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Florida's effort to exhume school graves is challenged

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 12:56 PM EDT, Sat March 30, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • County officials want to block Florida from exhuming graves at a former reform school
  • They cite concerns over who's going to pay for it
  • The move has upset families who have waited decades to properly bury their loved ones
  • University researchers recently found evidence of about 50 bodies buried at the site

(CNN) -- Florida's effort to reunite families with the remains of their relatives believed to be buried on the grounds of a now-defunct reform school is being challenged by county officials.

Commissioners in Jackson County, Florida, have filed a court motion to thwart the efforts of the state attorney general, who filed a motion earlier this month seeking the excavation of nameless graves on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna.

It's yet another chapter in the long, sordid past of the reform school. Inmates sent there have told tales of brutal beatings, sexual assaults, murder and boys who simply disappeared. The graves, marked only by white tubular steel crosses, have been there since the early 1900s.

Even though the graves are on state property, the county objects to the proposed exhumations because it said it has not been determined who will pay for the efforts of the county medical examiner, who would be directing the effort. In its circuit court filing, the county also said that notice has not been made to the family members of those who died.

Glen Varnadoe has been one of the leaders in the effort to have the graves exhumed. He said his father and his uncle were sent to the reform school in 1934 after they allegedly stole a typewriter.

Mystery surrounds graves at boys reform school

Thirty days later, he said, his uncle, Thomas Varnadoe, was buried on school property.

Varnadoe said his father told him that they were regularly beaten during their time at the school. One night, his father said, he was awakened by guards who brought him to a freshly dug grave site in the woods, where school administrators told him that his brother had just been buried. He was only told that his brother died from pneumonia.

Varnadoe said he simply wants his uncle's remains so he can bury him properly. And he said he is willing to file a civil action against Jackson County to make that happen.

"I'm angry, and I'm aggravated," Varnadoe said. "I think they're going to be in for a tough fight."

"Look how they buried these people," he said. "If they want me to go away, then point me to Thomas Varnadoe's grave, and I'll have him disinterred and moved, and I'll leave these people alone."

CNN's calls to the Jackson County Commission went unanswered.

For years, stories and allegations of beatings, torture and murder have surrounded the century-old school. State authorities have said in the past that there were 31 burial sites at the school, and a 2009 state investigation found no wrongdoing in connection with those deaths.

The case of the unnamed, unmarked graves has gotten a large amount of public attention in recent months, after a research project by the University of South Florida uncovered evidence that about 50 bodies are buried beneath and around the 31 crosses that make up the cemetery in the middle of the woods on the school's property.

In the wake of the university's findings, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, asked the Department of Justice to investigate. Earlier this week, Nelson toured the cemetery site.

"This is something that may be another part of our sordid past. This place was set up in the early 1900s and it was a different era back then when it came to civil rights," Nelson said.

The mystery surrounding the graves first made headlines in 2008 when Florida's then-governor, Charlie Crist, ordered an investigation after a group of men, known as "the White House Boys," came forward with stories of how they were beaten with leather straps by school administrators inside a small, white building on school property.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's 2009 report said most of the 31 boys known to have been buried in the school's cemetery were killed in a 1914 fire at the facility, while others died in a 1918 flu outbreak.

At the time, the law enforcement agency said it could not determine where another 50 boys, who it said died at the school as a result of illnesses or accidents, were buried, blaming poorly kept school records. FDLE closed the case due to the lack of evidence that anyone had died as a result of criminal conduct, and no charges were filed.

Investigators say the records do not explain why the boys were buried on school property in the first place. The boys who attended the school were considered "young offenders" of state law and were placed in the school in order to be "separated from older more vicious associates," according to the 2009 report citing the Florida Children's Commission of 1953.

Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice closed the school in 2011, blaming budget cuts.

Glen Varnadoe is quite happy that the school is closed. He said he's spent a considerable amount of his own money trying to have the remains of his uncle returned to him and his family.

"I don't know why you'd want to try to prevent anyone from returning a loved one after having been buried the way they have been buried," he said. "You tell me what their motive is."

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