Sam Cook: Cape Coral survivor of
reform school's own 'hell'
Relaxing on his lanai on a tranquil December morning, Jerry
Cooper feels the emotional and physical pains inflicted more than
a half-century ago at an ancient reform school in the Panhandle.
A salve arrived recently when a U.S. Department of Justice
investigation agreed with Cooper. It found officials of the Florida
School for Boys — aka Dozier School for Boys — guilty of
assaulting children, denying medical care and using excessive
punishment for minor infractions.
Cooper, who was 16 in 1961 when he was physically abused by
guards, for 50 years had decried the school’s techniques.
When former inmates Roger Kiser and Robert Straley started websites about the mistreatment, it inspired other
men who say they also were abused at the now-closed Marianna-based reform school to come forward.
“It was a penal colony for kids,’’ says Orlando-area attorney Gerald Rutberg, 67, who visited the facility.
No one knows the severity of punishment doled out at the Florida School for Boys better than Cooper.
The youthful offender felt the wrath of the whip’s lash too many times.
He knew by the whoosh in the air when the Whipmaster tired of lashing and turned his leather strap into a knife.
“I remember the first cut,’’ says Cooper, 66. “He would turn the strap swing sideways. It would cut you and spatter
The Whipmaster was one-armed Troy Tidwell, the sadistic ringleader of the reform school.
“Tidwell downplayed the beatings,’’ Cooper says. “He called them spankings.’’
Cooper says Tidwell and guard R.W. Hatton administered the licks to more than 300 young inmates in a small
white building in Marianna, a town of 6,200 near Interstate 10. Victims of the beatings were nicknamed the White
Cooper says he ran away from home three times because he could not get along with his stepdad. The third time
he caught a ride with an AWOL Marine in a stolen car. After the Marine tried to rob a vending machine in North
Carolina, he rolled the 1959 Chevy convertible with police in pursuit.
“The judge said, ‘Now you got car theft against you,’ but all I knew was the guy’s name: Danny,” Cooper says. “She
told me to shut up and sent me to the Florida School for Boys.”
A Cape Coral resident since 1989, Cooper last week revisited his scars.
“There was a boy in the room next to mine,” Cooper says. “He told me: ‘You got 135 lashes.’”
What transgression would possess a guard to whip a teenager 135 times?
He says a runaway in his dorm told guards Cooper knew of the escape attempt.
Cooper was aghast. The teacher’s assistant had a perfect record at the school and was two months from being
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Cooper says. “The guards woke me up about 2 a.m. and dragged me to the White
Still, Cooper swore not to go down without a fight.
“As soon as we cleared the room, I struck Tidwell,” Cooper says. “I hit him so hard the back of his head hit the wall.
I started beating the hell out of Hatton.
“But Tidwell got me again with that one arm. He stomped on my right foot and broke it. Then he clipped me with the
palm of his hand and four teeth folded.”
Cooper says they strapped his legs to the cot and pushed his face into a pillow, which smelled of puke. Then,
three guards whaled on him 135 times.
“After 70, I didn’t hear another word out of you, not even a grunt,” the boy next door told Cooper.
Cooper says after 40 licks his butt went numb from the beating.
The unconscious Cooper says he woke up with his throat against the hump in the floor board of a guard’s car. A
guard’s foot kept him in place for the ride back to his dorm.
“They took me into the bathroom,” he says. “My nightgown was embedded in my butt and legs.”
Hatton, Cooper’s dorm adviser, flicked a piece of gown out of his bloodied back.
“Holy crap, that’s a good (whipping), ain’t it, buddy?” Hatton told Cooper. “Jerry, I bet you walk a straight line now.”
Cooper, who lathered himself with Vaseline from behind his knees to his lower back, says it took two weeks before
he could maneuver comfortably.
Yet the emotional damage was worse. He was left with anger-management issues for life.
His greatest rage is directed toward Tidwell, 86. Cooper says when Tidwell gave a lawsuit deposition about the
alleged cruel acts at the White House, he told one lie after another.
Two years ago, White House Boy Cooper found a solution to his frustration and a way to flog the Whipmaster. He
took a polygraph test in Tampa to prove his veracity.
“There is no deception indicated,” Mike Alaiwat, polygraph expert, told the St. Petersburg Times. “It appears that
Mr. Cooper is being truthful regarding his experience with Mr. Tidwell and other staff in the White House at the
Florida School for Boys.”
“I don’t want any money. I’m only in this for one thing,” says Cooper about joining 600 former inmates in a class-
action lawsuit against the state and Tidwell. “We knew the statute of limitations had run out. The suit got kicked
out, but I would like to cause Tidwell as much trouble in his old age as I can.”
“When I die, I know I’m going to heaven,” he says. “I’ve already spent my time in hell at the Florida School for Boys
Donald Smith and Jerry Cooper, each received well over 100 lashes, yet they are not mentioned in the FDLE
Report. Jerry Cooper, at his own expense, took a lie detector test to confirm that his allegations were
true. He passed the test and challenged Troy Tidwell to take a lie detector test as well. His scars were
photographed. In Tidwell's statements of the beatings he says: "I never gave more than 10 gentle blows and never
raised the whip over my head." Tidwell refused to submit to a polygraph test. Source: