Investigation Uncovers Lost Graves at Former Florida Juvenile Facility
by David M. Reutter
An anthropological team from the University of South Florida investigating the grounds of the now-closed Florida Industrial School for Boys (FISB), a juvenile detention facility in Marianna, has identified the remains of three youths buried in a cemetery on the property and continues to exhume other bodies discovered at the site.
In all, the team found 55 graves – 24 of which were outside the boundaries of the marked cemetery – at the facility, which was formerly called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Researchers believe another cemetery for black youths is also located on the property.
The FISB came under scrutiny in 2008 after a group of men publicized stories about physical and sexual abuse they had endured while held at the facility as juveniles. They called themselves the “White House Boys,” after a small white building where the most serious abuses occurred. Some said they were made to lie down on a bed and severely beaten with leather straps by school officials. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.22].
“I came out of there in shock, and when they hit you, you went down a foot into the bed, and so hard, I couldn’t believe,” said Robert Straley, who was taken to the “White House” the first day he arrived at FISB in the 1960s. “I didn’t know what they were hitting you with.”
The White House Boys alleged that some juveniles at the facility who went missing were killed by staff members, and their bodies buried on the property.
Former Governor Charlie Crist ordered an investigation after the stories of abuse were made public. In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) issued a report that accounted for 31 graves with rusted metal crosses in a cemetery on the grounds of the facility. However, the report concluded that investigators could not substantiate or disprove the claims of abuse because too much time had passed.
Straley called the report a whitewash. “All they did was try to do their best to discredit us,” he said. “They focused on that instead of focusing on an investigation.”
The anthropological research team used ground-penetrating radar to find 31 graves in the marked cemetery plus an additional 24 graves during a four-month excavation in 2013. Some of the grave sites were under roads or in the woods, far from the cemetery.
“We found burials within the current marked cemetery, and then we found burials that extend beyond that,” said Dr. Erin Kimmerle. “These are children who came here and died, for one reason or another, and have just been lost in the woods.”
As for juveniles who reportedly went missing from the facility, “For the majority, there’s no record of what happened to them. So, they may be buried here, they may have been shipped to their families. But we don’t know,” stated Dr. Kimmerle, who is seeking approval from the Department of Juvenile Justice to locate another cemetery on the property containing the remains of black youths, which existed separately due to racial segregation at the time.
In August 2014, researchers announced that DNA and other tests were used to identify the first body exhumed from the facility’s cemetery as George Owen Smith, who was 14 when he disappeared from FISB in 1940. The tests did not reveal how he died.
School officials told Smith’s family that he had run away and died from pneumonia while hiding under a house. His family came to get his body.
“They said that the body was so decomposed, you wouldn’t be able to identify him.... they took him straight out to the school [cemetery],” said his sister, Ovell Smith Krell, 83. One of the other boys at FISB, however, had told the family a different story.
“He said, ‘My brother was running out across a field, an open field, and there were three men shooting at him with rifles,’” Ovell stated. “I believe to this day that they shot my brother that night, and I think they probably killed him and brought him back to the school to bury him.”
Ovell hopes to give her brother a proper burial. “I would take him and put him down with my mom and dad in their cemetery,” she said. “I hope I get that chance.” Families of the boys buried at FISB must seek an exhumation order in state court to obtain their remains.
In September 2014, the university team announced the identities of two more bodies buried at the facility: Thomas Varnadoe, 13, and Earl Wilson, 12.
School officials had reported that Varnadoe died in 1934, allegedly from pneumonia, while Wilson was beaten to death in 1944 while confined in a small cottage on the property known as the “sweat box.” Four other boys were eventually convicted in Wilson’s death.
Thomas Varnadoe’s brother, Richard, was five years old when Thomas was sent to FISB for stealing a typewriter. Richard Varnadoe, now 85, provided researchers with the DNA that allowed them to identify his brother’s remains.
“We got the report that he died from pneumonia. We didn’t believe that in a minute,” he said. “It’s been really bad in a way and really good in a way. It’s almost unbelievable to go back 80 years,” Varnadoe added. “I’m elated.”
The FDLE’s 2009 report said many of the graves at the former juvenile facility contained victims of a 1914 fire, while other boys had died during a 1918 flu outbreak. The FDLE blamed poorly-kept school records for being unable to determine what happened to the other youths who died. The report concluded that two boys were killed by fellow students and another was shot by a deputy sheriff while trying to escape.
Five hundred boys were housed at FISB during its peak in the 1960s. Most had been sent to the facility for minor offenses such as running away from home, skipping school and petty theft.
In 1968, then-Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. visited the facility. He discovered cramped sleeping quarters, buckets used as toilets, no heat in the winter, leaks in the ceilings and holes in the walls.
“If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances,” Kirk said at the time, “you’d be up there with rifles.”
Sources: CNN, http://staugustine.com, www.wtsp.com, Associated Press
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