Anthropologists start unearthing what they believe are the remains of dozens of children buried on the grounds of a former reform school in Marianna, Florida, August 31, 2013.
Digging up answers to a 50 year mystery
03:16 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

A team of researchers are working to exhume remains of unidentified children

So far, search has turned up a coffin handle and hardware, and skull and teeth fragments

Former residents at the school have come forward with stories of abuse, including killings

Marianna, Florida CNN  — 

The work is moving at the speed of science. Slow. But that’s not surprising when you’re digging for long-forgotten answers.

Anthropologists, archaeologists and graduate students from the University of South Florida continued their mission Sunday to unearth Florida’s tragic past by excavating what they believe are the remains of dozens of unidentified children on the grounds of a former reform school. The hope is to reunite them with their families for reburial.

The exhumations at the Dozier School for Boys – which closed in 2011 – are the culmination of years of controversy surrounding the reform school. Some of those who were once sent to Dozier, now senior citizens, have come forward with stories of abuse at the school – including alleged beatings, torture, sexual abuse, killings and the disappearances of students – during the 1940s, ’50s and ‘60s.

The site being excavated this weekend is outside of a small, unkept patch of land with 31 white crosses that mark the final resting places for the unknown students who the state has confirmed were buried there.

Nearly 100 children died while at the school, according to state and school records, many as a result of a tragic dormitory fire in 1914 and a deadly flu epidemic in 1918. But the poorly kept state records cannot account for what happened to 22 other children who died, and no one knows who is buried where.

Last year, the research team used ground-penetrating radar and found that there are as many as 19 more bodies buried in the surrounding area, completely unmarked.

After clearing the area, the team determined that at least 50 graves exist.

So far, the team has unearthed a coffin handle and hardware. The findings tell the team that the burial took place in the 1940s or 1950s. Bone fragments have also been found, including parts of a skull and teeth.

“These are children who came here and died, for one reason or another, and have just been lost in the woods,” said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist leading the USF team who once worked on an international forensics team that amassed evidence used in Yugoslavian war crimes trials.

She has lobbied for an exhumation of the remains because, as she put it, “When there’s no knowledge and no information, then people will speculate and rumors will persist or questions remain.”

Some of the families with loved ones believed to be buried here have watched the work. A short prayer service was held Saturday.

John Due said he hopes that the body of his missing relative will be found.

“We have to dig up the past to build a better future. We cannot continue to live like zombies, the walking dead, like the past doesn’t mean anything,” he told CNN.

Meredith Tise is a doctoral student of anthropology at USF. Stained with clay and dirt from two days of digging, she’s looking at this as more than just a training opportunity.

“To actually see the families and see how important it is to them – it adds a different meaning to it,” she told CNN Sunday.

Florida first started looking into abuse allegations at the school in 2008, after some of its former residents called on then-Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate.

At Crist’s request, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation, and its final report in 2009 accounted for 31 boys buried in the cemetery.

The investigation failed to clear up the mystery over what happened to the dozens of other students who died at the school whose bodies have never been accounted for.

FDLE closed the case due to a lack of evidence that anyone had died as a result of criminal conduct. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice closed the school in 2011, 111 years after it first opened.

Then last year, forensic anthropologists from USF used their ground-penetrating radar to find what appeared to be 19 more remains than previously thought to have been buried on the school grounds.

That discovery, along with pressure from the NAACP and high-level officials, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, led Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet to vote to allow the USF forensics team to exhume the bodies.

Any remains that are exhumed will be taken to USF in Tampa to be examined in an effort to reunite these lost boys with their families, if possible.

But whatever may be found in the exhumations, it’s highly unlikely that anyone could ever be charged with any crimes.

“You have to have witnesses,” said Glenn Hess, the state attorney of the circuit that includes Jackson County, where the school is located. “Nobody can place a name with a homicide victim and a perpetrator.”