Commentary: Did Florida help create the monster whom Florida killed last week?
BY JANE MUSGRAVE - PALM BEACH POST STAFF WRITER
As I watched the life seep out of William Van Poyck last week for the 1987 murder of prison guard Fred Griffis, I couldn’t help but think about how the state of Florida was
complicit in the death of both men.
Van Poyck and his accomplice, Frank Valdes, both spent part of their youths confined in the Florida Reform School for Boys in Okeechobee. Its more infamous
counterpart near Tallahassee, renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys — after its longtime superintendent — was closed in 2011 after a federal investigation
found unspeakable abuse of the boys who were sent there, some for such minor crimes as truancy.
While recent news stories have focused on Dozier and the legal battle to search for the bodies of boys believed to have been buried there in unmarked graves,
conditions in Okeechobee were equally horrific. “Beatings in Okeechobee facility included strikes with leather straps that had quarters or dimes embedded in the leather
to provide extra weight, and assaults using ‘probing rods’ that were made of wood and used for punishment by sodomizing the boys,” according to a failed 2012 bill by
state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who was seeking reparations for the victims.
According to court files, Van Poyck’s experience at the school was typical. “Billy was hogtied, drenched in water and left overnight in the ‘wet room,’ and frequently sent
to the ‘ice cream room,’ where he was given 30 licks with straps and paddles, the process being repeated if he cried out during the beating,” his attorneys wrote in one of
his unsuccessful appeals.
Sent there in 1968 at age 13, Van Poyck watched as other boys were sexually abused. He was at the mercy of older, larger youth. The situation hadn’t improved much
when Valdes arrived at Okeechobee roughly 10 years later, said his widow. Wanda Valdes of Lake Worth met Valdes when he and her son were sent there in their
teens. “It was awful. What they did to those kids was terrible,” said Ms. Valdes, who married her husband when he was death row. Frank Valdes was beaten to death by
prison guards in 1999.
During one of Van Poyck’s appeals, a clinical social worker testified that such abuse engenders “feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.” It also is likely to breed, at
the least, contempt for authority and, at the worst, disregard for human life.
Sure, some can overcome the horrors of early lives, but they are the exception. In 2009, reporters for what is now The Tampa Bay Times tracked down 180 boys who
were confined in Dozier in 1988. At least 174 of them — 97 percent — were arrested again after they left the so-called reform school. Many were convicted of violent
crimes, such as rape, robbery and, like Van Poyck and Valdes, murder.
Lisa Van Poyck said her brother had an epiphany during the 25 years he spent on death row. He wrote three books, hoping the insights from a life of crime would help
Neither reformation nor death changes the tragic truth for the Griffis family, who have spent decades mourning the senseless murder in West Palm Beach during a failed
prison break of the family hero, a 40-year-old retired Army Ranger and decorated Vietnam vet. There is no excuse for what Van Poyck did. But there is also no excuse
for what the state did to boys who were supposed to be shown the right path and instead were schooled in brutality.
Staring through the glass separating the 23 witnesses to the macabre clinical killing of Van Poyck at Florida State Prison, I didn’t have to wonder how his life had gone so
horribly awry. I remembered what Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein told me years ago when I expressed outrage over a particularly heinous crime.
“Monsters aren’t born,” he told me. “We make them.”
Jane Musgrave covers the courts for The Palm Beach Post.