The bodies were discovered in a graveyard at a reform school in Florida, dark secrets hidden for more than 60 years.
Unearthed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which closed in 2011, the graves held glimpses of the past — buttons, a stone marble in a boy’s pocket — but no identification.
Identifying the bodies will be the job of scientists at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, who have begun DNA analysis on the remains. At a news conference Tuesday in Fort Worth, scientists said they also hope to help determine the causes of death.
“They are finding more bodies than they can account for by the records at the Dozier school,” said Arthur Eisenberg, who co-directs the UNT Center for Human Identification and is leading the Fort Worth efforts.
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Researchers at the University of South Florida, who unearthed the graves, found the 55 bodies in coffins either made at the school or bought from manufacturers, said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist leading the university’s investigation.
Some were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves at the school in Marianna, Fla.
“We know very little about the burials and the children in terms of who specifically was buried there, their ages or ancestry, as well as the timing and circumstances of their deaths,” Kimmerle said. “… But it is our intention to answer as many of these questions as possible.”
The bodies were buried between the late 1920s and early 1950s, researchers said.
There were “periodic descriptions of boys disappearing,” Eisenberg said. And for many years, boys who had lived there gave periodic reports that “horrific” events took place, he said.
Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have accused school employees and guards of physical and sexual abuse. But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it could not substantiate or dispute the claims.
‘Hoping for closure’
The health science center received its first batch of remains — including bone samples and teeth — from the University of South Florida in December. No DNA matches have been made so far, Eisenberg said.
The Fort Worth experts will extract DNA from remains that are decades old. It will be compared with DNA “reference samples” collected from potential victims’ relatives.
A reference sample could be a piece of hair, but it is often a swab taken from the mouth, according to the center.
Eleven families have contacted researchers in the hope of identifying relatives who might have been buried at the school. Officials want dozens of other families to come forward.
Ovell Krell of Auburndale, Fla., came forward, hoping to find out what happened to her brother. George Owen Smith was sent to Dozier at age 14 in 1941, and he was found dead a couple of months later. His family never recovered his body, and Krell wants to claim his remains and bury them with those of their parents at a family plot in central Florida.
“We are hoping for closure,” she said.
Researchers excavated the site — called Boot Hill — from September to December.
Another dig is scheduled to begin next month, using radar and specially trained dogs. Nearby residents and former employees and inmates at the northwest Florida school are helping investigators determine other potential burial sites, Kimmerle said.
‘It is never too late’
The health science center is one of only a few public-sector laboratories that specialize in the analysis of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, from skeletal remains. This DNA is more resistant to degradation than nuclear DNA, which is routinely analyzed in forensic cases, Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg said the mtDNA will be the best chance of making an “association.”
The project, funded by the Florida Legislature and the National Institute of Justice, also involves the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a database managed at the health science center.
The Florida case should remind people that resources are available to help to find answers in missing-persons cases, said B.J. Spamer, director of the NamUs Training and Analysis Division.
“It is never too late for families of missing loved ones to get answers,” Spamer said.
The health science center is the nation’s only lab set in an academic center that is approved to upload genetic data for unidentified remains to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System.
Eisenberg’s lab has been crucial to helping identify victims of well-known crimes and natural disasters.
Workers identified a victim of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy and worked on cases involving Gary Ridgway, a Seattle-area murderer known as the Green River Killer. The center has also helped identify victims of 9-11, Hurricane Katrina and the 1973 Pinochet military coup in Chile.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.