University of South Florida researchers announced earlier this week that they've found evidence of almost 100 deaths and 50 gravesites at the defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna – which has spurred U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to demand that the Justice Department join the school's anthropologists in broadening a search to look for more graves, as well as forensic evidence of possible crimes.
Nelson also noted today that he referred allegations concerning a case of abuse at the school to state police just two months ago, shortly after receiving a letter in October from a Lakeland, Florida man, who said his father and uncle were thrown into the reform school years ago, and that his uncle died there under mysterious circumstances. The man now wants to find and exhume his uncle's body.
"The reform school may yield some ugly reminders about our past, but we absolutely must get to the bottom of this," Nelson said today.
The senator's statement came as he wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging that the Justice Department assist USF anthropologists. Nelson's office also spoke with the school's researchers and pledged support for their work and offered help so they could meet their recommendations for widening and completing a full investigation at the site.
The release of a report by the researchers this week said they have evidence of 50 gravesites at the institution, even though state police previously said there were only 31 grave sites. The researchers said in their report they believe more graves are yet to be uncovered at the school, which closed only a year ago following revelations of widespread physical and sexual abuse of youths there since early last century.
The school opened in 1900 and was closed by the state for "budgetary reasons" in 2011.
Allegations of abuse had surfaced previously in 2008, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist ordered state police - the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE - to investigate allegations by a group of former students from the 1950's and 1960's. Among other things, FDLE found that 81 students had died at the school over the years and 31 were buried on campus. But the agency found no tangible evidence to support allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Last year, a group of anthropologists and archeologists began their own investigation into the gravesites. They examined historical documents, used ground-penetrating radar, analyzed soil samples and performed excavations at the site to uncover 50 gravesites – or, 19 more than previously identified by FDLE. The researchers also found 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 research team released its findings Monday and said it plans to return to the site in January.
Glen R. Varnadoe, the Lakeland man who wrote Nelson a Sept. 24 letter, said his uncle, Thomas, died at the reform school after just 35 days there in 1935. Varnadoe intends to seek an exhumation order to bring his uncle's body to the family plot in Brooksville, Florida. "The school and what it represents in Florida's history is a concern for all Floridians," he wrote. "It is time to bring Thomas home."
Following is the text of Nelson's letter to the Justice Department:
December 12, 2012
Dear Attorney General Holder,
Earlier this week University of South Florida researchers released a report saying they've found evidence of 50 gravesites and almost 100 deaths at the now-defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. I am writing to ask that the Justice Department assist USF researchers when they return to the site in January.
The findings come on the heels of years of abuse and mistreatment allegations at the school. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation in 2008 found fewer grave sites and deaths than the USF findings released this week.
For the sake of those who died and the family members still living, we've got to find out what happened at that school. I'm asking your department to provide support and assistance to USF researchers in a broadened search to look for more graves, as well as forensic evidence of possible crimes. The families deserve closure once and for all.
Please feel free to contact Clint Odom in my office at 202-224-8749 with any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.