Scientists searching for clues at dozens of unmarked graves they found at a now-shuttered Florida Panhandle reform school will be getting some help from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The help will be in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money from DOJ that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson sought on behalf of the University of South Florida.
Nelson wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in May - a copy of which is below - backing the school's application for funds. The school will receive about $423,000 from a grant for universities and non-profits involved in identifying missing persons using DNA technology.
"Hopefully, the scientists can use DNA technology to give the boys who are buried in these 50-or-so unmarked graves a name and to provide some closure to surviving family members," Nelson said today.
Today's announcement comes on the heels of a decision earlier this month by the Florida Cabinet and governor to issue the permits USF researchers needed to exhume the bodies buried on the grounds of the now-defunct Arthur G. Dozier School in Marianna.
The USF research team, led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, is expected to begin work on the exhumations this Saturday. The team will try to match DNA samples they get from any bodies to samples taken from living relatives of boys who died at the school long-ago.
Over the years, the reform school has been the subject of several major investigations stemming from allegations of abuse there. Florida officials closed the school in 2011 following a state police probe into the latest such allegations that found no evidence of any crimes.
But the state probe was called into question late last year when the USF forensic team began examining the site and found more unmarked graves than previously reported by authorities.
Nelson got involved last fall when a Polk County man asked the lawmaker's office for help in locating his uncle's remains, known to be buried on the grounds of the reform school. Since then, Nelson has been an outspoken advocate of the USF researchers. He helped find the grant, wrote the governor urging him to the back the scientists' work, and he visited the Dozier site with Dr. Kimmerle earlier this year. In June, he assisted researchers in collecting DNA samples from living relatives gathered on USF's campus in Tampa.
Information provided by Sen. Bill Nelson's Office
Following is the text of Nelson's letter to DOJ:
May 20, 2013
The Honorable Eric H. Holder Jr.
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Attorney General Holder:
I am pleased to write again in support of the University of South Florida's efforts to obtain a federal grant. I understand the Florida Legislature has set aside limited funding in its most recent budget to support this research. Federal and state funding together would go a long way to support assisting the District 14 Medical Examiner and Attorney General of Florida in the investigation of missing and unidentified children who died under suspicious or unexplained circumstances at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. I respectfully reiterate my request for your speedy consideration of USF's application for federal funding.
In 2011, USF started the task to document and identify the remains of the students who have been buried in unmarked graves at the reform school site. Some of these young boys died under suspicious or unexplained circumstances, making it is necessary to investigate the cause of death and identify these remains. Funding for this project will allow the medical examiner to exhume the remains so additional investigations may be performed in establishing the identities of the persons and in conducting further research to find surviving family members.
This research project is essential and will be in collaboration with a number of other agencies. Once this project is completed, a final report will provide a comprehensive overview. But most important of all, the families of the deceased will have closure.
Again, I encourage your consideration of this grant application. If I can be of further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.