Unmarked graves of notorious youth prison snag sale by Florida DJJ

The fate of one of the state’s most controversial youth prisons is now in the hands of a judge as relatives of a dead teenager say they want to retrieve his long-lost remains.

10/11/2012 7:14 PM

10/12/2012 9:25 AM

The grounds of Florida’s most notorious youth prison, a century-old Panhandle reform school, are now a 220-acre money pit that costs more to maintain than the property may be worth. Youth corrections administrators had circled Oct. 15 as the date they could finally unload the place, and its many ghosts.

But the sale of the controversial Dozier School for Boys hit an unexpected snag Thursday as the brother and nephew of a 13-year-old boy who died there in 1934 filed suit in Tallahassee, asking a judge to stop the sale so that family members can find the child’s now-hidden grave.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a decades-long saga involving scores of now-grown men from throughout the state who say they were raped or mercilessly beaten or both at the Marianna campus. The “White House Boys” — as some of the men have dubbed themselves after the squat white-washed cottage where they were whipped sometimes 100 times or more — have spawned at least two books and a movement to extract some type of compensation from the Florida Legislature.

Glen Varnadoe is not one of the White House Boys. He says he is a 63-year-old man who just wants to return his uncle’s remains to a family graveyard in Marion County, where they belong.

“He was a 13-year-old kid, and he deserves, at some point, to be brought back home to his mother,” said Varnadoe, who lives in Lakeland. “All this case is about is bringing a 13-year-old home and burying him with the rest of the family.”

Varnadoe and his uncle, Joseph R. Varnadoe, will appear before a Leon Circuit Court judge at 3 p.m. Friday in an effort to stop the sale of the Dozier property.

Late Thursday, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s chief, Wansley Walters, said her agency will reconsider the state’s decision to close off the campus from researchers and family members seeking to locate the graves of children who died there.

“As secretary of the [DJJ], I am profoundly aware of the historical significance of the North Florida Youth Development Center [NFYDC], formerly the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys,” Walters said. “One of the decisions I am most proud of is that this administration closed NFYDC in 2011. After careful consideration, we will work with the researchers on how best to provide them access to the site.”

For several months, a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida has been scouring the boys’ school campus in search of what they believe to be the unmarked graves of an unknown number of children who died during Dozier’s more than 100 years of operation. In July, Erin Kimmerle, an anthropology professor, asked state land managers for permission to study a portion of the school, known as the South Campus, where state juvenile justice administrators operated a corrections center until last year. The South Campus originally contained cottages, schools and other facilities used exclusively by white children; African-American youth had been housed in a separate campus nearby.

The North Campus, where black children were housed, now contains several ramshackle cottages that — though largely falling apart — were frozen in time decades ago, with furniture, books and Bibles scattered as they were the day the campus was closed. It also holds a cemetery — called Boot Hill — with about 30 graves in neat rows loosely marked by spare crosses of white-washed PVC pipe.

Researchers and others believe white children who died at Dozier were buried somewhere on the South Campus, and they cite the conventions of the South in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s as support for their beliefs. If the children were housed in different dormitories, ate in separate mess halls, played on segregated sports teams and studied in classrooms far apart — why would they have been buried together?

“It was the law of the land that there be separate facilities, and also the custom of the South that whites and blacks be buried separately,” said Robert S. Bolt, a Tampa lawyer who is representing the Varnadoes.

And court pleadings filed Thursday say researchers have interviewed townspeople, former inmates of the youth camp and relatives who say they either saw burial sites on the South Campus or were told about them by people who had.

Said Bolt: “There is plenty of good evidence that that’s where the white cemetery is.”

But in a letter last August, a head of the state Bureau of Public Land Administration, Victoria F. Thompson, denied Kimmerle’s request, “due to the upcoming surplus sale of this property and liability concerns.”

DJJ is spending $357,521 yearly to maintain the property, which is not expected to fetch more than that at sale.

Bids for the Dozier property, — described as “gently rolling, improved and wooded,” in a sale announcement — were to be opened next Monday. In their complaint, the Varnadoes say going forward with the sale will forever prevent them from retrieving the remains of Thomas Varnadoe, whose death certificate says he died on or about Oct. 26, 1934 of pneumonia.

Glen Varnadoe’s father, who died in 1973, was sent to Dozier, along with Thomas, when the two brothers were arrested in Hernando County on malicious trespassing charges, Glen Varnadoe said. A Dozier student newspaper reported that Thomas had been in poor health when he entered the youth prison, but family members long have disputed that claim. The “Yellow Jacket” newspaper also reported that Thomas was carried to his grave by fellow inmates who acted as pallbearers while a large contingent of staff members looked on solemnly.

Varnadoe said his father never discussed Thomas’ death, though he did insist that only he and a grave-digger attended the funeral. “At Thomas’ funeral, they dug a hole and they put him in,” he said.

If researchers can identify Thomas’ remains, Varnadoe said, he would like to place them “right beside the headstone of his mother.”

Varnadoe says he suspects some of the newer buildings on the South Campus likely were erected atop the bones of children who were unceremoniously deposited under the ground, as he says Thomas was. And he fears the boys, like his uncle Thomas, will remain there forever if DJJ is allowed to sell the site before the graves are located and preserved.

“To think he will spend an eternity buried under a parking lot somewhere is just a travesty,” Varnadoe said.

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