Health science center team IDs remains from Florida reformatory

08/07/2014 5:52 PM

08/08/2014 11:24 AM

A set of remains found at a Florida reform school, described by one former student as a “place of pure horror,” has been identified by scientists at the UNT Health Science Center as a 14-year-old boy who was sent to the school in 1940.

The remains of George Owen Smith were positively matched with DNA collected from his sister, Ovell Krell, 86, of Polk County, Fla.

His are the first identified among the 55 sets of remains recovered between September and December from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which closed in 2011 for budgetary reasons — and under a cloud of allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Scientists were not able to determine the cause of death for the boy, who went by the name Owen.

“These are some of the most degraded remains we’ve seen here,” Dixie Peters, technical leader for the missing persons team, said at a news conference Thursday at the Fort Worth-based center.

The 73-year-old case is one of the oldest positive identifications made by the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

The job of identifying the remains was handed over to scientists at the center in December. Bones and teeth from the remains were sent over in three batches, and testing is either complete or being completed on each set, Peters said.

Most of the remains sent to the center have been teeth and bone fragments from the 1930s to the 1950s, Peters said. The remains are ground up and tested for nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. In Owen’s case, the remains were so fragmented that researchers had to rely on mitochondrial DNA to confirm the match.

Scientists at the health science center are working with researchers at the University of South Florida on the project, which is funded by the Florida Legislature and the National Institute of Justice and also involves the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a database managed at the health science center. NamUs is helping investigators try to find relatives who may searching for missing loved ones who were sent to the school, Peters said.

So far, 11 families have come forward, Peters said.

“The linchpin has been getting reference samples from families,” Peters said. “If we don’t get more families we will not make additional associations.”

‘Not an easy road’

Smith was sent to the reform school, then called the Florida Industrial School for Boys, for being with a friend in a stolen car, and in December 1940 his mother wrote to the school’s superintendent, asking about her son. She received a letter back saying that no one knew where he was. One month later the family was told that Smith had been found dead under a house after escaping from the school.

The family traveled to the school in Marianna, Fla., to collect Smith’s remains, but when they arrived they were told that he had been buried in an unmarked grave.

At a news conference Thursday in Tampa, researchers at South Florida said that Owen’s body had been found in a two-foot grave, lying on his side with his hands over his head.

He will soon be reburied next to his mother and father in Auburndale, Fla.

“This is what we worked for,” Krell, Owen’s sister, said at the news conference. “It was not an easy road.”

Krell said her older brother would wear a guitar string around his neck and that the family would sing country-western songs for entertainment. He hadn’t been in trouble before the stolen car, she said.

Over the years, the family kept his wallet.

“It was important to him and I often wondered why he left it,” Krell said.

‘Lot of boys missing’

Records say that there were 31 burials at the school between 1900 and 2011, but researchers found 24 more bodies during last year’s excavation project.

Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have accused school employees and guards at the closed reform school 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.

Jerry Cooper, president of a group of about 300 men called the “White House Boys” who say they were tortured at the school as children, said that only a small fraction of the 1,400-acre campus has been searched.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Cabinet extended the permit this week for research work to continue on the Dozier site until Aug. 5, 2015. The research was previously scheduled to end this month, Cooper said.

Cooper, 69, said he came to the school at age 15 after he ran away from home three times. He was released in 1961.

Cooper said he counted 135 lashes the first time he was beaten. The beating left his body in tatters and ended with him picking bits of torn clothing from his wounds, Cooper said.

“It was a place of pure horror,” Cooper said. “We have a lot of boys missing. We have records for 180 boys who were there and no one knows what happened to them. A lot of people believe there are more cemeteries. Will they ever find all the bodies? I don’t know. I’m only hoping that we don’t go down as a mystery.”

A leader in DNA processing

The UNT 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 is nuclear DNA, which is routinely analyzed in forensic cases.

Since 2003, the center has processed more than 5,200 sets of human remains, making more than 1,100 DNA associations that led to identifications.

The health science center also has the nation’s only lab at an academic center that is approved to upload genetic data for unidentified remains to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The lab has been crucial in 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 t9-11, Hurricane Katrina and the 1973 Pinochet military coup in Chile.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and the Star-Telegram archives.

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