Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, led a team last year to recover the remains of 55 bodies buried there, in Marianna, Fla., about 65 miles west of Tallahassee. A few were buried beneath crooked crosses planted years later to honor the dead. Others were forgotten beneath roads and overgrown trees. Some died in fires, from physical trauma, drowning or disease such as influenza or pneumonia, according to the university’s report. However, the way in which some died is still unknown.
Until now, some who died were unknown as well.
On Thursday, researchers at the university said they had identified the first of 55 bodies through DNA samples. It was George Owen Smith, a 14-year-old who wound up at the reform school in 1940 for his alleged role in a car theft. His family was never sure what happened to him, but a DNA sample provided by his now 86-year-old sister helped link her to her brother — ending her 70-year quest.
“I’m sure we’ll never know how he died or exactly when he died but at least we do now know that he’s dead,” his sister, Ovell Krell, told reporters last week.
Owen’s time at the school was short. Weeks after he got there, he ran away. And after he was caught, he wrote home about it, saying, “I got what was coming to me,” according to Krell. “Those were the most ominous words,” she told CNN. “After that letter, we never heard from him again.”
Their mother wrote to the school to check on her son, according to reports, and the superintendent told her the boy had run again. This time, he remained missing for months before the family finally found out why — Owen was dead. But when the family went to claim his body, they were told he had already been buried — in an unmarked grave — along with answers.
“Four months he was missing before my mother threatened to start investigating, and the day before she arrives, they very mysteriously find his body under a house, totally-and-completely-beyond-recognition decomposed,” Krell told CNN.
The details of Owen’s death were sketchy at best. The school told the family he was found dead under a nearby house where they suspected he crawled and died of exposure. Kimmerle told The Washington Post there is no death certificate for Owen, only a school roster and historical newspaper clips that report that same story. Still, Krell said she always had difficulty believing it. A fellow student allegedly with him during the second attempted escape later told Krell her brother was shot at by three men with rifles as he fled, according to news reports.
“If they shot him and killed him that night, I’d consider it a blessing because I know now what they did to him if they got him back to that school alive,” Krell told CNN.
During last year’s excavation, Kimmerle’s team had to clear trees and brush to reach many of the graves, which were hidden in thick woods. That’s where Owen’s body was found, buried in an unmarked grave shallower than the others, lying on his side with his hands covering his head, Kimmerle said. According to the university’s report, some did die following attempted escapes, but it’s unclear whether medical examiners will ever be able to determine what exactly happened to Owen.
It was never a secret there were bodies buried at the school. Official records cite 31 burials between its opening in 1900 and its closure in 2011. The excavation, Kimmerle said, was initially prompted by families searching for loved ones who never came home. Researchers applied for permits and, about a year ago, the Florida Cabinet met and approved the dig, she said.
But it wasn’t until late last month that DNA linked Owen to his sister. When Kimmerle and a small team recently knocked on her door to deliver the news, Kimmerle said Krell was in shock that researchers were actually able to find her brother and identify him.
“She just kept saying, “Are you sure you really have him?” Kimmerle said.
Kimmerle said researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center are currently comparing nine DNA reference samples provided by families with samples from the exhumed bodies. They hope to find additional families who will provide samples that can matched with the others, she said.
The school — known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys when it closed in 2011 — is remembered by some as a brutal institution. During the 1950s and 1960s, a time before corporal punishment was outlawed in state-run facilities, juveniles imprisoned there called themselves “The White House Boys” for the white building where alleged beatings and sexual abuse took place. In 2009, the St. Petersburg Times published an extensive report on alleged abuses that prompted a state investigation.
Krell told reporters last week she promised her parents before they died that she would keep looking for her brother as long as she lived. Now she has found him, she told the Tampa Bay Times, and she plans to rebury him next to her mother and father.
“We’re just really happy for Ovell and hopeful that this is just one of many identifications to come,” Kimmerle said.