Report describes horrific treatment, deaths at reform school

Updated at: 02/05/2015 4:52 PM
By BRENDAN FARRINGTON

(AP) TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — As the bodies exhumed from dozens of old graves at a shuttered Florida reform school continue to yield grudging answers to stubborn mysteries, researchers investigating the cases this week released a report on what they know so far.

There was the 6-year-old boy who ended up dead after being sent to work as a house boy. And another boy who escaped but was later found shot to death with a blanket pulled over his body and a shotgun across his legs. Then there was the "rape dungeon" where boys were taken and abused.

What the researchers have learned about decades of horrific acts carried out at the now closed Arthur G. Dozier School in Marianna is outlined in a report released by the University of South Florida as researchers continue grappling with the mystery of the graves and deaths there.

University anthropologists have found the remains of 51 people buried at the school during a dig that also uncovered garbage, syringes, drug bottles and a dog encased in an old water cooler buried in the cemetery.

They are not only trying to identify who was buried there, but the stories behind how they and others died at the school.

Beyond studying remains, researchers are looking through the school and state records, newspaper archives and interviewing boys' families, former inmates and former school employees to provide a history of the dead.

"Maybe I've been doing this too long, but I'm not surprised at what horrible things people do to one another," said USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, the team leader who has researched other mass graves. "It's just really sad the way people treat one another, which may be in part what's captured the public's attention on this — just the sense that it's not right."

The report, prepared for the Florida Cabinet, identifies two more people buried in graves, in addition to three who were identified previously. One was Bennett Evans, an employee who died in a 1914 dorm fire. While there wasn't a DNA match, remains found are consistent with his age and cause of death. The other was Sam Morgan, who was brought to the school in 1915 at age 18 and later wound up dead in a case that still has unanswered questions. Morgan was identified through a DNA match with his relatives.

To date, the remains of four people have been identified through DNA matches.

It's not an easy project. The school underreported deaths; didn't provide death certificates, names or details in many cases, particularly involving black boys; and simply reported some boys who disappeared as no longer at the school. And many in the Panhandle community don't want to talk about the school's dark past.

Several of the boys were killed after escape attempts, including Robert Hewitt, whose family lived a few miles from the school. He was hiding in his family's house and men from the school came looking for him several times after the 1960 escape, according to relatives. The family came home one day to find his covered body lying in a bed. He had a shotgun wound and his father's shotgun was lying across his legs.

There's also the story of 6-year-old George Grissam, who the school sent out to work as a house boy in 1918. He was delivered back to the school unconscious and later died. George's 8-year-old brother Ernest also disappeared from school records, which simply described him as "not here."

Other boys died after severe beatings, being smashed in the head or other injuries. Former inmates and employees interviewed also told researchers about a "rape dungeon" where boys, some younger than 12, were sexually assaulted.

While many of the cases are nearly a century old, some of the dead have surviving brothers, sisters and other relatives still seeking answers.

"To some of this is history, but for many of the people who are involved it's actually their reality every day," Kimmerle said. "They're really committed and moved by this because it's their direct family."

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