TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – University of South Florida researchers on Thursday announced they had identified the first set of remains exhumed from 55 unmarked graves at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed Panhandle reform school.
The remains of George Owen Smith, who went to Dozier at age 14 in 1940 and was never seen by his family again, were matched with DNA collected from his sister, Ovell Krell of Polk County.
Smith?s remains, which were found wrapped only in a burial shroud, will be returned to his family.
“We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was,” Erin Kimmerle, a USF anthropologist who is one of the leaders of the excavation, said in a statement. “But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.”
Smith’s mother, Frances, wrote to Dozier superintendent Millard Davidson in December 1940, asking about her son, according to the university. She received a letter saying no one knew where he was. In January 1941, the family was told Smith had been found dead under a house after escaping from the school. Family members traveled to Marianna to claim his body, but when they arrived, they were led to a freshly covered grave with no marker.
Krell said her mother never accepted that her son was dead and spent the rest of her life waiting for him to come home.
“So that brings closure to one family,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who helped get U.S. Department of Justice funding for the DNA research. “But think about all the other families that still don?t know.”
University researchers began digging for remains last year at the site of the former reform school, which operated for decades in the Jackson County community of Marianna. Questions have arisen about whether boys who reportedly died of pneumonia and other natural causes were killed at the school.
Nelson told reporters in Tallahassee that the family members of Dozier boys had flown in from all over the country to give DNA samples to the researchers.
“This dirty little secret has been covered up for a better part of a century,” Nelson said. “It’s finally coming out.”
The state hopes to sell the 1,400-acre Dozier site eventually, a move that has been put on hold by the investigation. In September, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet gave the research team a one-year window to search the school’s 1,400 acres for more unaccounted-for bodies.
State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater will work with the researchers to develop reburial plans if and when more bodies are identified. Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam released statements of support following Thursday’s announcement.
“The University of South Florida has made great progress in answering a number of questions about the dark history of the Dozier School for Boys,” Putnam said. “In order to bring resolution to the community and the families, the USF researchers should quickly and thoroughly complete the work that they have begun. The victims’ families and the people of Florida deserve to have the best answers that science can provide.”
This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.
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