Teams of forensic and law-enforcement searchers began sifting the sands of Florida Panhandle woodlands on Saturday, searching for bones of juvenile offenders who disappeared from a notorious reform school more than a half-century ago.
Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida who heads the team of about 20 sleuths, said they hope to identify the mostly black youths whose deaths were little noticed, and sometimes unreported, in an era of strict segregation.
Some elderly survivors and descendants of boys sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys gathered at the padlocked gates of the 1,400-acre (567-hectare) institution for the start of excavations nearby in a recently cleared area known as "boot hill."
"We've found a number of grave spots in that area," Kimmerle said in a morning briefing. "We're approaching it much like you would an archeological excavation. It's all done carefully and by hand."
She said teams of students from her university and volunteers form the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office were working at the closed site. Thirty-one crude white crosses were planted there to symbolize the graves detected by ground-penetrating radar and sample trenches bored by the researchers and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents over more than a year.
The Florida Legislature put up $190,000 for the search and the U.S. Justice Department has agreed to provide federal funding for DNA identification of any remains that are found.
'NEVER HAD A CHANCE'
Tananarive Due, who came to the dig with some family members, said her great-uncle, Robert Stephens, died at the school in 1937.
"The story was ... he tried to run away at one point," she said. "The official cause of death was a stabbing by another inmate, that's what it was listed as. But with so many of these boys, who knows how they died? Their families never had a chance to say 'good-bye' to their loved ones. Many of them just disappeared."
Johnny Lee Gaddy, 67, said he was locked up from 1957 to 1961 for truancy. He said he was severely beaten but became a good farm worker in his teens, hoping to get released.
Gaddy said he had heard of teens disappearing without explanation.
"I know some they said went home, but they hadn't been here long enough to go home," said Gaddy. "They said some others ran away or were transferred to other places. We never saw any bodies or funerals."
John Due, Tananarive Due's father, said descendants and civil-rights activists who pressed the state for disclosure of what happened to the young men ran into rigid resistance from authorities for decades. He said many families of victims were just as reluctant to talk about relatives who mysteriously disappeared.
"People didn't want to talk about it, and we found that particularly among black families," he said. "That's what racism does. It beats you down and you think you don't matter, so you won't speak up."
The forensic teams will work through Tuesday on the first round of digging. Kimmerle said bones will be taken to the University of South Florida, then to a Texas university laboratory for matching with DNA samples taken from known descendants of Dozier students who vanished.
Those who can be identified will be re-intered at family plots, she said, and any unidentified remains will be numbered and buried - with records kept for later return to families, if any come forward.