Researchers get green light to exhume bodies at Fla. reform school

(CBS News) MARIANNA, Fla. -- The governor of Florida and his cabinet have given the go-ahead for researchers to begin a grim project.

Richard Varnadoe
Richard Varnadoe
CBS News

They will be digging up the grounds of a former reform school in the Panhandle, searching for the remains of boys who were sent to the school between 1900 and the 1950s.

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On the grounds of the school are a series of crosses, a modest tribute to the 96 boys who died in state custody at the Arthur G. Dozier Reform School. Troubled boys from across Florida were sent there, but often never came back.

Richard Varnadoe's 13-year-old brother Thomas was sent to Dozier in 1934. He died a month later.

"Devastating, devastating -- the only way I know to explain it," Varnadoe said.

Varnadoe said he found out his brother had died via a letter.

"(It said) that he was dead and already buried," he said.

Former students have long claimed beatings were routine at Dozier. Some even suggested murder.

Last year, anthropologist Erin Kimmerle's team from the University of South Florida used radar and soil analysis to discover 50 unmarked graves.

"We found 20 or so individuals that actually died within the first three months of arriving here," she said.

Crosses pay tribute to the 96 boys who died at Arthur G. Dozier reform school. Researchers hope to identify all their remains.
Crosses pay tribute to the 96 boys who died at Arthur G. Dozier reform school. Researchers hope to identify all of the remains.
CBS News

"There are a number of boys who ran away from school whose death certificates indicate they died traumatic deaths. One was shot, one had blunt trauma to the head," she said.

Excavations begin later this month. Investigators will use DNA from living relatives to identify remains.

"To tell the story of the children, how they lived and how they died -- I think that's a good reflection of who as a society we were when they were in the care of the state and who we are today by investigating what happened to them," Kimmerle said.

Richard Varnadoe just wants to bring his brother home.

"It'll probably be emotional, but I would be overjoyed at finding him," he said. "A proper burial and a proper goodbye."

One better than an unmarked plot nearly lost to overgrown trees and time.

  • Manuel Bojorquez

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