In the wake of a call by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and others the state has given university researchers more time to continue an investigation into dozens of young boys' deaths and burials in unmarked graves at a now-shuttered reform school in Florida's Panhandle, a lead researcher announced yesterday. The researchers met with Nelson in Tampa today.
The senator was in Tampa to get an update, view documents and see research material from a University of South Florida lead scientist on the project, Dr. Erin Kimmerle. They were joined by Ovell Krell, an 84-year-old former Lakeland police officer, who lost her brother at the school.
"The only way to know what happened, and to bring closure to some of the families, is to give these researchers the time and access to finish what they started," Nelson said. "We absolutely must get to the bottom of this."
Anthropologists and archeologists, including Dr. Kimmerle, began an investigation last year into gravesites at the now defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. In December 2012, the researchers announced they had found evidence of almost 100 deaths and 50 gravesites at the school -- way more than previously found by law enforcement.
Scientists examined historical documents, used ground-penetrating radar, analyzed soil samples and performed excavations at the site to uncover the 50 unmarked gravesites -- or, 19 more than identified in a previous investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The researchers also found that more deaths occurred at the school than previously known. They uncovered 98 deaths of boys between ages 6-18 in the years from 1914 through 1973.
The previous state law enforcement inquiry - ordered by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate allegations of abuse from students in the 1950's and 1960's - found that 81 students died at the school over the years and 31 were buried on the site. But, the agency said it found no evidence to support allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Nelson referred allegations of abuse at the school to state police shortly after he received a letter in October 2012 from a Lakeland, Florida man who said his uncle died at the reform school years ago under mysterious circumstances. The man, Glen R. Varnadoe, wants to now find and exhume his uncle's body. He is suing the state to stop it from selling the land until a full investigation is complete.
Nelson wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice last December asking it to support USF's anthropologists in broadening the search for more graves, as well as look for forensic evidence of possible crimes. Nelson wrote to Gov. Rick Scott a month later asking him to re-issue permits that will allow scientists to continue their research on school grounds at least through the middle of this year. The state granted that permission Thursday morning.
Since becoming involved in the case, the Florida lawmaker has also heard from other families and former residents of the school, which closed in 2011 amid allegations of abuse there.
"I want to thank you for your interest in finding the truth about what went on at the Dozier School," wrote one woman married to a man who in his youth was a resident of the school. "All you have to do is listen to these men and watch their faces to know that these men suffered the brutality and horror that they describe happened there. While many of the physical scars have gone, the mental scars remain. Many men from all over the country have the same story, have the same pain on their faces and deserve vindication."