After the bone fragments have been dug up on the property of the notorious Florida reform school—the apparent remains of “disappeared” young boys—they’ll be shipped to a lab in Texas.
That’s where Arthur Eisenberg and his team at the University of North Texas’s Center for Human Identification will perform DNA analysis. If they succeed, they’ll have played a pivotal role in closing one of the lurid sagas in the history of the Florida panhandle: the mystery of why so many young boys disappeared from the Arthur G. Dozier School.
Investigators believed around 98 boys died at the school between 1914 and 1973. Thirty or so of the bodies were sent back to the parents. Some were buried on the property. Others have no recorded burial information at all. Men who once attended the school have told stories of boys disappearing and dying at the hands of school employees.
Eisenberg’s lab, which has worked on such high-profile cases as Washington state’s Green River Killer and Illinois murderer John Wayne Gacy, will try to identify the newly discovered remains by extracting DNA from the bones. It won’t be an easy process. “Older bones become more difficult,” Eisenberg said. “Time takes its toll. If the soil is acidic the acid can destroy DNA over time. Humidity, temperature, and sunlight are not DNA’s friend. There may be some we can’t recover any DNA from.”
“I would like them to find skulls with bullet holes,” says Bryant Middleton, a 68-year-old Vietnam vet. “It will validate everything we said over the years.”
Middleton started at the school—once the state’s largest juvenile reform institution—in the fall of 1959, and he says he felt the sting of a belt on his first day. He was punished for eating three blackberries and was taken to the state-run school’s “White House,” by three employees, including the director, and forced to lie on a mattress soiled with feces, urine, and blood.
“It was filthy beyond belief,” said Middleton, who was sent to the school for the crime of “incorrigibility.”
Then, the beatings began. By the time it was over, his “butt was as black as a pair of black shoes,” he said. “I was introduced to three of the most ruthless individuals I would meet in my entire life in that first day.”
During his one-year-long stay at the sprawling campus of the now-closed panhandle institution in Marianna, Florida, Middleton said he knew of two boys who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. One of the boys, a stocky ruddy-faced blond teen, vanished after he and Middleton got drunk on rubbing alcohol. “I went in one direction up the road and the kid went in the other,” he said. “I remember [an employee] running towards him and grabbing him by the front of the shirt. That was the last time I saw him.”
Stories like Middleton’s persisted over the years; the institution, which opened in 1900, closed in 2011 under a shroud of allegations by other students who claimed they were subjected to severe beatings and sexual abuse and witnessed boys being buried in unmarked graves on the school’s massive campus. Since then, conflicting accounts of how many young men are buried on the property, who they are, and how they died have since circulated. To date, close to a dozen families have come forward asking to have their relatives exhumed and reburied with long-dead family members.
Glen Varnadoe is one of the family members who hopes that at least one mystery will be solved. For the last year, he has been trying to reclaim the remains of his uncle Tommy, who died at Dozier in 1934 at the age of 13, just over a month after he arrived there with Glen’s father, Hubert. The brothers were accused of stealing a typewriter from an old schoolteacher’s back porch. Tommy was buried on the property within 24 hours of his death.
“They didn’t even have the decency to mark the location,” he said. “There is not one headstone where these children were buried. No plot log was ever kept for a graveyard for children. They buried the kids like cats and dogs.”
His death record shows that Tommy died of pneumonia, but Varnadoe believes it was foul play. “They beat the hell out of those kids when they were up there,” he said. “He died there because they beat him to death. My mother said he was high-spirited and that probably got him killed there. He went there in perfect health and by October 26 he was dead. You tell me how a 13-year-old in north Florida dies of pneumonia?”
Last year, Varnadoe filed an injunction to stop the sale of a portion of the institution’s property. “They were going to sell it,” he said. Varnadoe says he has spent close to $250,000 fighting the sale.
Varnadoe believes that his uncle is buried in an area where the white boys were housed, which is about half a mile away from Boot Hill, the section that is currently being exhumed. Varnadoe says he is doing this for his sister who passed away last year. He promised her he would get their uncle’s remains back. “A 13-year-old boy deserves to be brought home and buried with his mother,” he said. “My mission is to recover his remains and when that happens I am done.”
Now a team of researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of North Texas are trying to get to the bottom of the case.
Last weekend, excavators from USF began scouring a section near Boot Hill, an area near where the “colored” inmates were housed. It is said to contain the bodies of 31 boys and two men who died at Dozier between the years 1914 and 1973. However, researchers believe there are actually around 50 bodies buried in and around Boot Hill.
How the bulk of the boys died is unknown. According to school records, some of them perished from illness, physical trauma, and drowning. At least eight boys and two adults burned to death in a 1914 fire at the facility. Some believe staff members murdered many of the boys.
So far, researchers have uncovered the remains of two boys between the ages of 10 and 13. Both boys were buried in shallow graves between two to four feet deep. One of the boys was buried naked in a shroud (similar to the practices used at the state mental hospital) and is believed to have died in the 1930s. The other boy, who was discovered about six meters away, is believed to have died earlier and was potentially buried in an older gravesite next to others. “He is in a row,” says Erin Kimmerle, an associate professor of anthropology with USF, who is leading the excavation. “My feeling was on the north end was the older burial site.” Kimmerle says they also found two buttons and believes the boy was buried in his regular clothing and in a more modest coffin than the other boy.
If the Texas lab is able to extract a sample of DNA, the plan is to match it with a living relative. “We can only examine it if we have a direct reference sample [from a family member],” says Eisenberg. “We will test every reference sample against Dozier but there is no guarantee.” Eisenberg says his lab will also upload the samples from families into its missing persons database just in case a missing boy ended up dead somewhere other than at Dozier. “We will also search them against all unidentified remains that have been collected throughout the United States.”
An analyst from National Missing & Unidentified Persons System has also been tasked with helping the police and university researchers track down the relatives from a school list of boys they already believe are buried there. “We are treating this as a mass disaster,” says Todd Matthews, director of communications with NamUs. “I hope we can find the answers people are looking for and not leave an even bigger mystery.”