Family Awaits Decision on Digging Up Graves at Dozier

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By Julie Montanaro
May 16, 2013

There are 31 crosses in a tiny cemetery on the grounds of what used to be the Dozier School for Boys. The question is who's buried there? And how did they die?

Some families want to dig them up to find out and Florida's Attorney General does too.

There are 31 metal crosses beneath this mulberry tree at the now closed Dozier School for Boys. It's called Boot Hill.

And if Glen Varnedoe has his way, crews will soon begin digging up graves here to try to find his uncle, Thomas. He died at the school in 1934.

"He was sent there on the 22nd of September. He died on the 26th of October. So 34-35 days later he was dead and the family was notified by U.S. mail about two weeks later," Varnedoe said.

"And what did they say killed your uncle?"

"Pneumonia and anemia."

Varnedoe didn't even know his dad and uncle were sent to the reform school - until after his dad died. The brothers had been arrested for trespassing in their hometown of Brooksville.

"I think it's a tragedy and a travesty that a 13 year old boy was allowed to be taken from his home for such a petty offense and the state didn't take better care of him and let him die," Varnedoe said.

A trip to see his uncle's grave started what has now become a petition to exhume every body in this cemetery.

"The thicket was over head high so you had to kind of just push yuor way in there and that's sort of what it looked like and I just came away shaking my head going good gracious," Varnedoe said, "a little bit of disbelief that a cemetery for children would be managed in that manner."

Florida's attorney general has temproarily halted sale of the land and asked a judge to aurthorize a medical examiner to exhume the bodies so he can try to figure out who's buried there and how they died.

"We know that atrocities occurred at the Dozier School of Boys back in the early 1900's and many of these families need closure and it's only fair to them that they are able to hopefully identify their loved ones and get their remains," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said when she filed the petition in March.

Anthropolgists from the University of South Florida have been using ground penetrating radar to try to find graves. They have found several possible graves beyond the confines of the cemetery fence and have heard repeated stories of a second cemetery, but have yet to find it.

"The woods behind us, thick, was all through here. So this is land we cleared," said Forensic Anthropologist Erin Kimmerle as she gave U.S. Senator Bill Nelson a tour back in March.

The USF research team gathered documents, death certificates and more in its search for answers. It believes there are at least 45 people buried at the school.

Its report lists 20 students who died within three months of arriving at Dozier and seven who died after they escaped. The USF report says two of those were shot, one died of blunt trauma and two more died of causes unknown.

"I think they ought to exhume them all, you know, dig 'em up," said Norman Whiddon, "because young men just don't die." Whiddon is a former student who claims he and many others were beaten in the notorious White House on campus.

Marianna historian Dale Cox rebuffs any suggestion that anyone was murdered at the school.

"I think people who are expecting a bunch of murdered bodies to suddenly appear out there are going to be very frustrated and disappointed when it doesn't happen," he said.

Cox says the deaths are documented even if they are not labeled by plot and most are from flu, fire and pneumonia. He doesn't want the graves exhumed, rather memorialized.

"I think they should preserve the cemetery. They should put a memorial out there with the names of everyone who is buried there on it," he said, "I think the state of Florida owes it to them."

A judge has not yet ruled on the attorney general's request to exhume the bodies.

Glen Varnedoe and his family are waiting. He says he doesn't want any redress or money, just his uncle's remains.

"I just want him out of there and brought home to a final resting place with his mother," Varnedoe said.

"And what do you say to people who are like, you need to let it lie? You need to not disturb the young men buried there dig up all this from the past, what do you say to those people?"

"Well, I think the first question I'd ask them is do you have anybody buried there? because if you don't, you really don't know what it feels like," Varnedoe said.

The Florida legislature approved $190,000 dollars for USF scientists to continue their work at Dozier . The governor has yet to sign off on that.

We'll let you know what the judge decides on the exhumation request.


By Julie Montanaro
May 15, 2013

The Dozier School for Boys is closed now.

But the name alone can still send shivers down the spines of grown men.

Boys who were sent there for delinquency, truancy and far worse contend the beatings they received at the hands of the state-run school were so severe and the consequences of escape so grave they have no doubt boys died from it.

"I soon discovered that I had arrived in hell."

Buddy Somnitz was sent to the Dozier School for Boys for truancy twice in the 1960's.

He says he was beaten at least six times in a small white building at the top of a hill, by men he can still name, with a leather strap he can still see.

"They would raise back... And when they would hit you they would jump off the ground," Somnitz says.

Somnitz says he was beaten for everything from stepping out of line to tie his shoe, to fighting in the cafeteria. One night he says he was dragged from his bed and beaten. He lost count at 74 licks.

Somnitz: "... The screaming ...At first I didn't know where it was coming from and then it dawned on on me that it was me screaming."

He still has nightmares about what happened there and claims permanent damage to his pancreas from swift kicks to the stomach.

Somnitz is one of dozens of boys - now old men - who call themselves "The White House Boys". Boys who claim they were brutally beaten at the school before it outlawed corporal punishment.

"When I hear 'Dozier School for Boys', a chill runs up my back from the abuse that went on in there," Norman Whiddon said.

Whiddon was sent to the Dozier School when he was 12 years old for stabbing a teen on a school bus and kicking the driver.

Whiddon: "We know we did wrong on the outside and we know we had to be sent somewhere, but we didn't have to suffer what we did in there."

Reporter: "Do you think the state owes you an apology?"

"No, I think the state owes a bunch of boys an apology," says Whiddon.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the claims of abuse in 2009.

It found that former students were consistent in saying corporal punishment took place in the White House but said they were "inconsistent with regard to the number and severity of the spankings administered."

It said there was no evidence "supporting or refuting" allegations of sexual abuse.

The investigation "found no evidence" that indicated the school tried to conceal any student deaths and "no evidence that any staff member was responsible for any student deaths at the school."

Buddy Somnitz doesn't buy it.

"Fifty years later and I haven't forgot it," he says.

He claims to have seen two boys killed by staff there. One collapsed and died after being forced to run laps at the gym, he says, and the other was cold-cocked with the butt of a rifle when staffers found him hiding in the tall grass.

"They caught him right here [pointing at face] and it peeled the skin back to a little bit above his eyes and then they threw him in the back of the jeep," Somnitz says.

Anthropologists from the University of South Florida are examining a cemetery on the school grounds and reviewing documents to try to find out who is buried there and how they died.

A judge has yet to rule on a petition to exhume the bodies.

A civil lawsuit brought by the White House Boys was dismissed in 2010. And a claims bill filed in the legislature in 2012 did not pass.

"My view of the 'White House Boys' is that... There has been a state investigation, there has been a federal investigation, and there has been a civil suit. The outcome of all three of those are known and as far as I'm concerned they've had their day," says Marianna historian Dale Cox.

Cox: "There have been multiple investigations of this and you can ask for an investigation, but then if you're not happy with the results of that investigation, does that mean you automatically get another one until you finally get one you're satisfied with?"

Tomorrow, WCTV will take a closer look at the petition to exhume remains at Boot Hill Cemetery and we'll meet the man who is pushing for the digging to begin.


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