[Open Post] Updates on the Dozier Reform School excavation and identifications

Dining hall construction with "White House" in background, 1936. Image credit: Mgreason via Wikipedia.

Dining hall construction with “White House” in background, 1936. Image credit: Mgreason via Wikipedia.

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was an infamous reform school in the Florida panhandle opened in 1900. It was closed in 2011 following a Department of Justice investigation into allegations of abuse and murder. Some former students, who were at the school in the 1950s and 1960s, have accused former employees and guards of physical and sexual abuse. Former Dozier inmates from that period call themselves “The White House Boys,” a name referring to the white building where they say the worst abuse happened.

In August of 2013 the Florida Cabinet approved a permit for a team of archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of South Florida to begin excavations at the reform school. The cabinet also approved money to determine the causes of death, identify remains, locate family members, and pay for any re-burials.

From September to December 2013, a team of forensic anthropologists, lead by Erin Kimmerle excavated graves on the Dozier property. Official records indicated only 31 burials at the school, but USF investigators found the remains of 51 individuals in 55 graves during excavations.  Some of the graves were found under roads or trees, far away from the school’s “official” graves at the “Boot Hill” cemetery.  USF investigators said most of the bodies were buried in coffins that were either made at the school or purchased from manufacturers. DNA samples were taken from the bones and families who believed their loved ones were among the skeletal remains. The DNA samples were sent to University of North Texas’s Center for Human Identification for testing.

Because the news updates have been coming in somewhat rapidly, I felt it would be easier to put them all in one post with links to the original articles.

Below is a list of news updates (starting with the most recent) about the excavations, positive identifications, and new details about the abuse suffered by these children.

 February 1, 2016: Bodies Found At Dozier Boys’ School Identified, Families May Get Compensation For Proper Funerals

Representatives in Florida’s Senate and House have proposed two new bills that would require the state to provide a memorial at the cemetery at the Dozier School for Boys, as well as covering “the cost of funerals, reinterment, and grave markers for the boys.”  Read about the history of the school, the process of identification, and details about the Florida state bills over at Forbes.

January 20, 2016: USF’s Final Report On Dozier Released, 2 More Boys Identified

The Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna closed in 2011, after allegations by former inmates of decades of torture and abuse.

University of South Florida researchers have been working for years to identify dozens of remains found in unmarked graves on the site, and they’ve just released their final report.  Read more at WUSF Public Media.

November 19, 2015: Bills filed to help families of boys buried at Dozier school

In an effort to bring closure to the families of boys allegedly murdered at a now shuttered Panhandle reform school, Democratic state legislators have filed bills to provide state funding for reinterments and the preservation of artifacts.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, would reimburse the families of children buried on the grounds of the former Dozier School for Boys between $5,000 and $7,500 for reinterment expenses.  Read more at Bay News 9. 

August 4, 2015 via WFSU: “Sixth Family Reunited With Remains Of Loved One Buried On Dozier Grounds”

USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle announced that the sixth set of human remains from the Dozier School for Boys were positively identified. This body belonged to Robert Stephens who was sentenced to two years at the reform school in 1936 for breaking and entering. According to school records, about a year into his sentence Stephens was stabbed to death by another inmate and died when he was 15 years old. Robert’s body was identified by matching his DNA with a living nephew with the same name.

This same article reported that the USF research team found additional families from which to obtain DNA samples and that the USF would submit a final report on the project in January of 2016. Read more at WFSU.

March 17, 2015 via WUSF: “UPDATE: FDLE to Conduct Inquiry into USF’s Dozier Findings”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that they would conduct a “preliminary inquiry” into the findings of the USF report on the Dozier School for Boys that was published in January 2015. Read more at WUSF.

February 7, 2015 via RawStory: “‘Rape dungeon’ allegations emerge in abuse report on Florida’s notorious Dozier School for Boys”

A report written by USF researchers revealed “horrific new allegations” of physical and sexual abuse inflicted on students at the reform school. Particularly disgusting were the details of a “rape dungeon.”

Erin Kimmerle stated in the report (via RawStory), “After three years our focus is more than ever on the present, educating the living about what happened in the past, mourning with families of those who died at Dozier and supporting them as they seek justice.”

“Even in cases where law enforcement and prosecutors are unable to file criminal charges, transparency and acknowledgement of the abuses are important components for reconciling conflict.” Read more at RawStory.

A copy of the USF report can be found here.

February 5, 2015 via WUSF: “Two More Bodies Identified at Dozier School For Boys”

The USF researchers announced that two more sets of human remains were identified, making this the forth and fifth bodies positively ID’d. The skeletal remains belonged to Sam Morgan and Bennett Evans.

Sam was sent to Dozier in 1915 when he was 18 years old. School records state that Sam was used as an indentured servant at local farms and businesses and was never listed by the school as deceased. The body will be repatriated to his family and reburied once his death certificate is issued.

Bennett was an employee who died at the school in 1914 in a dormitory fire.

Forensic investigators also found a small lead ball similar to a shotgun pellet among the skeletal remains of a boy (via WUSF) “(near the left lower abdomen/upper thigh region of the body) was a small lead ball consistent with a projectile.” Unfortunately investigators say there is no way to determine if this projectile was a factor in the boy’s death or if he was injured by it.   Read more at WUSF.

Above is a list of Dozier students and family members. The USF team would like to collect the DNA from surviving family members and match it to the children recovered from the Dozier graves. Image via WUSF.

Above is a list of Dozier students and family members. The USF team would like to collect the DNA from surviving family members and match it to the children recovered from the Dozier graves. Image via WUSF.

December 1, 2014 via WUSF: “Family Finally Able to Bury Brother Who Died at Dozier (video)”

WUSF reported that Thomas Varnadoe was buried alongside his brother Hubert during a ceremony at the Hopewell Memorial Gardens in Plant City. Thomas and his brother Hubert were sent to Dozier in 1934 for stealing a typewriter. Hubert returned home after nine months, but 13 year-old Thomas never did. School officials didn’t notify Thomas’ family until a week after his death, after they had already buried him. His body was identified via DNA from samples taken from his living brother. Read more at WUSF.

October 9, 2014 via CNN: “Did Florida boys school officials send family a casket filled with wood?”

Probably the weirdest twist in this story happened on October 7th, 2014 when a research team from the University of South Florida (USF) exhumed a grave in Philadelphia belonging to Thomas Curry a boy who died under “suspicious circumstances” at the school in 1925. When the USF team reached the casket they found that contained only a pile of wood but no signs of human remains or clothes.  The hardware on the casket was identical to hardware on the caskets exhumed from reform school cemetery in Florida.

If school officials were able to murder and abuse children, it certainly wouldn’t be beneath them to send an empty casket to Thomas’ family in an effort to cover for their crimes. Read more at CNN.

September 24, 2014 via Bay News 9: “Two more sets of remains from Dozier School for Boys identified”

The anthropology team from the University of South Florida (USF) has positively identified two more sets of remains exhumed from graves on the property once belonging to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys: 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and 12-year-old Earl Wilson.

Thomas Varnadoe (pictured here) reportedly died of pneumonia in 1934. He was sent to the school for allegedly stealing a typewriter. Earl Wilson was beaten to death in 1944, supposedly by four other boys while in the “sweat box,” an isolated cottage on the property. The boys accused of Wilson’s murder were convicted in his death.

August 11, 2014 via The Washington Post: “First of 55 bodies buried at Florida reform school identified. Researchers seek more DNA matches.”

On Thursday, August 7th forensic investigators at USF reported that the first individual of the 51 remains unearthed from Dozier were identified as George Owen Smith.  They said Owen’s DNA matched a sample taken from his now 86-year-old sister, Ovell Krell.

Owen was sent to the reform school at the age of 14 in 1940 for his alleged role in a car theft.  Shortly after arriving to the reform school, Owen wrote his family about an escape attempt and his subsequent punishment.  After that letter his family never heard from him again.

When Owen’s mother wrote the school’s superintendent in December 1940 to ask about her son she got a letter back that said they didn’t know where he was.  In January 1941, officials from the reform school told his family that Owen’s body was found under a house where he died of exposure.  Later, a fellow student, who was allegedly with Owen during a second escape attempt, told Krell her brother was shot at by three men with rifles during the escape.

The USF team said Owen’s body was found in a hastily buried grave wrapped only in a burial shroud, but they couldn’t say how he died.  Read more at The Washington Post.


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7 replies

  1. This is such a sad case; I really hope the families of the people who died at the school are identified and able to give their relatives a dignified burial.

  2. I always hope that we learn from history and bring in something positive from it. Yet, following this story for a while has lead me to believe that it has not changed much from the reform schools from the 1900’s. It makes me wonder if I am expecting too much from humanity. Either way, I hope they find all of them and all are identified. Thank you for posting it all in one spot so I could easily catch up on the information.

  3. How utterly reprehensible what was done to these young men & boys. I hope Satan enjoys his time with all those involved in & covering up all of the abusing all these children under their care! I hope the families get their family members back & can get some peace! Terrible atrocity!


  1. Published by StrangeRemains: [Open Post] Updates on the Dozier Reform School excavation and identifications | GraveSeeker's Diary

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