USF anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle was doing fieldwork at the site of the Dozier School for Boys in spring when she received a call from Glen Varnadoe.
His uncle, Joseph Richard Varnadoe, 84, was in the hospital with pneumonia, and they weren’t sure if he would make it out.
But Joseph’s last wish was to make sure that he could somehow provide a DNA sample in hopes that if Kimmerle’s team found the remains of his brother, Thomas Henry, who he last saw when he was about six years old, the remains could be buried next to their mother.
Kimmerle said the wish was crushing to hear.
But Joseph made it out of the hospital, and on Friday, he, as well as two other family members of boys who died after being sent to the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Marianna, Fla., donated samples of DNA at the USF Research Park Galleria in hopes of finding answers they never received.
The DNA collected from family members will be sent to the University of North Texas, where it will be entered into a national database from which researchers will be able to compare DNA and allow remains to be sent to the families of the boys.
A School for Boys
Thomas Henry was 13 years old when he was sent by the state to the Dozier School for Boys. He was supposedly convicted of trespassing, his brother said. Joseph was about five or six at the time.
He doesn’t remember much about his brother, but he remembered the devastation it left in his family. He also remembered his brother was healthy “when they took him away.”
“Nothing wrong with him that I could remember,” he said.
But 34 days after he was sent away, the family was told that Thomas Henry was dead. Lobar pneumonia was the cause, they were told.
But the family didn’t believe it, Joseph said. They didn’t have any way of knowing what happened.
Ovell Smith Krell, 84, was 12 when her then 14-year-old brother, George Owen, was sent to the Dozier School after being accused of stealing a car and wrecking it.
After months of not receiving letters back from the school’s superintendent, Krell’s parents received a letter from a pastor at an Episcopalian Church in Marianna informing them of their son’s death.
Krell said her family never received closure.
“It made a big difference in my life,” she said as her eyes welled. “My mother never really got over it. My dad and I kind of had to take over the family. She just never was herself after that. Never. It was a shame. I think even if she could’ve gotten his body back, and we could’ve said ‘Yes, this is him,’ and we could have buried him, it could have been different. But not getting anything — not knowing what happened, not even really knowing for sure if he was dead. … I’m sure he is because I think he would have somehow gotten in touch with us.”
The Dozier School housed boys aged 13 to 21 who were sent to the reform school for misdeeds ranging from “incorrigibility” and “truancy” to more serious offenses. The school operated for more than 111 years when it was closed in 2011, following investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and U.S. Department of Justice.
According to FLDLE reports, interviews with about 100 survivors of the school, as well as former employees, include many allegations of abuse, prolonged
confinement, torture, rape and murder existed.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson said he remembers driving by the school as a child.
“I’d be going to visit my grandparents on that little country road that split the boys school,” he said. “The grounds were always immaculately groomed, and at Christmas time, people from all over the countryside would come to visit because of the Christmas light display. What we didn’t know back then, and what people as they have come forth and told, are the stories of torture and intimidation, of
beatings and abuse, and indeed, cases of possible murder.”
Recently, Nelson accompanied Kimmerle on a visit to the “White House,” the school’s concrete, block-like building.
“To call it a jail would be a kind terminology,” Nelson said. “A dungeon — whitewashed on the outside, but on the inside, under the dark, dank circumstances — kept the secrets of what is only just now being told.”
Boot Hill Cemetery: ‘A mystery’
Kimmerle was intrigued by reports she heard emerge from the investigation. She was also intrigued by the poor records the school kept. 123