Members of the media accompany Sen. Bill Nelson during a tour of a cemetery at the Dozier
School for Boys in Marianna on March 27. The crosses do not accurately mark graves on
the site. Anthropologists have been trying to find out how many bodies are there, but some
residents want to “let old dogs rest.” EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times
University of South Florida assistant professor of anthropology Erin Kimmerle digs a trench
next to a cemetery at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna in May
2012. The flag indicates an anomaly discovered by ground penetrating radar. EDMUND D.
FOUNTAIN l Times (2012)
In Marianna, dig for truth encounters desire to
keep past buried
Ben Montgomery, Times Staff Writer
MARIANNA — The old reform school on the edge of town is all but
abandoned. The only activity is from a few guards who watch the gate
to make sure the locals don't cut the razor wire and strip the darkened
buildings bare of copper. But in this little blue-collar city a few miles up
State Road 276, the shuttered campus, home for a more than a
century to Florida's juvenile delinquents, has surged back into
They call Marianna the "City of Southern Charm," but that sweet-tea
nickname has been poisoned, some here are saying, by its connection
to the reform school, built in 1900, and by incessant derision from a
group of several hundred men who have come forward with stories of
sexual abuse, extreme beatings from school staff and tales of
classmates who disappeared.
But no matter how many tell of being tortured at the Florida School for
Boys, no matter how similar their stories or how many old newspaper
clippings support their claims, some residents here refuse to believe
And now that the state attorney general and a team of anthropologists
from the University of South Florida want to exhume remains of boys
buried in a neglected campus cemetery, to see how many died and
how they met their deaths, locals are shoving back, trying to discredit
the men and stop the exhumation.
"That stuff happened before I was a tickle in my daddy's drawers, and
it can stay in the past," said Woody Hall, 43, who works for the local
power company and thinks the men are after money. "Let old dogs
rest. Let it be. Leave it alone."
"When they say torture and murder, it's a slur against us," said Sue
Tindel, a clerk in the Jackson County courthouse. "It's personal."
It's personal because some in this Panhandle county of about 49,000
people know the men who ran the school. They sat by them at the
Baptist church. They broke bread and rode horses together. They
can't believe that respected members of the community would march
off in the morning and do terrible things to boys behind closed doors.
"If anything suspicious had've gone on out there, I'd know," said
Robert Earl Standland, 79, a lifelong friend of R.W. Hatton, one of the
school's deceased disciplinarians who has been accused of abuse by
scores of men. "He and I had a relationship such that he would've let
In 2008, five men went public with stories of savage beatings in a dank
building called the White House. More than 450 more have come
forward since then making almost identical claims. But many believe
that unassailable truth lies buried in the ground, proof to Marianna
residents that they're not lying.
Horror next door
At a public meeting last week, a state NAACP representative who
toured the campus recently with Sen. Bill Nelson compared the White
House to a Nazi gas chamber at Dachau, Germany, suggesting that
those who lived near the concentration camp did not know of the
atrocities until the camp was liberated.
"I propose to you that many people in Jackson County did not know
what was going on," Dale Landry, regional vice president of the
NAACP, told the Jackson County Commission. "This is not an
indictment of Jackson County."
A man from nearby Two Egg grew incensed.
"What kind of a situation are we in when people are comparing
Marianna to Dachau? That is absolutely ridiculous!" said Dale Cox, a
lay historian and former television reporter who interrupted the
meeting. "Dozier school is no more Dachau than I'm Santa Claus."
Cox, 50, recent recipient of the Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the
Year award, is leading the charge to disrupt the project. He prompted
the Jackson County Commission to file a petition to intervene in the
medical examiner's motion to exhume bodies from the cemetery, which
is being considered now by a circuit court judge.
Cox has argued that Jackson County taxpayers shouldn't have to pay
for the project. Last week, he asked the Marianna police chief to
investigate whether anthropologists studying the old cemetery had the
right to dig shallow trenches, a common process known as ground-
truthing, while mapping the graveyard with ground-penetrating radar.
"If they violated state law, I feel they should be charged," Cox wrote to
the chief. "I'm providing this for your information, but if you need extra
information or someone to file a complaint, let me know!"
Chief Hayes Baggett told the Tampa Bay Times he spoke with state
land officials and has chosen not to investigate.
"I'm not interested in wasting one taxpayer penny on a witch hunt," he
Voice for elderly
Cox said he's not motivated by money, and he's not writing a book
about the controversy, as he did about a notorious, unsolved 1934
spectacle lynching in Jackson County. He said he's speaking for
elderly citizens of Jackson County who feel they haven't had a voice in
rebutting the abuse claims. But Cox's opposition to the cemetery
survey stretches back a year, before the cemetery mapping project
was widely known. Documents obtained by the Times show that Cox
was urging his state lawmakers to stop the effort in April 2012.
"It strikes me as appalling and odd that taxpayer dollars would be
spent on digging up graves that another taxpayer investigation has
determined are in no way related to the allegations made against the
school," he wrote, referring to a 2009 investigation by the Florida
Department of Law Enforcement that relied on incomplete records and
found that no prosecutable crimes had been committed.
"Is there no way that funding for this project can be withdrawn or
eliminated by the State Legislature?" he wrote. "Marianna has suffered
the loss of jobs and undeserved notoriety during a severe recession
due to this fiasco and surely as taxpayers we shouldn't be called upon
to fund the digging up of graves too."
The cost likely will be covered by the state and by federal grants. The
state Senate in March recommended spending $200,000 on the
project, and Nick Cox, statewide prosecutor for the Attorney General's
Office, promised Jackson County commissioners that no one would ask
the county to cover the cost.
Dale Cox said he first learned of the cemetery in the mid '80s, when he
was working for a local television station. He researched it at the time
for a story and has continued to learn more; he provided information to
the FDLE during its investigation.
But Cox's record as an expert on the graveyard is blemished. He
posted a photograph in 2009 on his blog that he claimed was an aerial
shot of the cemetery. "As I have been reporting here all along, there
are no 'mystery graves' or 'unmarked graves' in the little cemetery
near Dozier School in Marianna," he wrote. "As I reported two weeks
ago, most of the graves were there when the aerial photograph shown
here was taken of the school area in 1940."
But graduate students at USF couldn't match the photograph with the
known cemetery. They turned it 45 degrees counter-clockwise and the
roads in the photograph matched a different part of campus, far from
the known cemetery. Cox now says the geographical features he
thought were graves were actually bee hives.
"He's a farce as far as I'm concerned," said Jerry Cooper of Cape
Coral, who says he received more than 100 lashes in the White House
in 1960 and paid for a lie detector test to prove it. "I don't know what
his motivation is. It just don't add up."
Cox was also sure several years ago that the cemetery contained 31
graves, which matched the exact number of pipe crosses planted in
the small clearing in the pines. But when the USF survey with ground-
penetrating radar identified 50 possible grave shafts, many in the
woods outside the perimeter of the cemetery, Cox changed his
opinion. He thinks there are approximately 53 graves there now.
"At that time I was coming up with 31," he said in an interview. "But we
knew there were gaps in the record."
Those with a personal stake in the exhumation wonder why Cox and
others are opposing discovery with such certainty. Glen Varnadoe of
Lakeland made a promise to his dying sister to find the remains of his
uncle Thomas, who died at 13 after a month of incarceration. He was
healthy when he was sent to the school, his family said, but school
records say he died from pneumonia. The retired CEO has spent
thousands of dollars on attorneys to stop the sale of the school
property so anthropologists can continue searching for another
"My biggest question is: What do they have to hide?" Varnadoe said.
"If Marianna and Dale Cox want me off their rear-ends, they could walk
out there and point to Thomas' grave and I'll get him and never visit
their . . . town again."
Varnadoe wonders whether the Ku Klux Klan buried dead black men
on school property. That may sound improbable to modern readers,
but Thomas Varnadoe was reported dead on Oct. 26, 1934, the same
day an illiterate black farmhand was tortured, killed, mutilated by a
throng of 5,000, and then hanged from a tree that still stands outside
the county courthouse. Jackson County in the early 20th century was
well known for its lawlessness, violence and unabashed klan activity.
Between 1900 and 1934, six other black people were lynched, one of
the largest counts of any Florida county at a time when the state had
the highest ratio of lynchings to its black population of any other state.
Three days before Thomas' death, the headline in one of the local
papers read, "Ku Klux Klan May Ride Again, Jackson County Citizens
May Rally to Fiery Cross to Protect Womanhood."
"We've been marking graves in this country since 1776," Varnadoe
said. "There's a specific reason they didn't do it at that school. What
else is buried at Dozier that the people of Jackson County don't want
the rest of the world to know about?"
Varnadoe is one of four descendants of dead boys known to be buried
on school property who approve of the exhumation. The Attorney
General's Office is trying to locate others, and a circuit court judge will
likely entertain opposing opinions. A case management hearing has
been scheduled for Monday.
Cox said he can't object to Varnadoe's desire to retrieve his uncle's
"I do object to digging up everyone in order to find one body," he said.
"I have serious questions about, for the next year, for the next two
years, the publicity they're going to generate against our community.
And if they don't find what they want out there, it's going to go on. We
all know that. They tell us that this is to give us closure? This is just the
The cost of bad press
It's hard to tell whether the publicity surrounding the school has hurt
the county's economy, outside of several hundred jobs lost when the
state closed the school in 2011.
Pam Fuqua, executive director of the Jackson County Tourist
Development Council, hasn't seen a measurable impact on tourism
dollars coming into Jackson County, she acknowledges, but there is
anecdotal evidence. Fuqua recently brought a bus of Canadian
snowbirds from Bay County to Jackson County, and as the group
drove past the old school, many of them recognized it and asked about
its current status. That, she said, reflects poorly on the people here.
"It's had a negative impact on the community," Fuqua said, "What we
need is some closure."
The biggest draw to the county is eco-tourism, like the magnificent
caverns and cool clear springs. The second is history, she said, the
antebellum mansions and historic buildings. It's a certain version of
history the folks here want to show off, separate from the boys' school.
"We don't want to be known for this," she said.
“What kind of a situation are we in when people are comparing Marianna to Dachau? That is
absolutely ridiculous,” says Dale Cox of Two Egg, who is fighting the digging at Dozier.
EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times (2011)