Search for bodies at Dozier School for Boys begins


News Service of Florida

Excavation of long-buried human remains from unmarked graves at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna will begin Saturday.

The weekend work outside the Boot Hill section of the closed Panhandle reform school is expected to be the first in a number of digs to occur over the next year, University of South Florida spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said Monday in an email.

"USF has one year to complete the work at Dozier, which includes finding the location of any additional burials, the excavation of all human remains, DNA testing and analysis, and the re-internment of remains," Wade-Martinez said.

As questions have arisen about whether boys who reportedly died of pneumonia and other natural causes were killed at the school, the efforts of USF researchers have faced opposition from some longtime Jackson County residents who have expressed concerns about what effect exhuming bodies will have on the local economy and the image of the community.

But Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said that for the families of those who died at Dozier the state must admit what happened, "no matter how dark and how grim it may be."

"In order to move forward, you have to correct some of the past misgiving and missteps that the state has done under previous administrations," Williams said.

The Legislature put $190,000 into the state budget to fund the research, determine the causes of death, identify remains, locate potential family members and cover the costs for any re-internment.

The university researchers led by Erin Kimmerle and Christian Wells have a one-year window to search the grounds for reportedly unaccounted-for bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952.

"We are now giving these young men an opportunity to go home," Williams said. "Unfortunately they did not have the opportunity to go home reformed like when they were sent in."

Researchers using ground-penetrating radar have identified potential graves on what is considered the "colored" cemetery within the site and believe there should also be a "white" cemetery on the grounds.

A temporary restraining order, issued in October 2012 by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, has delayed the state’s intention to sell the Dozier property.

Cooper’s order allows the research work to proceed until the body of Thomas Varnadoe is exhumed.

Varnadoe died a month after arriving at the school in the 1930s. He was 13. A family member from central Florida has sought to move the remains to a family graveyard.

The public will not be able to watch the research work this weekend.

“In an effort to be respectful to the families, to maintain safety, and to allow the excavation work to be conducted unhindered, this will be a closed research site,” Wade-Martinez said.

The final approval for the dig came Aug. 6 from Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.

In May, Jackson County Circuit Judge William L. Wright had denied a request by Bondi’s office to clear the way for exhuming remains.

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