. Huff, who died on 3/4/1935
  • Robert Stephens, who died on 7/15/1937
  • George O. Smith, who died on 1/24/1941

Kimmerle said her staff is trying to find three additional families who could provide DNA for others.

Robert Stephens, listed above, had a nephew named after him. The younger Robert Stephens was born in 1969, long after the death of his uncle in 1937. His family never knew basic information about his uncle's death, including how old he was when he died. So Friday Robert Stephens' namesake decided to provide a DNA sample.

"There's been a lot of misinformation and hopefully this will get down to the truth," he said. "It's making me feel closer to him in trying to find out what happened to him."

And for Joseph Richard Varnadoe, who now lives in Salt Springs, this is about more than his family. 

"It's for all the other people that had boys there," he said. "Even though there's nothing that can be done about it now – the truth needs to come out."

FOLLOW JOSH GREEN ON TWITTER: @JoshGWFLA

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