TAMPA — Researchers exhuming and studying remains at a notorious Panhandle reform school now say at least 55 bodies were buried there, five more than previous field work indicated, and 24 more than an official state count.
Erin Kimmerle, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida who has been leading a forensic investigation on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, said the findings open “a whole new set of questions for our team.”
Along with several other USF professors and students, Kimmerle has been examining the site since 2012 after stories of beatings and disappearances circulated from men who served time there as boys. The school was open from 1900 to 2011.
Then-Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into the school in 2009, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that there had been no foul play and that 31 graves on the school grounds were documented.
USF's early work with ground-penetrating radar suggested that there could be 50 graves on the school grounds. The research team received permission from the state Cabinet in September to expand the investigation, and the state Legislature provided $200,000 for the work.
All the bodies found were interred in coffins either made at the school or bought from manufacturers, said Kimmerle. Some were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white, metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves.
Now, researchers will try to identify the remains and determine the causes of death. The bodies were buried sometime between the late 1920s and early 1950s, researchers said.
“We know very little about those who are buried,” Kimmerle said.
They found buttons, a stone marble in a boy's pocket and hardware from coffins. Researchers recovered thousands of nails and a brass plate that read, “At rest,” likely from a coffin lid.
DNA from the remains will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for analysis. Twelve families have contacted researchers in the hopes of identifying relatives that might have been buried at the school, and officials hope dozens of other families will come forward and provide DNA samples to compare with the remains.
Ovell Krell of Auburndale is one of the relatives who already has come forward, hoping to find out what happened to her brother. George Owen Smith was sent to Dozier when he was 14 in 1941, and he was found dead a couple of months later. His family never recovered his body, and Krell hopes to claim his remains and bury them with their parents at a family plot.
“We are hoping for closure,” she said.
Another dig is scheduled next month. Nearby residents and former employees and inmates at the northwest Florida school are helping investigators determine other potential burial sites, Kimmerle said.