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DNA samples could solve Dozier school mystery

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: June 14, 2013 at 07:35 PM

TAMPA — Members of families who have relatives buried on the grounds of a former Panhandle reform school provided DNA samples on Friday as researchers from the University of South Florida continue to wait for permission to exhume the bodies.

Appearing Friday at USF, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida legislators, the families and other supporters continued their push for approval of a permit that would allow an investigation to continue at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Coincidentally, a letter dated Friday from the state Bureau of Archaeological Research advised USF that the bureau would need more information before considering the permit.

“For years, for decades, for the last century, the image has been that there were wrongs committed in a place that back in the old days was simply known as the Marianna Boys School,” said Nelson, who has been pushing law enforcement officials all the way up to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to take up the Dozier case.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation of Dozier in 2009 after former residents of the school, now aging men, circulated stories of severe beatings, abuse and disappearances. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that there had been no foul play and that 31 graves on the school grounds were legitimate.

A USF investigation led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerlee later contradicted that report, concluding that there were at least 50 graves and that a second cemetery likely exists.

“Today we're taking another important step in this long and difficult effort to provide a small measure of justice to the families of the children buried at the Dozier school,” Kimmerlee said.

Since her original investigation, which involved only ground-penetrating radar and soil analysis, Kimmerlee has been navigating a complex process to attempt to do more detailed forensic work.

In May, a judge in Jackson County denied a request for a court order to allow exhumations, kicking the issue to state permitters. The researchers have applied to the Bureau of Archaeological Research and Kimmerlee said a response to Friday's request for additional information will be completed soon.

The Florida Legislature provided $200,000 for additional work at Dozier. State Rep. Seth McKeel, the House Appropriations chair, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, both Republicans form Lakeland, attended Friday's event.

The Dozier case has taken on political overtones with the Jackson County Commission formally objecting to the investigation and community members leery of what it could unveil.

Kimmerlee alluded to that issue in her remarks Friday, saying her investigation “is not about assigning blame for Dozier. It is not about shaming the community of Marianna, it's not about criminal prosecution or simply reparations for the families.

“This 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,” she said.

The school was opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. It was once the nation's largest reform school.

Some of the former attendees have formed the White House Boys, an advocacy group named for a structure on the school grounds they said was used for severe beatings. The men also said there were sudden disappearances of fellow students at the school.

The cumbersome permitting process and a health scare involving one of the family members prompted Friday's DNA testing at the USF press conference.

Joseph Varnadoe, 85, whose brother Thomas died at the school, recently suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia and was concerned he might never be able to provide DNA that would help investigators determine his brother's identity.

So the families and researchers decided to create a DNA database and members of three families publicly had their cheeks swabbed to start the project. Staff from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office conducted the tests.

More families with relatives buried at Dozier are being sought.

Glen Varnadoe, whose uncle was swabbed for DNA on Friday, said the family wants the body of his other uncle, Thomas, moved from what he called “a horrible place.”

“Do I have questions about how he died? Absolutely,” Glen Varnadoe said. “But how he died is not the issue. It's getting him out of there, bringing him home, and burying him with his mother.”

The Varnadoes are among seven families that have asked for repatriation of buried relatives so far.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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