Florida requests exhumations at former boys' school

Story highlights

  • Florida's attorney general has requested a court allow exhumations at a defunct school
  • The court could make a decision in the next few weeks
  • A forensic team has determined that 50 graves exist on school grounds
  • A 2009 state investigation said 31 boys are buried there, and most died from a fire and flu
Ovell Smith Krell has spent the better part of her 84 years wondering how her brother died at a Florida reform school in 1940, and where he may be buried. Today, she appears to be one step closer to finding out.
Florida's attorney general filed a petition on Tuesday asking a state court to approve the exhumation of an unknown number of bodies believed to be buried at the now-defunct school in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna.
"The deaths that occurred at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna are cloaked in mystery, and the surviving family members deserve a thorough examination of the site," stated Attorney General Pam Bondi, who filed the petition on behalf of Jackson County's medical examiner.
"I am committed to doing everything within my power to support investigative efforts to help resolve unanswered questions and bring closure to the families who lost loved ones."
Krell -- who believes her brother, Owen, was buried on the school's property -- says she's overjoyed at the news.
"We know they're there and once they start digging, then maybe we can find remains and I hope one of them is my brother," she told CNN. "I want his remains brought up, and if I get my brother I would be ecstatic."
Ovell Smith Krell says her brother Owen disappeared and died under mysterious circumstances at the reform school.
It's unclear when the state court will rule on Bondi's petition, although a decision could come in the next couple of weeks. If the exhumations are approved, the bodies would be examined at the University of South Florida at the direction of Jackson County's medical examiner, Michael Hunter. Forensic investigators hope to start the process before the summer rainy season.
Researchers plan to use DNA from surviving family members to help identify the remains and return them to their relatives.
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.
Investigators now say there's evidence that 98 boys died at the school, and some of them may be buried in the 50 graves that forensic investigators have recently found on school grounds.
In the wake of those findings, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, asked the Department of Justice to investigate. Nelson called Bondi's petition for exhumations "a critical step forward to bring closure to the families."
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.
School graves could hide 'evil' past
School graves could hide 'evil' past


    School graves could hide 'evil' past


School graves could hide 'evil' past 05:38
Robert Straley, who spent about 10 months at the school in the 1960s for allegedly stealing a car, said he was taken to the "white house" on his very first day.
"I came out of there in shock, and when they hit you, you went down a foot into the bed, and so hard, I couldn't believe. I didn't know what they were hitting you with," Straley said.
Former school administrator Troy Tidwell, a one-armed man who some former students accused of beating them, has said in a deposition that "spankings" took place at the school but denied anyone was ever beaten or killed.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's 2009 report said most of the 31 boys 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.
Ovell Krell said her family was told that her brother Owen ran away from the reform school, got pneumonia, and died underneath a house in town.
"They said that the body was so decomposed, you wouldn't be able to identify him ... they took him straight out to the school and buried him," she told CNN.
But Owen's classmate told the family a different story, Krell said.
According to Krell, the boy said as he and Owen tried to escape, "my brother was running out across a field, an open field, and there was three men shooting at him, with rifles."
"I believe to this day that they shot my brother that night, and I think they probably killed him and brought him back to the school and buried him," she said.
Today, she simply wants to bring him home. She's 84 now, and says she's running out of time.
"My mom never got a good night's sleep the rest of her life after Owen went missing," she said. "I'd make sure he's put with my mom and dad. It will probably be their first good night's sleep in over 70 years."