December 16, 2012 Sunday
Fred Grimm: At Panhandle reform school, murders that FDLE overlooked
Nineteen more bodies.
A team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida has discovered another 19 bodies dumped into the unmarked graves that pock the abandoned campus of
the Dozier School for Boys.
Those 19 bodies, consigned to oblivion by school authorities, had somehow escaped the attention of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement back in 2010, when it
investigated criminal allegations associated with the infamous juvenile lock-up in Marianna.
FDLE had concluded that, over the years, 29 children and two adults had been buried in a 40 feet by 40 feet cemetery, marked only by a random cluster of crude white
crosses fashioned out of metal piping. FDLE decided there was no indication of secret burials at the school. No unaccounted deaths. And no indication of past criminal
doings at the school. Or at least of homicides. Other possible crimes, like the reported horrible and systematic beatings of the boys, or allegations of sodomized children
— well, sorry, but those old stories have been rendered irrelevant by Florida’s statute of limitations.
So that was that. Or would have been if the USF anthropologists had not come nosing around last summer, using ground penetrating radar, soil sample analysis and
forensic pathology, along with the school archives and other historic records. The USF researchers released a preliminary report last week that documented the
additional graves. Add the boys whose bodies were claimed by the parents, there were at least 98 deaths of kids at the school. But only 47 death certificates.
Of course, the FDLE could have uncovered this same ghastly information in 2010, had the agency been a bit more motivated.
The additional graves add credence to the awful remembrances of former wards at Dozier, who have told of seeing unruly boys taken away by guards to the "White
House," an outbuilding where guards beat their young prisoners bloody. Some, they claimed, never returned. Family members, those who inquired, were told the boys
had died of sudden illnesses.
"No, I wasn’t surprised that they found more graves," said Robert Staley, who had been sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in 1963 at age 13 as an habitual
runaway. "We knew that there were other boys buried there."
And Staley is sure more graves yet are secreted on those kudzu-choked grounds, which was finally closed last year after 111 scandal-laden years of operation. The
cemetery examined by the USF researchers was located on the "colored" side of a 1,400-acre campus in rural North Florida where, for most of its history, race
separation was sacrosanct. "The white graveyard is still missing," Staley insisted. "The school was segregated. They wouldn’t feed us together. They certainly wouldn’t
have buried us together."
Staley was among some aging former inmates who sued the state in 2010, claiming they had been abused as child prisoners at Dozier. They dubbed themselves "the
White House Boys," after the notorious white-washed outbuilding where the beatings were administered. Or where kids were locked in isolation. (The suit was dismissed.
Their allegations, too, had been overtaken by the statute of limitations.)
Staley remembered his own excursion into that barbarous place after he and a few other wards were accused of plotting an escape. He was forced to wait in an outer
room as the boys in the front of the line were taken into a room he called the dungeon. As he waited, in growing horror, he could hear the screams and the snapping
retorts of a whip on flesh. "It was not like anything I had ever heard before," he said. "It was like they used on slaves in the 1800s. A heavy leather strap, four feet long,
weighted with metal slugs. It weighed as much as a baseball bat. You wouldn’t be allowed to use something like that on farm animals."
He told me that he was forced to lay face down on a bed, already bloody from his predecessors, to take his beating. "At least they allowed us to scream. I was black and
blue. I looked like someone had stuck a needle in me, with pin holes of blood."
Later, Staley was assigned a job in the infirmary, where he witnessed other boys beaten horribly, some after 100 lashes. "They looked like hamburger meat."
Their horror stories matched other findings over the years by outside officials. In 1958, Miami psychologist Eugene Byrd told a U.S. Senate committee that he had seen
brutal beatings "dealt with a great deal of force with a full arm swing over his head and down, with a strap, a leather strap approximately a half-inch thick and about 10
inches long with a wooden formed handle."
In 1968, Gov. Claude Kirk made a surprise visit to the Dozier School. He emerged stunned by what he found. "If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you’d
be up there with rifles," he said.
School officials, pressed by investigators and reporters, admitted that their guards “may have gotten out of hand.” One former superintendent told the Tampa Bay Times,
“I think there were some who might have enjoyed it on our staff. Might have enjoyed the over-spanking.”
After state officials forced the sadists at Dozier to finally stop the beatings, the guards simply changed tactics. In 1982, there were revelations that Dozier kids had been
regularly "hogtied and kept in isolation for weeks at a time." In 1985, it was discovered that troublesome boys were simply sent over to the Jackson County Jail, where
jailers would handcuff kids hands behind their backs, attach chains to the cuffs that were looped over a high bar so the boys could be hoisted, backward, until his feet left
the floor. It was as if the mistreatment of prisoners was integral to the local culture. Four jailers were charged with aggravated child abuse by torture. They were fined and
placed on probation. None were given prison sentences.
Such horrors were not just the stuff of ancient history. Last December, the U.S. Justice Department released details of an investigation into new allegations of abuse. The
report said Dozier inmates "were subjected to conditions that placed them at serious risk of avoidable harm."
The 2011 report added, "During our investigation, we received credible reports of misconduct by staff members to youth within their custody. The allegations revealed
systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls."
The report claimed, "Staff used excessive force on youth ( including prone restraints ) sometimes in off-camera areas not subject to administrative review." And "Youth
were often disciplined for minor infractions through inappropriate uses of isolation and extensions of confinement for punishment and control."
But by then, the state had finally given up on Dozier and its 111-year culture of brutal treatment, the use of children as peonage labor, the unexplained deaths, the cover-
ups and, perhaps, multiple murders. The school was closed last year.
Staley, who lives in Clearwater, notes that no one has ever gone to jail for these abuses. The man he calls the "whipmaster," the guard who beat him and so many of the
kids during his stint at Dozier, still lives in Marianna. Other residents in rural Jackson County surely know about the crimes that unfolded in Dozier, including the fatal
beatings. "Everybody got away with this. There’s a culture of silence in Marianna. But people there know what happened. They know where the other bodies were buried.
They just won’t say."
But with 19 more bodies discovered on the Dozier grounds, with USF researchers suggesting that surely other graves sites are hidden on that awful campus, maybe the
FDLE will take another, harder look at this awful place. There’s no statute of limitation for the murder of children