"The Right to Know"

DNA samples are taken from relatives of children who died at the former Dozier School for Boys who want to know the truth of what happened there.


By Peter E. Howard

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June 14, 2013) – A big step toward helping solve some of the mysteries surrounding the former Dozier School for Boys occurred Friday when DNA samples were taken from several relatives of children who were sent to the school but never returned home.




University of South Florida researchers are leading efforts to identify gravesites at the school in Florida’s Panhandle, and have submitted a permit for permission to exhume bodies in the hopes of identifying the remains, determining causes of death and reuniting them with surviving relatives.


At a news conference Friday afternoon at the USF Research Park, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies took DNA samples from three people related to boys who died at the notorious reform school in Marianna. With swab in hand, they wiped the inside of the mouths of the relatives and packaged the sample, which will be added to a DNA database for missing persons.


USF researchers, led by Associate Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle, want to use the DNA samples to hopefully identify remains buried on the school grounds. Kimmerle and her team – researchers Christian Wells, Antoinette Jackson and Richard Estabrook – have identified at least 50 burial shafts on the site, some well beyond the boundaries of a small cemetery marked by rusting, white iron crosses.


Hours before the news conference, Kimmerle was notified that no decision had been made on her permit for exhumation because the state Bureau of Archaeological Research wants more information and clarifications on the data already collected and procedures on chain of custody and autopsies on the remains.


U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who attended Friday’s news conference, praised the Florida Legislature for appropriating $200,000 to fund USF’s research and exhumations at Dozier. He said the secrets of what went on at Dozier – including torture, beatings, abuses and “possible cases of murder” – need to be revealed, noting that the federal Justice Department is interested in this case.


“The families deserve the answers, they deserve to know the truth,” Nelson said. “These researchers are doing right for these families.”


Kimmerle said that in addition to the relatives represented at the news conference, four other families also want the remains of their relatives identified and returned for proper burial. She is working with Hillsborough deputies to contact another three families.


“This project is about fulfilling a fundamental human right for families who, like all of us, are entitled to bury their relatives in a manner in which they deem proper,” Kimmerle said at the news conference as relatives Robert Stephens, Ovell Krell and Richard and Glenn Varnadoe sat to her left and looked on.


Kimmerle noted the forensic anthropology work she has done in examining and identifying remains in Nigeria, South America and during her tenure as the United Nation’s chief anthropologist for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.


“In all of these cases, families have come forward exercising their rights to know the truth about the circumstances and the fate of family members who died in state custody and to have those remains returned to them,” she said.


“Collectively, we simply refer to it as ‘The Right to Know.’ The Dozier families have a right to know what happened and to lay their lost brothers and uncles to rest,” Kimmerle said.


The DNA samples taken Friday will be added to the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, and coordinated through the University of North Texas Health Science Center.


If the exhumation permit is granted, Kimmerle estimates it will take about a year to complete the work. A DNA sample from bone or teeth will be taken from each set of remains and be compared with the DNA swabs of surviving relatives. DNA samples that can’t be matched will be catalogued with a unique identifying number.


“Our plan is then to rebury the remains in the Boot Hill cemetery under that number so that if years from now a possible family member comes forward, we can collect the testing and properly identify the remains,” Kimmerle said.


USF researchers began examining the site more than a year ago. They used historical records to research activities at the school, and ground-penetrating radar to look for anomalies beneath the surface that could indicate burial shafts. Their work has identified at least 19 additional graves than previously recorded in school records. There is also speculation a second burial site may exist on another tract of land.


“As it stands now, Boot Hill is not only a mystery but is far from the respectful, orderly and dignified resting place for children who were in state custody at the time of their death,” Kimmerle said. “Even if we identify only a small number of remains and return them to their family, bringing a last measure of human dignity to the boys who are buried there should be a compelling reason for the state to act.”


The Dozier school operated for more than 100 years and closed in 2011.


Items of interest:

-          Documents related to the Dozier School for Boys.

-          Sen. Nelson Tours Dozier Site.

-          USF Research at Closed School Praised.

-          Full Report on Dozier School for Boys.


Images of posters displayed at June 14 news conference:

-          Victim George Owen Smith

-          Victim Thomas Varnadoe (on right in photo)

-          Overgrown areas at Dozier

-          USF researchers map the site at Dozier

-          Letter to Mrs. George W. Smith

-          Unidentified funeral at Dozier

-          Boot Hill Cemetery site map

-          Trench showing soil patterns

-          Radar imaging of possible graveshafts

-          List of children for whom families are seeking repatriation