Florida school exhumations revive
ghosts of a grisly past
Relatives and survivors wait as researchers excavate the grounds in search
of graves. Dozens are believed to have died at the school for troubled boys.
By Benjamin Mueller
September 2, 2013, 6:18 p.m.
The men remember a manicured campus stained by the blood of teenage
boys. They remember the explosion of the leather strap — 30 lashes, 50
lashes, more than 100 — and the bloody classroom chairs they scrubbed
For more than a century, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the
Florida Panhandle town of Marianna took in damaged children and turned
out shattered men.
The state closed the school in 2011 after the U.S. Justice Department
documented some of the abuse. But the sprawling campus may still be
A grave is exhumed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.,
where dozens are believed to have died over the years. (Edmund D. Fountain /
Tampa Bay Times / September 1, 2013)
On Saturday, researchers began excavating the grounds in search of graves. Records show that 96 boys died at the school between 1914 and 1973. Among
them were 20 who died from influenza and pneumonia and eight who burned to death in a locked dormitory.
Just how many bodies are buried there is unclear. A team of researchers from the University of South Florida used ground-penetrating radar last year to detect
50 bodies. But that was 19 more than officially accounted for. The excavations, which continue until Tuesday, promise to rewrite patchy records and have
drawn attention from across the state.
Among those waiting to see what the work reveals are three people with special ties to the school: Jerry Cooper, who watched a classmate die; Erin Kimmerle,
who conducts research on society's most vulnerable; and Ovell Krell, who wants Florida, after all these years, to let her bury her brother.
A young witness
At 2 a.m. one night in 1960, a 15-year-old quarterback for the Dozier School for Boys football team was sleeping in Roosevelt Cottage when two men woke him
up. They wanted information about a boy who had fled the school, a "runner."
Soon, Jerry Cooper was being dragged in his nightgown to the White House, a small concrete chamber where boys were beaten. A leather strap sliced through
the dank air and slashed his back. Later, Cooper would remove pieces of nightgown from his torn, purple skin. A boy in another room counted 135 lashes.
"They thought this would heal some troubled boys," said Cooper, now 68. "But it turned a lot of men into monsters." He still battles anger problems that led to
an arrest record nearly 40 assaults long.
In August, Cooper drove 500 miles from his home in Coral Gables to Tallahassee, where he watched Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet vote unanimously
to allow researchers to dig on school grounds.
The work may turn up a friend, Edgar Elton, who stopped breathing feet away from Cooper during a football practice. Elton had asthma and told Cooper that
instructors forced him to practice even though a doctor's note prohibited him from playing.
Cooper, who is white, says he knows only half of what happened at the school. White and black students were segregated until 1968, heirs to a history of
discrimination in Marianna that some trace to a Civil War victory there by black Union soldiers.
A black student and friend of Cooper, Johnnie Walthour, recalled being asked to dig a grave for a friend who was beaten to death. They made Walthour pull
plows "just like a mule," he said.
That kind of abuse wasn't uncommon in parts of northern Florida well into the 1900s, Cooper said. In 1934, residents of Marianna famously lynched a black
farmhand, Claude Neal, who was suspected of killing a white woman.
Cooper hopes the exhumation offers victims' families closure. But he's just as eager to unearth a period of racial violence he says too many have ignored.
"It's gonna get nasty."
A civil rights story
Erin Kimmerle reads history in buried bones. A forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, she's studied the aftermath of atrocities in Nigeria and
Now the leader of the university's excavation team, Kimmerle is digging for more than forensic evidence; she also wants people to remember how Florida once
discarded its boys.
"Cemeteries are a reflection of who we are as a society," she said. And criminal justice in Florida, she said, was conducted as a for-profit operation.
Until 1923, Florida practiced the convict lease system, an arrangement with origins in the Reconstruction-era South that provided largely black prisoner labor to
private bosses for a fee. "It's been described as modern-day slavery," Kimmerle said.
The school sold 20,000 bricks a day, all produced by students. In 1921, one superintendent had students cut timber on his private land, then sold the timber to
the school for over $9,000.
Kimmerle said it's easy to forget an era when the state could handle criminals for profit and hide its bodies. "To be buried in unmarked graves and lost to time
and place doesn't register to most of us."
And yet it happened, one chapter in a longer-running drama. "This is a story of civil rights," she said.
A sister's grief
Ovell Krell was 12 years old when her older brother's body was buried somewhere at the reform school in 1941. Officials said Owen Smith had escaped Dozier
and died while hiding under a house in Marianna. That story never sat right with his sister.
"I knew it then, I know it now," Krell said. "I don't think a 14-year-old boy is going to crawl under a house and lay there to die."
Owen left home one day in 1940, maybe heading to Nashville to play his guitar, but Krell is only guessing. His parents got word that he had been arrested in
Tavares, Fla., charged with stealing a car even though he didn't know how to drive. He was hauled to Dozier after a hearing to which his parents were never
Owen wrote to his parents, once saying he'd been hauled back to campus after trying to escape: "I got what was coming to me."
Then Owen stopped writing. Frantic letters from his mother, Frances Smith, went unanswered. When the superintendent replied that Owen was missing, Smith
threatened to pay a visit.
She never saw her son. A day before she arrived, the family was told Owen had been found under a house, his body decomposed. An invitation to retrieve his
body was rescinded when police said he'd accidentally been buried already. Krell knew this wasn't how it was supposed to work.
Smith stopped cooking and cleaning, and practically quit raising her children. "She never was my mom hardly at times," Krell said. Krell's own grief hardened
quickly, and she took up the task of raising her younger siblings.
Now 84, Krell is sober and reserved, grateful for the excavation work but doubtful her brother will ever be identified. She's a former police officer and a realist.
And then abruptly, in a telephone interview, the cop persona gave way to that of a desperate sister hoping for news. Krell echoed her mom's doubts that Owen
was really dead: "We never knew — we don't know till now, even."