Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has filed a petition that would allow authorities to exhume human remains on the site of the Dozier School for Boys at Marianna.
Bondi's office filed a petition Tuesday on behalf of the appointed medical examiner for the 14th District of Florida. The petition seeks a court order to exhume bodies from "Boot Hill Cemetery" and surrounding areas, where it is believed there may be unmarked graves and unaccounted bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952 at the school.
Autopsies and medical investigations would be conducted on the remains to determine the cause of death.
Bondi says those deaths at the school remain cloaked in mystery and that surviving family members deserve a thorough examination of the site, 60 miles northwest of Tallahassee.
"It's so important to these families. We know that atrocities occurred at the Dozier School for Boys back in the early 1900's and many of these families need closure and it's only fair to them that they are able to hopefully identify their loved ones and get their remains," Bondi said.
She added that pursuing criminal charges is not likely to happen.
"The families realize that at this time because most of the workers there have passed away since then as well as the severe decomposition of the bodies. We don't even believe the bodies were properly embalmed so it's going to be very, very difficult," Bondi said.
The petition is the result of the work of a team of USF researchers that concluded there were probably more bodies on the property than originally found in an FDLE investigation.
"We don't know how many young men were buried there. They were buried in shallow unmarked graves and so this is horrible and it's important for these families to find out if their loved ones are there," Bondi said.
They were just children -- some of the boys were as young as six years old. Others were in their teens. Many believe they were buried decades ago in unmarked graves at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, along with the truth.
"It's heart wrenching to go up there and look around those sites. All of those kids are just left up there, unmarked, unknown," says Glen Varnadoe, whose uncle, Thomas, is one of the children buried at the former reform school. "Nobody knows where they were buried. It's time. It's time it ends."
In 1934, Varnadoe's father Hubert was 15 years old. His uncle, Thomas, was 13. The sheriff took them away after they were caught walking through a neighbor's backyard, and Varnadoe's uncle never came home.
One month after they arrived, Thomas was dead. Varnadoe's father watched a man at the school bury his little brother. Two weeks later, their parents found out about Thomas' death in a letter. The school claimed he died of pneumonia, but Varnadoe's family never believed it.
"I want to see this 13-year-old kid brought home and buried in his rightful place beside his mother, which is in Lake Lindsey Cemetery in Brooksville, Florida. She died in 1966. So this has gone on an awful long time."
He and other families may now be closer to getting answers. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has asked for a court order to search for and exhume the bodies buried at Boot Hill cemetery and surrounding areas, where there are believed to be other burial sites and unmarked graves.
"We know that atrocities occurred at the Dozier School for Boys back in the early 1900's and many of these families need closure, and it's only fair to them that they are able to hopefully identify their loved ones and get their remains," Bondi said.
Bondi wants the medical examiner's office to find out how they really died. Anthropologists at USF have already identified 50 possible graves. They've also identified nearly 100 deaths at the former reform school, using state records.
"It's a great day. I was overjoyed when I saw the announcement from the attorney general," Varnadoe said.
Now he hopes they'll finally learn the truth.
"I don't think there's any question we're going to unearth 50 plus graves we've already identified in that Boot Hill area. I hope and pray one of them is Thomas. But if not, we're still left with where are the guys who are still missing." he said.
If the court signs off on the petition, the medical examiner's office and USF researchers could be ready to start by the end of the month. They'll have a year to get the work done.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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