MARIANNA, Fla. — The Florida Cabinet gave the go-ahead Tuesday for dozens of unmarked graves, buried deep in the woods near a now-defunct reform school, to be exhumed, in an attempt to return the bodies to their families.
Gov. Rick Scott along with the rest of the Florida Cabinet voted to allow University of South Florida researchers to begin exhumation at the site of the former Dozier School for Boys in the panhandle city of Marianna.
“It’s a relief. The real work has yet to begin, but now we can now move forward,” said Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida anthropologist who is leading the effort. “We will go slow and test our methods and really be able to make progress when it dries off.”
Many of the families were present in Tallahassee at the Cabinet meeting. Attorney General Pam Bondi voted in favor of the effort.
“From the beginning, I have supported efforts at the Dozier School for Boys in order to provide family members who lost loved ones with closure,” she said in a written statement.
The small cemetery dates back to the early 1900s. For years, former inmates say children who were sent to the reform school were beaten and mysteriously disappeared.
Rusting white steel crosses mark the graves of 31 unidentified former students. Using ground-penetrating radar, Kimmerle’s team have located what she says appears to be 18 more remains than previously thought. All are unidentified.
State and school records show that out of nearly 100 children who died while at the school, there are no burial records for 22 of them, Kimmerle said.
“This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. “Nothing can bring these boys back, but I’m hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve.”
Only 10 families have been identified as having descendants who are buried here. Many are seeking to claim the bodies of their loved ones so they can be buried properly in family cemeteries. DNA has already been collected from many of them.
Glenn Varnadoe says his father, Hubert Varnadoe, and Hubert’s brother, Thomas Varnadoe, were sent to Dozier for stealing. A month later, administrators allegedly woke up Hubert Varnadoe and took him to a place in the woods where men had just buried Thomas Varnadoe.
The cause of death was listed as pneumonia. Glenn Varnadoe wants his uncle’s body found so his uncle can be buried properly.
“I think this is a banner day for every kid who ever went through Dozier, for the kids who are dead, buried and forgotten,” he told CNN. “They will finally be remembered and given a proper burial and finally respected as human beings.”
Former students said the deaths were at the hands of abusive administrators, but a 2009 state investigation determined there was no evidence of criminal activity.
In the wake of that investigation, more former students — now senior citizens — have come forward with stories of abuse, including alleged beatings, killings and the disappearance of students,during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
“These are children who came here and died, for one reason or another, and have just been lost in the woods,” Kimmerle said in an interview earlier this year. “When there’s no knowledge and no information, then people will speculate and rumors will persist or questions remain.”
Kimmerle, who worked on an international forensics team that amassed evidence used in Yugoslavian war crimes trials, called the Florida project a humanitarian effort for the families of the former students and for the community.
Many wonder if the tales of beating and murder are true or if anyone can be charged with any crimes.
Glenn Hess, the state attorney for Jackson County, Florida, where Marianna is located, said, “From a prosecutor’s point of view, these things happened so far in the past, the probability that they’re going to be able to put a probable cause with a homicide with a probable cause that somebody did it, are probably remote.”
Researchers are hoping to begin the exhumation process later this month. It will be a tedious scientific process which the families hope, may one day, answer the mysteries of what really happened at Marianna.
Rich Phillips | CNN