For my father, Gil, who chaired the University of South Florida anthropology department for many years and encouraged me to write.
It didn’t take much to get sent to the White House. Smoking. Cussing. Taking an extra pat of butter at lunch. Or, as Jerry Cooper learned late one spring night in 1961, refusing to play football.
The White House was a small building near the cafeteria at the Florida School for Boys, where 15-year-old Cooper had arrived earlier that year. The school was the oldest reformatory in Florida, spread across 1,400 acres of rolling farmland in Marianna, a town of 7,150, an hour from the state capital in Tallahassee. Like most schools in the South, it treated football like religion. But the reform school’s Yellow Jackets had languished of late, and acting superintendent David Walters—who took such pride in the team that he kept its few trophies in his office—wanted Cooper to lead them to victory again.
Cooper was tall, lean, and amiable, the star quarterback at his high school in suburban Orlando before his life veered off course. When Walters, a stocky, crew-cut middle-aged man, summoned Cooper to his office a few months after his arrival, he didn’t ask if he’d play quarterback for the Yellow Jackets. He told him to.
But Cooper didn’t want to suit up. With his good behavior and dutiful work as a teacher’s aide, he had earned an early release from the school and would be going home in a few months. He didn’t want a commitment to the football team to keep him around through the fall. He obligingly attended practices with the other boys, struggling through the Florida heat in thick, ratty pads every afternoon, but he refused to sign up for the coming season.
Then, one night, he was awakened by a hand gripping his neck. Two guards—one larger than him, one smaller—dragged him barefoot from his cottage. They wouldn’t say where they were taking him as they threw him into the back of an old blue Ford. They drove along the rocky dirt roads across campus until they reached a little white building. Cooper had never been sent to the White House before, but he had heard the stories of kids being taken there to be whipped—or worse.
As the guards shoved Cooper through the door, the stench of bodily fluids overwhelmed him. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling of the bare concrete room, illuminating three husky men: Walters, school disciplinarian R. W. Hatton, and a supervisor, Troy Tidwell, whom the boys nicknamed the One-Armed Bandit. As a child, Tidwell had leaned on the muzzle of a shotgun and blown off his left arm. His remaining arm possessed a fearsome strength, and he was known to the boys as the strongest whipmaster of the White House.
“What do you know about a runner?” Walters asked Cooper, referring to a boy who had run away from the school earlier that night.
“I don’t have a fucking clue,” Cooper replied.
Walters lunged for him, and Cooper’s football instincts took over. The boy jammed his shoulder into the superintendent, taking Tidwell down with him. But the men recovered, and Tidwell’s hand closed around Cooper’s neck, hurling him against the wall. Tidwell smashed his heel down on Cooper, shattering the ball of his foot. When Cooper grabbed his foot in agony, he caught a fist to the mouth, which knocked loose his front teeth.
The men threw Cooper facedown on an army cot and tied his legs down. Cooper heard Tidwell’s whip snap against the ceiling and an instant later felt it sear his skin. One burning lash followed another, and Cooper, who never considered himself a coward, begged for mercy. “Jesus, God help me!” he cried. “Mother!” Then he passed out from the pain.
That night in his cottage, Cooper nursed his broken foot. The wounds from the whip were still so raw that the blood soaked through the back of his nightshirt. A boy who had been waiting his turn in the White House during Cooper’s beating later told him he had counted 135 licks in all. The supervisors had told Cooper he was being punished for not helping them find the runaway, but Cooper surmised the real reason for the whipping: They wanted him on the football team, even if they had to beat him into compliance (though they probably hadn’t planned on breaking his foot). Now, on account of his alleged insubordination, he wouldn’t be released from the school anytime soon—certainly not before the end of the football season.
Lying on his bed, Cooper wondered how he would survive the months that stretched before him. The White House had changed him. He vowed to bring the men who had broken him to justice, no matter how long it took.
But first he had to play ball.
On a crisp, sunny morning in March 2013, a maintenance worker struggled to open a rusty padlock on the door to a grimy whitewashed building. It sat in the middle of a patch of dying grass littered with pinecones, on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, as the Florida School for Boys had been renamed in 1967, in honor of a former superintendent. The school had closed for budgetary reasons two years before. The old cottages were boarded up now, the once prized football field gone to seed, and a high barbed-wire fence circled the property. Guards had once patrolled the perimeter to stop runaways; now they were there to keep out the curious, including what one called the “paranormals,” clairvoyants who’d been found on campus trying to communicate with dead boys.
When the worker finally forced the lock open, Erin Kimmerle stepped past him into the cottage that generations of Dozier boys had known as the White House. A self-assured but soft-spoken 40-year-old with long blond hair, she wore aviator sunglasses, a black coat, and blue jeans. By the light of an iPhone, she peered down a hallway lined with tiny cells, a narrow slit for a window in the back wall of each. Names and dates from half a century ago were scrawled over a doorway. The wall of one room was spattered with something red, and marked with a red handprint. “We tested it,” a representative from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice assured her. “It’s just paint.”
One of the country’s leading forensic anthropologists, Kimmerle had unearthed mass graves in Bosnia, Nigeria, and Peru. But the White House struck her as uniquely haunting. “It just feels—sad,” she said. The scene was a far cry from the image the Dozier school had presented to the world when it first opened, in 1900, as a national model for the rehabilitation of troubled youths. “The grounds were immaculate,” recalls U.S. senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, who as a boy in the 1950s often visited family in the area. Locals in Marianna still speak fondly of Dozier. Until it closed down in 2011, the school was known for a Christmas light show that attracted visitors from around the state. An early publicity brochure showed clean-cut boys playing bugles under the campus’s cedars and billed the school as “A Place in the Sun.”
But for nearly as long, the school had been dogged by a darker history. In 1903, after hearing complaints about the institution, a committee from the state legislature investigated and found that school administrators were beating boys, feeding them poorly, and hiring them out for labor. Children as young as five, the committee found, had been shackled and chained in small cells. Five more investigations followed over the next decade; one of them, in 1911, reported that the beatings had continued and likened the African-American side of the then segregated campus to “a convict camp.” In 1914, a fire broke out in a dormitory, killing eight boys—as well as two adult staff members—who had been locked inside. The superintendent and other staff members had been in town at the time, on what a grand jury, convened the next year, called “a pleasure bent.”
After the same grand jury determined that the punishments the administrators had meted out to the boys at the Florida School for Boys were “cruel and inhuman,” the state installed new management. But little changed. In 1958, a psychologist who had worked at the reformatory testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that the school’s students were brutalized on cots in a small building on campus where “they are told to hold the head rail and not yell out nor to move.” Corporal punishment was banned at state-run institutions in 1968, but hair-raising reports about conditions at Dozier continued until at least 2007, when surveillance cameras caught guards choking a teenager and beating him unconscious on a concrete floor. And yet a century’s worth of investigations had all petered out without serious consequence.
Kimmerle specialized in such cases. Schooled at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility—the storied “Body Farm” where human remains are studied as they decay—her excavations in other countries had helped lead to war-crimes convictions. At the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she had worked since 2005, Kimmerle and her team of students and anthropologists reviewed hundreds of cold cases for Hillsborough County. They spent their days in a windowless basement lab, looking for the kind of answers that old bones could provide when the memories of the living were of little use.
Leaving the White House, Kimmerle walked silently past the dusty cafeteria, where metal tables rusted under a ceiling pocked with missing tiles. She climbed into her car and drove slowly across the campus—past the church, the shuttered administration building, the old cottages where students like Jerry Cooper once slept. A small bronze plaque dedicated to Arthur Dozier, who died in 1967, marked the ground near the exit, extolling his “33 years of dedicated service to the youth of Florida.”
Kimmerle’s team had been exploring the grounds of Dozier for over a year and had uncovered far more evidence than anyone expected. Their work promised to answer questions that had been asked for years by former students and the families of boys who had come back from the school changed irrevocably—or had never come back at all. But the discoveries also raised another, bigger question: If the horror stories from Dozier were true all along, why didn’t anyone do anything about them until it was too late?
Jerry Cooper was the last kid anyone expected to end up in reform school. In Winter Garden, the town near Orlando where he grew up in the 1950s, he was known for his strong passing arm and was a straight-A student—but he was also a broken boy. He lived with his mother and stepfather on the grounds of the hospital where his stepfather worked as a maintenance engineer. Twenty years older than his mother, Cooper’s stepfather physically and verbally abused both of them. Cooper twice tried to run away to his uncle’s house in Virginia, only to be caught and brought back to Winter Garden.
The third time, it briefly seemed, would be the charm. Cooper, then 15, hitched a ride out of Winter Garden. Just outside of Savannah, Georgia, he was picked up in a Chevy convertible by a scrappy young Marine named Danny, who was bound for North Carolina. In the wee hours of the morning, the two were approaching the North Carolina state line when Cooper saw the lights of a police car in the rearview mirror. Instead of pulling over, Danny floored the accelerator. Cooper heard gunshots ring out behind them.
“Danny, man, stop!” he shouted, ducking down on the floor. “What are you doin’?” But Danny only drove faster, until he finally lost control, hurtling over the shoulder into a watery ditch. Danny fled into the woods, but Cooper stayed put and was quickly captured. “What are you doing in a stolen car?” the cop hollered at him.
Cooper was arrested along with Danny for car theft. As a minor, he avoided a jail sentence, and instead was sent to the Florida School for Boys. His sentence would have no set length, he was told; he would have to earn his way out through good behavior. Cooper had heard rumors about the school, but only of the vaguest sort. All he knew was that it was a place you didn’t want to go.
When he arrived there in May 1961, Marianna looked to Cooper like any other poor, rural town in the Florida Panhandle. There was a short main street with a strip of small brick stores. Modest brick houses sat alongside peanut and dairy farms. Cooper marveled at how clean and collegiate the reform-school campus looked. Cows grazed in the fields. Sun dappled through the pines.
On his first day at school, Cooper was sent to visit the assistant superintendent, R. W. Hatton. As he waited outside the office for his turn, he could hear Hatton screaming at another boy, who was led out of the room by a fierce-looking man with one arm. When Cooper was called inside, Hatton, a crew-cut man with a prune-like face, sternly spelled out the rules, then concluded with a warning. “Let me tell you one thing, Jerry,” Cooper recalls him saying. “You get caught on this campus talking to a nigger, if you get caught doing anything, you’re going to the White House.”
Because of his good grades at his old high school, Cooper was assigned a job as a teacher’s aide. Determined to get out as soon as he could, he threw himself into the work. Then one day during his first week on the job, a mentally challenged boy whom Cooper often helped with his homework began acting out in the classroom. The teacher ordered him to the White House.
When the boy returned, an hour later, Cooper noticed that he was hobbling. After class ended and the boy limped off, Cooper saw that he had left behind a pool of blood on his seat. The teacher told Cooper to wipe it up. It was then that he began to wonder what kind of punishment, exactly, the state had given him.
The school’s brutality wasn’t the work of just a few isolated sadists. In a sense, it had been poured into the very foundation of the place. Marianna is the seat of Jackson County, one of the first counties in the Florida Territory cleared in the early 19th century by settlers, who flocked to the rich soil of its river-crossed lowlands. Agriculture—first cotton and later peanuts, melons, and other crops—had always been the town’s dominant industry. The vast acreage of the school itself was planted with corn, sweet potatoes, and watermelons.
But by the late 1800s, Marianna, just a quarter-century removed from Reconstruction, was still reeling economically from the loss of the slave labor it had once depended on. Seeking to fill the gap, Florida passed laws that allowed for convicts to be pressed into service as manual laborers. In 1887, a 16-year-old boy was whipped to death at a convict camp; 12 years later, a U.S. House of Representatives investigative committee declared the state’s convict labor to be “a system of cruelty and inhumanity.” But it was a system that would be brought to the Florida School for Boys the following year, courtesy of a man named William H. Milton.
A native son of Marianna and the grandson of a Civil War–era Florida governor, Milton was a recently failed gubernatorial candidate who worked as a banker in his hometown. (Later in the decade, he would be appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace a fellow Democrat who died in office.) He was also the chairman of the board of the reform school when it was founded—and saw in the new state-run institution a potential solution to the local labor shortage. The wayward boys who attended the school, he realized, could be hired out to work in Marianna’s fields far below the cost of adult farmhands.
There was one flaw in his plan, however: The reform school didn’t have enough boys to meet demand. At the time, only minors who had committed serious crimes were sent to the school, and there weren’t many of them—less than a few dozen in all. To increase the student population, Milton asked Governor William Jennings to allow that “incorrigible children be sent, without conviction, for an indefinite period” to the school, “leaving the term fixed by the management.”
Jennings approved Milton’s proposal, and Florida’s next governor, N.B. Broward, did him one better, eliminating the fees counties had to pay to send boys to the school. He also boasted to the state legislature of the “large returns” the school got from local farmers who hired the boys and from the sale of the school’s own crops for a profit. Broward was careful to describe the boys’ farm work as rehabilitation, not exploitation. “Such labor and work as is imposed upon its inmates [should] be imposed with a view of their industrial training,” he wrote in 1906, “rather than a means of revenue.”
Still, the school was Marianna’s golden goose: In a cash-strapped county in a cash-strapped state, here was a government institution that actually made money. But the profits came at a human price. Johnnie Walthour, an African-American teen who attended the school in the early 1950s, later recalled being roped with a line of boys to a plow “like a mule.” If the rope slackened, he said, the offending boy was pulled from the line and beaten.
Nevertheless, the school expanded its work programs, adding a brickmaking plant and a publishing plant, which printed government documents for the state. By the time Jerry Cooper was committed, there were over 700 students on campus. The Florida School for Boys was now the largest reform school in America.
The Yellow Jackets were a scrappy, Bad News Bears team when Jerry Cooper arrived. As the only reform school in its conference, the team played with a sizable chip on its shoulder. There weren’t just egos at stake; the school’s supervisors were known to bet on the games. Cooper saw just how seriously they took the sport when he arrived at practice for the first time and saw Vic Prinzi, a former NFL quarterback and star at nearby Florida State University, coaching on the field.
While other schools in the state were prohibited from practicing during the sweltering summer months, the Florida School for Boys’ administrators exploited their unique circumstances for an edge. The Yellow Jackets were subjected to workouts in the swampy heat, scrimmaging far from the road in case anyone happened to drive by. Cooper saw boys vomiting and passing out from exhaustion.
After his night in the White House, Cooper recalls, he was given an ultimatum: quarterback for the team or be sent to an adult prison for another few years. He chose the team. When he complained that his broken foot was causing him too much pain to play, the coaches called for a nurse to shoot him full of novocaine.
One of the Yellow Jackets’ offensive ends was a brawny kid named Edgar “Tommy” Elton, who had been sent to the school for stealing hubcaps. Elton, like Cooper, had a perfect behavior record on campus and was looking forward to going home after the football season; the two boys became close friends. Then, one hot and humid day in July, the Yellow Jackets were running a passing drill in the stifling heat of the school gym, which lacked air-conditioning. Prinzi was throwing to receivers. After catching a pass, Cooper looked up to see Elton on his knees gasping for air.
Cooper knew that his friend suffered from asthma and that Elton’s parents had notified the school of the condition. He ran to alert Hatton and Tidwell, who as usual were watching the practice. But as he approached, Cooper saw Hatton reach for the gun he kept on his belt. “You take one more step,” he recalls Hatton saying, “and I’m going to shoot you.” Tidwell ordered Elton back to practice. But as Elton struggled to his feet, he fell to the floor—“like a rock,” Cooper recalls.
The obituary in the school paper reported that there had been an immediate effort to revive Elton and that he had died of a heart attack; no mention was made of his asthma. As Cooper and other students remember it, however, no one attempted to revive Elton, and the boy lay on the floor for nearly 30 minutes before he was carried out on a stretcher. No one from the school’s infirmary ever arrived. Where Elton was buried, Cooper never knew. But there was one thing he felt sure about: He had witnessed a murder.
Cooper was still fuming a few weeks later, during the Yellow Jackets’ last practice before the first game of the season. But the school administrators were depending on their new prize quarterback to bring home the trophy. “We need this game, Jerry,” Prinzi told him.
Cooper stared him down. “I’m not playing for you,” he said. “I’m not playing for Walters. I’m playing for Tommy Elton.”
Cooper led the Yellow Jackets to victory in their opening game, and he never let up. Though he resented Prinzi for not protecting his friend, the two formed a wary alliance. Prinzi needed a winning team; Cooper needed a place to work out his anger, and all he had was a football field. When Cooper asked for new uniforms for the team, Prinzi made sure they got them. When they arrived at their away games to find the opposing teams and fans calling them killers and rapists, Prinzi urged his team to keep their cool.
By season’s end, Cooper and the Yellow Jackets had done the unthinkable, winning all but one game. The only thing standing between them and a championship win was Chattahoochee —a team from elsewhere in the Panhandle that the reform school hadn’t beaten in 12 years. The crucial showdown was on Chattahoochee’s home field.
Cooper had grown accustomed to defensive players telling each other to go for his bad foot, and Chattahoochee’s defense was no exception. But Cooper’s determination, bolstered with novocaine, kept the pain at bay. By halftime, the game was still scoreless, but Cooper hit his receiver for a touchdown pass in the third quarter to take the lead. One more touchdown clinched the game, and the championship.
The trophy went onto Walters’s shelf with the others. Cooper was voted onto the conference all-star team and awarded a letter for his jacket, a yellow F, for Florida School for Boys. The best prize of all, however, was a ticket home. In November, Cooper left the reform school once and for all to return to his family in Winter Garden. Before he boarded the bus home, he chucked the letter in the trash.
Sometimes, in his nightmares, he saw a bear. Cooper was back in the White House, screaming for mercy as he was beaten again. But it wasn’t Tidwell or the others who were after him—it was a bear, and it chased him out the door of the small building and into the night. Other nights he dreamed of Elton dying in the gym as he watched powerlessly, unable to intervene. He’d wake up crying, chastising himself for not having done more for his friend.
No matter how hard Cooper tried to bury the memories in the decades that followed, they wouldn’t let him alone. He built a successful career in construction, turning a $2,500 investment into a multimillion-dollar company, but he was still a tortured boy who had grown into a tortured man. He suffered debilitating panic attacks, some so bad that they drove him to contemplate suicide. He numbed himself with drink and got into fights—including with police.
He married and adopted three children, but the relationship ended in divorce. Even Hollywood seemed to mock his past with the 1974 film The Longest Yard, starring Burt Reynolds—a friend and teammate of Vic Prinzi at FSU—which Cooper figured had to be inspired by Prinzi’s experience coaching the Dozier team. It was a comedy.
As he reached his sixties, Cooper still had the rugged handsomeness of his youth, but he was weathered now, the tattoos on his forearms fading and his moustache long and gray. His foot had never properly healed, and he walked with a cane. Scars from Tidwell’s whip still marked his buttocks. After retiring to a well-appointed home in the coastal community of Cape Coral with his second wife, Babbs, and four small dogs, he spent his days alone, combing the nearby beaches with his metal detector. He was ashamed to share his story even with Babbs. Inside, he obsessed over a near impossible goal: justice for Tidwell and the other men who stole his youth in the White House. “In one night,” he would later say, “I became a monster.”
Then, in December 2008, Cooper was trimming his lawn when he looked through the window at the TV inside, tuned to cable news, and saw something jarringly familiar. There, on CNN, was the little white building of his nightmares.
He rushed inside. On the screen, a group of gray-haired men were standing in front of the White House—it looked just like he remembered it—recounting the abuse they had suffered there decades ago. “You could hear it coming through the air, and when it hit your body, the pain was unbelievable,” one of the men recalled of Tidwell’s whip. “They just beat you to the point of unconsciousness, or you could no longer understand what was happening to you.” Another former student called the school “a concentration camp for little boys.” Sitting in his living room, Cooper’s eyes filled with tears.
They called themselves the White House Boys. Each claimed to have been physically assaulted, sexually abused, or both at the reform school during the 1950s and 1960s. Like Cooper, they had long suffered quietly, ashamed to share their stories. They had also been afraid; as children, they said, their abusers threatened that if they ever spoke of what happened, they would be sent back to the school. Even when some did hesitantly speak out, their friends and family didn’t always believe them.
What had finally prompted them to come forward was a recent incident at another Florida reform school. In January 2006, Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old inmate at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office Boot Camp, a juvenile detention center in Panama City, collapsed and died on a running track on his first day at the facility. An initial autopsy by the local medical examiner found that Anderson had died of complications from sickle-cell trait, a blood condition with which he had not previously been diagnosed. A surveillance tape leaked from the boot camp, however, showed Anderson being restrained and beaten on the track by guards moments before his death.
A second autopsy, conducted at the urging of Anderson’s family, found that his death had not been the result of sickle-cell trait or natural causes. The story drew outrage across Florida, eventually forcing the legislature to close the state’s five boot camps. For the men who had endured similar treatment at the Florida School for Boys, the incident had a grim resonance.
On blogs and online forums, the men began swapping stories of the traumas that still haunted them long after they left the school. Broken marriages. Sleepless nights. Alcoholism. Violent rage. Though difficult to corroborate individually, the stories were strikingly consistent in many details: the positions the boys were forced into on cots in the White House, the sound of Tidwell’s whip scraping the ceiling, the buzz of the industrial fan drowning out the sound of the beatings and of the boys’ screams.
Last February, I attended a meeting of the White House Boys at Cooper’s home. After seeing the men on CNN, he had quickly thrown himself into the group’s work and eventually became its acting president, quarterbacking their fight for justice just as he had the Yellow Jackets long ago. The White House Boys now had over 450 members, each of whom claimed to have been beaten, molested, or raped at the school. They held an annual convention and had even designed their own tricolor flag: white for the White House, red for the blood that was shed there, and black for the stolen childhoods and lost lives. The men brought it to every meeting and every member’s funeral.
Over a lunch of honey baked ham and macaroni, I listened as the group members recalled the abuse they suffered at the hands of the state. “Tidwell beat my ass,” James DeNyke, a 64-year-old biker in a Harley T-shirt, said. “There was a boy ahead of me and I sat there—” He broke off, tears preventing him from saying any more.
Michael Tucker, a long-haired retiree in sandals who had once been a Yellow Jackets linebacker, told DeNyke that he had a story he couldn’t get through either. He recalled befriending a mentally challenged 11-year-old boy at the school, to whom he’d slip extra cookies while working at the cafeteria. One day, Tucker was summoned to the White House. Having already been sent there once for smoking, he braced himself for the worst.
But this time it wasn’t him who was in for a lashing—it was the 11-year-old boy. “They deliberately got me,” he recalled, tearfully, “and made me … hold him down, while he screamed in my face for his mama, while they beat him with that goddamn strap.” His own beating, he recalled, “didn’t feel like nothing compared to that. That scars your soul.”
At the meeting and in other testimonials, the White House Boys described bizarre and abhorrent behavior by staff that extended beyond beatings. During the psychological evaluations they were forced to undergo at the school, many students recalled, the staff social worker, Robert Currie, asked if they had ever had sex with their mothers; some students recalled him rubbing their shoulders while he questioned them.
Others spoke of being sexually assaulted in a basement area known as the “rape room.” Robert Straley, now a 66-year-old novelties distributor in Clearwater, had been sent to Marianna in the early 1960s for running away from home. One night, he claimed, Tidwell and a tall man he hadn’t seen before woke him up and drove him to the campus administration building. They led him down a set of stairs into a dank room and flicked on a dim light overhead, illuminating a bed.
Tidwell pushed him down onto the mattress, Straley recalled, and knelt on his back so hard he thought it would break. “While I struggled to breathe, the tall man pulled down my pajamas and I felt something rough prodding my bottom,” he later wrote (the memory remains too traumatic for him to recount aloud). “There was a sudden feeling of wetness and something hurt like fire for a moment. The men traded positions and that was when I started blacking out. I had the weird feeling of my mouth stretched as wide as it could be but I couldn’t seem to draw a breath.”
It wasn’t just the guilt and shame that scarred them, but also the fear—fear that any night, at any time, they could be awakened and beaten. Boys who tried to escape—runners, in the parlance of the school—risked being shot. Earl Somnitz, now a 66-year-old living off disability payments in Panama City, experienced this twice. One day while working in the metal shop on the edge of the school grounds, Somnitz saw a runner hiding in the bushes. A state jeep pulled up in front of him with Hatton and others inside. Somnitz says he watched Hatton club the boy so hard with the butt of his rifle that “it peeled the skin back above his eyebrows. I could see the bones.” The men then threw the limp body into the jeep and drove off, the boy’s head lolling over the door.
Somnitz never found out what became of the child, but the incident didn’t stop him from running away one day himself. Even if he made it past the guards, Somnitz knew that the school paid a bounty for runners to the locals in Marianna—up to $25 a boy. (At one time, “runaways” was listed in school records as the second-highest budget item.) Dressed in his pajamas, Somnitz ran through the woods, and he recalls hearing gunshots sail past him. He managed to elude his pursuers and successfully escape back to his family, never returning to the school.
Other men, like Cooper, were haunted by memories of acts even worse than rapes and beatings. At the White House Boys meeting, Roger Kiser, now a 66-year-old author, told of seeing a boy under a sheet being carried from the school laundry. “Another one of you little bastards just bit the dust,” a supervisor told him, he remembers. Dick Colon, who worked in the laundry several years earlier, said he once saw a boy tumbling in an industrial dryer, then carried out under a sheet on a stretcher.
The bodies of many of the boys who vanished from the school under such circumstances, the White House Boys claimed, had been dumped in unmarked graves on the school grounds. Some of them, they believed, were in the cemetery on the African-American side of the campus. The cemetery was called Boot Hill, a term the boys might have recognized from the movies: It was what burial grounds were called in the Wild West, so named for the men who died with their boots on in gunfights.
The cemetery bordered the school’s garbage dump. How many bodies were buried there was an open question. Campus records were spotty or nonexistent, and some of the graves belonged to campus pets—a pair of dogs and a peacock named Sue. By the 1960s, the wooden crosses that originally marked the boys’ plots had rotted away. One day, Lenox “Link” Williams—a hulking tobacco-chewing psychologist who had recently joined the staff—led a troop of Boy Scouts from the school up to Boot Hill to plant cement crosses where he guessed the graves might have been. “Better to have too many,” he later recalled, “than too few.”
But the school’s lack of concern about the cemetery continued in the years to come. In the 1980s, a maintenance crew clearing nearby land inadvertently mowed over the crosses, destroying them and tossing them into the woods. They were replaced by crosses fashioned out of metal pipes and painted white. But the paint soon chipped away, leaving them to rust.
One afternoon last March, I walked through downtown Marianna with Elmore Bryant, a 79-year-old lifelong resident of Marianna who in the 1980s became the town’s first African-American mayor. I was curious how it was that the crimes the White House Boys claimed had occurred at the Dozier school had been tolerated by the town for so many years. By way of an answer, Bryant led me to the Jackson County courthouse and pointed to a large leafy live oak tree standing in front of the building.
On the morning of October 26, 1934, a mob of more than a hundred Marianna residents forced their way into the county jail in Brewton, Alabama, and kidnapped a 23-year-old black farmhand named Claude Neal. Neal had confessed to raping and murdering a 20-year-old white woman in Marianna; he had been moved to a jail two hundred miles away for his safety while he awaited trial. The mob brought Neal back to Marianna and, in front of more than a thousand onlookers, tortured and castrated him before killing him and dragging his bullet-riddled body through the streets of the town, then hanging it from the oak tree in front of the courthouse.
When the county sheriff finally cut down Neal’s body, rioters converged on the courthouse in protest, then fanned out through the town, attacking the homes of black residents until the National Guard arrived and restored peace. Nobody in Marianna ever gave up the people who were responsible for the lynching, among the most notorious in U.S. history. The point of the story, in Bryant’s telling, was clear: Marianna was a town accustomed to keeping dark secrets in the name of order. “Ain’t nobody gonna talk,” Bryant told me. “This town is close-knit.”
After the White House Boys began speaking out in 2008, they were accused of being, as one blogger put it, “scum and liars” who were spinning tales with hopes of suing the state for money. “There are no ‘mystery graves’ or ‘unmarked graves’ in the little cemetery near Dozier School in Marianna,” the local historian Dale Cox wrote on his blog in 2009. “Let old dogs rest,” Marianna resident Woody Hall later told the Tampa Bay Times. “Let it be. Leave it alone.”
While in Marianna, I visited the town’s police chief, Hayes Baggett, in his office. The son of Dozier’s former business manager, Baggett believes that the alleged abuses at the school never took place. “I think living here all my life I would have heard something,” he told me. He resented the investigations and the publicity, which “put a black eye on our community,” he said. “It’s just got it painted like we’re a bunch of hillbillies up this way and that’s not the case.”
For decades, efforts to investigate Dozier had run up against local intransigence. In 1968, Republican governor Claude Kirk—who once described himself as “a tree-shakin’ son of a bitch”—tried to distinguish himself as the first governor in the state to reform the by then notorious school. But he had an estimable opponent: the school’s new superintendent, Lenox Williams, who had been promoted to the job the year before.
During an inspection of the school that year, Kirk found boys living in cramped quarters with backed-up toilets and crumbling walls. Kirk asked Williams how the boys stayed warm with no heat in the winter or blankets on their beds. “Body heat,” Williams quipped.
Kirk called a press conference. “If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you’d be up there with rifles,” he declared, adding, “Somebody should have blown the whistle on Marianna a long time ago.” Florida’s newspapers piled on. The St. Petersburg Times wrote an editorial urging the state to “lift its troubled children from an environment as destructive as Marianna’s.” Another St. Petersburg paper, the Evening Independent, demanded a grand jury investigation.
But any changes were fleeting at best. Williams was fired for championing corporal punishment, despite a ban on the practice, but he was reinstated within a year by a staunchly supportive Florida legislator, Dempsey Barron, whose district included the school.
In 1979, Jack Levine, a young teacher from Tallahassee who also worked with the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitation Services, paid an unannounced visit to the Dozier school; he had heard the rumors and wanted to see for himself if they were true. In a shack behind the administration building, he was shocked to find scared and malnourished-looking children—some of them as young as 10—locked in small cells. Levine later returned to the campus—again unannounced—with an American Civil Liberties Union attorney. This time they found a boy hog-tied in a small cell; a visit soon after by Health and Rehabilitation representatives uncovered the same thing.
A class action filed on behalf of students from the school followed in 1983, alleging that boys were not only routinely shackled and hog-tied but also had their mail censored and calls and visits wrongly restricted. The state settled the case in 1987, agreeing to a ban on hog-tying, a population limit for the school, and, once again, Williams’s removal. But, in a now-familiar pattern, the reforms proved short-lived. Seven years later, Governor Lawton Chiles asked a federal court to abolish the limit on the student body at Dozier, and allegations of abuse continued. Over 300 were documented from 2004 to 2009 alone.
Even a surveillance video that was leaked online in 2007, showing a boy being knocked unconscious and bloody by a residency officer in a Dozier dormitory, wasn’t enough to force the school’s closure. Dozier’s acting superintendent was fired, along with the officer involved in the incident, but little changed. “We recognize that there are systemic operational problems at our Dozier facility that span the chain of command from top to bottom,” Department of Juvenile Justice secretary Walt McNeil said in 2007 in response to the controversy, echoing the empty promises of the past. “It is clear that we have to act decisively to change the culture of our Dozier facility.”
The White House Boys’ appearance on CNN hadn’t just caught Cooper’s eye—it had also gotten the attention of Governor Charlie Crist, who, under mounting pressure, agreed to launch a state-level inquiry into the abuses at Dozier. In December 2008, Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to locate the graves on Boot Hill, identify the remains, and determine if any crimes had been committed, as well as investigate the claims of abuse during the White House Boys’ tenure at the school. It was a daunting assignment. “We’re dealing with witnesses alleging certain acts committed in some instances fifty or sixty years ago,” Mark Perez, chief inspector for the FDLE, told me.
Hatton, Walters, and other supervisors from the era were dead, but Perez’s team did manage to interview Lenox Williams, who was retired and living in Marianna. Under oath, Williams, who became superintendent in 1966, downplayed the accusations of abuse. He said the boys received “spankings” with a leather paddle in the White House as a last resort but that he limited them to less than 12 licks.
Williams also denied any knowledge of sexual abuse on campus but said he had confronted the guidance counselor Robert Currie—now dead—about allegations that he had made inappropriate comments to boys and sometimes approached them in their cottages at night. From that point on, Williams said, Currie stopped his come-ons. Williams said he had also intervened with—and ultimately fired—a Catholic priest at the school whom the boys had also accused of inappropriate sexual advances. When investigators asked about the allegations that children had been killed and secretly buried at the school, Williams said the White House Boys were spreading “a cock-and-bull story.”
There was one figure from the White House Boys’ stories who could still speak to what happened: Troy Tidwell, the man known to the Dozier boys as the One-Armed Bandit. Now 84 and hard of hearing, Tidwell refused to submit to an interview with the FDLE investigators. (He also did not reply to my attempts to contact him for this story.) But he did give a video deposition in 2009 to attorneys for a group of White House Boys who had filed a civil lawsuit against him and several state agencies over the alleged abuse. Tidwell appeared in the video a gray-haired and mild-mannered old man, eyes hidden behind thick glasses. Over his red button-down shirt, a blue blazer draped thinly where his left arm would have been.
Twice married and a father of two, Tidwell had retired from the school in 1982 and still lived in Marianna, where he had spent his entire life. In a gravelly drawl, he spoke of his youth in the town, of how he had left school after the 11th grade and taken odd jobs, driving trucks and working construction. In the early 1940s, he had found a supervisory job at a Gainesville school for physically and mentally challenged children but headed back to Marianna after 16 months to care for his ill mother.
Tidwell had joined the staff of the Florida School for Boys in 1943, working as a groundskeeper and later overseeing supplies for the campus clothing store and candy shop. He lived on the school grounds with his family and was promoted to supervisor in 1958, on 24-hour call to deal with any disciplinary problems among the boys.
When asked during his video statement if he had ever participated in physical discipline during his employment, Tidwell responded “no,” then looked away from the camera. He admitted to giving boys what he called “spankings” over the years, sometimes with a board or a leather strap. But he denied making them bleed or sexually abusing them. “Never was a boy beat in my presence,” he said. “The years that I worked at that school, I tried to be as fair as I could to those kids, and I would want anybody working with mine in a school like that to be the same.” The civil suit against him was eventually dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations had passed.
After its investigation concluded in early 2010 the FDLE announced it had found “no tangible physical evidence” to support or refute the White House Boys’ claims of abuse. As for the allegations of covered-up murders at Dozier, the FDLE had been forced to rely on school records, which were eroded, handwritten, and often unsigned. Many deaths that were recorded were attributed to accidents or unknown causes. Of the 81 students who were recorded as having died at the school, the FDLE determined that 31 had been buried on Boot Hill. The rest were buried off campus or in undetermined locations. But the FDLE decided that there was not enough evidence to merit digging up the bodies at Boot Hill. Doing so, the agency argued in one of its reports, would cause the “desecration of … innocent remains” and in any case, their age would “make specific identification unlikely.” In 2010, the FDLE closed the case.
Cooper and the other White House Boys were crushed. The state had let them down yet again. Some called it a cover-up. Others wanted Tidwell dead. Cooper seethed when he watched the video of Tidwell’s statement. He wanted more than ever for the truth to come out—even if he had to dig it up himself.
Not long after the FDLE completed its investigation, Cooper packed his bags and drove out of Cape Coral, headed north toward Marianna. As the familiar hill country passed by, he felt the memories rush back over him. Driving up the town’s tiny main street, he fought off the urge to track down Tidwell for fear of what he might do if he found him.
After checking into his motel room, Cooper called a friend in town, with a favor to ask: Could he drive him to Dozier that night? “Give me a ride and come get me when I call you in the morning,” Cooper said. In the morning? His friend asked dubiously.
When his ride pulled up around 6:30 p.m., Cooper was dressed in camouflage, night-vision goggles hanging around his neck. He had with him a metal detector, the same one he used to find coins on the beach back home. As night fell, the two men pulled up outside the property. Cooper, who relied on Medicare, worried that if he was caught poking around the school grounds it could jeopardize the coverage he needed for his increasingly poor health. But he had come this far, and he couldn’t turn back just yet.
As his friend drove away, Cooper made his way toward the school, the remembered landscape rendered a hazy green by the night-vision goggles. The buildings looked ghostly and haunted. When he came to the White House, he noticed that it was locked. But what he was looking for wasn’t there anyway.
For what seemed like hours, he crisscrossed the property, searching for Boot Hill. Based on all the stories he’d heard over the years from the White House Boys, he thought there had to be more graves than the ones the FDLE reported, and he wanted to prove it. But after nearly two hours of searching, his bad leg was acting up on him. With difficulty he heaved his 65-year-old body over a fence overgrown with brush, and finally, in the wee hours of the night, came upon several rows of white metal crosses.
Then Cooper heard his metal detector beep. Holding it out, he followed it slowly into the woods, the beeps getting louder and louder, until he came to the source. Cooper looked down through his goggles and saw a pile of cement crosses fitted with rebar. They were the broken grave markers that the maintenance crew had accidentally destroyed decades before.
It felt like a discovery—but was it? Cooper stood there with his metal detector. The broken grave markers lay scattered around him, unable to tell him anything he didn’t already know.
Twenty years before Cooper first arrived at the Florida School for Boys, a 14-year-old aspiring guitarist named George Owen Smith ran away from home in Auburndale, Florida, in hopes of beginning a career in Nashville. He made it only 57 miles north to the town of Tavares, however, before he was arrested for allegedly stealing and wrecking a car and sent to the reform school in Marianna.
Smith managed to escape the school once but was quickly caught. After he was brought back to campus, he wrote his parents a letter in which he said, cryptically, “I got what I deserved.” Three months later, his family received another letter from the school—this one from the superintendent, Millard Davidson. Smith had run away again, Davidson wrote. This time he had been found dead from pneumonia, decomposing under a house in town where he had been hiding.
The Smith family was devastated. But when they arrived at the funeral home in Marianna where the school officials said Owen’s body had been held, the mortician professed to never having seen it. At the school, a boy told them he’d last seen Smith running across a field, fleeing gunfire from the school’s guards. Another student told them that after his first attempted escape, Owen had been beaten severely in a building the boys called the White House.
Davidson stuck to the official story about pneumonia. He led the boy’s parents and 12-year-old sister, now named Ovell Krell, into the woods. Krell would later recall seeing several unmarked depressions on the ground, one of which appeared fresh. “This is Owen’s grave,” Davidson told them, “and I’m going to put a nice headstone on it.” Krell looked up at him, then at the other graves bereft of headstones, and thought, You’re telling a lie if ever there was one.
The Smith family, too poor to bring Owen’s body back home for a proper burial, left without their boy. But Krell never gave up hope. Now 84 years old, with short gray hair and glasses, she keeps just one memento of her older brother, a child’s wallet with a Junior G-Men radio show identification card inside. “This is the only link I have to him,” she told me recently. “I can look at it and say I do know that he existed and he was a human being—even though he wasn’t treated like one.”
Krell had shared her suspicions with the FLDE investigators, who mentioned her in one of their reports. Not long after she was approached by the St. Petersburg Times, and told her story in an article that caught the attention of at least one person over the bridge in Tampa: Erin Kimmerle.
Kimmerle had wanted to be a scientist ever since she was a child growing up in northern Minnesota. In college, she became fascinated by the work of Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who had applied his skills to human-rights cases in Argentina. In the early 2000s, she followed in Snow’s footsteps, working on a United Nations mission to investigate mass graves in Kosovo, gathering information that would be used in prosecuting war crimes.
Kimmerle began to realize just what her discipline had to offer in these situations—how even claims that victims were casualties of war, for instance, could be refuted by physical evidence that the bodies had been cuffed and had gunshot holes behind their ears. “That’s the power of what science can do,” she told me one afternoon in her lab. There were four large tables covered with the assembled skeletons of cold cases she was investigating. “It’s a certain type of truth that should be told.”
At the University of South Florida, Kimmerle had joined a department that focused in part on applied anthropology, practicing their discipline on the local community—and Dozier was only a five-hour drive away. But the anthropologists were in a tough spot: Only the state had the power to issue exhumation orders, and with its investigation complete, the FDLE had already decided against it. So instead, as Kimmerle’s colleague Christian Wells told me with a laugh, “we kind of went in through the back door.”
The researchers quietly applied for and received a permit from the Division of Historical Resources to delineate the boundary of the cemetery and line up the crosses more precisely with the grave shafts underground. In January 2012, Kimmerle and her team arrived on campus to begin their work. Unmarked graves are typically located with ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which uses electromagnetic waves to map irregularities beneath the surface. The FDLE, which had no forensic anthropologists on staff, decided not to use GPR technology, arguing that the poor condition of the site, along with the passage of time, would produce unreliable results. The anthropologists decided to try anyway.
USF’s GPR device resembles a hot-dog cart and is nicknamed Matilda. (“Machines should have names,” Matilda’s operator, archaeologist Richard Estabrook, told me.) After clearing the kudzu from the cemetery, Kimmerle’s team rolled Matilda over the bumpy ground, transmitting electromagnetic waves deep into the soil. As the waves hit objects underground, they relayed the data back up to the computers. By reassembling the data, the anthropologists soon were able to provide a picture of the cemetery, with small rectangles representing possible graves.
Each time a shaft was identified, the anthropologists dug a shallow trench the size of the spot on the radar. Mixed in with the dirt was an array of artifacts, both useful and not: broken plates, a rusty padlock, coffin nails. Wells, an environmental chemist by training, analyzed the soil for any evidence of human remains. Within days the team found and confirmed the presence of 31 graves on Boot Hill—graves that, as they suspected, did not match up with the crosses planted by the school. But that wasn’t all they found.
As the anthropologists progressed beyond Boot Hill’s known perimeter, Matilda began relaying a series of subsurface anomalies of unmistakable shape. They looked like long narrow shafts, each about the dimensions of a child’s body. The team had found the unmarked graves that the White House Boys swore were out there somewhere. The further they pushed Matilda beyond the existing white crosses, the more evidence of graves came back. Before long they were up against the cedars.
After two weeks of radar surveying, trench digging, and soil analysis, the USF team had found 50 graves—19 more than the school, and the FDLE, reported. Next, the anthropologists scoured the town of Marianna and beyond, interviewing former staff and students from the Dozier school. Graduate students were dispatched to the state archives in Tallahassee and university libraries across Florida to gather any information they could find.
The deeper they dug, the deeper the mystery in Marianna grew. While comparing the FDLE’s findings with historical records, the anthropologists found an additional 16 deaths not included in the state’s report. Among them was Robert Hewett, a 16-year-old who died in 1960 of gunshot wounds after running away from the school, and Thomas Curry, a 15-year-old runner who died in 1925 of blunt trauma. “Those scream there’s something suspicious and unexplained here,” Kimmerle told me.
Though the FDLE limited the scope of its inquiry to Boot Hill, the anthropologists suspected that there could be more unmarked graves scattered throughout the school grounds. Because Boot Hill was built during segregation and located on the black side of the school, it followed that there would be a cemetery on the white side as well.
To test the theory, the team returned to the campus one day in the fall of 2012 with Ovell Krell. When they led her to Boot Hill, Krell told them this was not where her family had been taken to see her brother’s grave. “Nothing jarred my memory,” she recalled. Of course, many years had passed since she had last visited Dozier, and perhaps she simply was wrong. But Krell insisted that the cemetery she’d seen as a child was near the administration building on what had then been the white side of the school.
That October, Kimmerle wrote to the state asking for permission to search more of the campus. She received a surprising response: The land, she was told, had just been put up for sale. The school had been closed for months, but even so, just hanging onto the property stood to cost the state, according to Wansley Walters, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, which manages the property. “We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain that facility,” Walters told me.
But USF had found another useful ally. For decades, a wealthy 62-year-old retiree in Lakeland, Florida, named Glen Varnadoe had been seeking answers to his own unsolved Dozier mystery. Varnadoe’s uncle Thomas had been sent to Marianna for trespassing through a neighbor’s yard in 1934, then died after just 35 days at the school. The school buried his body in an unmarked grave on campus before notifying his parents that the 13-year-old had died of pneumonia as a result of anemia. But the family, who knew Thomas to be spry and healthy, suspected otherwise. “I’m convinced he was beat to death,” Varnadoe told me.
Like many families with boys at the school in the 1930s, the Varnadoes were too poor to travel to Marianna, let alone fight to exhume their boy’s remains. In the 1980s, Glen Varnadoe, now a successful businessman, drove to Dozier hoping to find the grave and arrange for Thomas to be returned to the family for a proper burial. A sympathetic staffer brought Varnadoe to a wooded spot on campus, where he pointed to some indentations in the ground, one of which he believed to be Thomas, based on the year of his death.
Varnadoe eagerly consented to be interviewed by the FDLE during its investigation. But when he read the resulting report, he found glaring errors and omissions. After contacting the USF team, he tried to retrace his steps with them at the school but couldn’t recall the exact location of the graves. He insisted, however, that he had seen more than one cemetery. “I know for a fact when I was there they showed me two different graveyards,” he told them. “Just overgrown in a field, eight or nine depressions in the ground.”
Desperate to stop the sale of the land so USF’s research could continue, Varnadoe sued the state in October seeking an injunction and wrote to U.S. senator Bill Nelson for help. Persuaded that the FDLE’s investigation was incomplete, Nelson urged the Department of Justice and Florida governor Rick Scott to support Kimmerle’s continued work, so that the anthropologists could find and exhume every lost boy at the school. “The reform school may yield some ugly reminders about our past,” he wrote, “but we absolutely must get to the bottom of this.”
In December 2012, Kimmerle and her team announced their discovery of the unmarked graves on the Dozier school grounds. When Jerry Cooper saw the announcement on the local TV news, he leaped out of his chair. Since joining the White House Boys, Cooper had taken on the fight for justice as a full-time volunteer job. He spent hours each day trolling the Internet for clues, reaching out to other survivors, and building an encyclopedic knowledge of the school’s sordid past.
After one of Kimmerle’s press conferences in Tampa, Cooper, who had driven up from Cape Coral, hobbled over to her with his cane and introduced himself, offering his services. Cooper became a clearinghouse of information on the school, sending along whatever he could to help Kimmerle’s cause: stories from the White House Boys, contacts for survivors, anything and everything that might help uncover the truth. But without an exhumation order, the truth remain trapped underground.
The project was besieged on other fronts as well. Since 2011, Governor Scott, a Tea Party Republican who had been elected the previous year on promises to drastically cut the state budget, had been embroiled in a war against the state’s higher-education institutions. In a 2011 interview with a newspaper editorial board about his plans to reform the college system, he vowed to shift funding to disciplines like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that offered students the best job prospects, at the expense of fields that he deemed less marketable. The example of the latter he chose was anthropology. “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
Meanwhile, after the USF team released its findings from the Dozier investigation, the FDLE fired back with a response defending its own work. Perez, the chief investigator, told me that the records of Hewett’s and Curry’s deaths, as well as others that had been omitted in the agency’s report, were “something we did not locate at the original time” but had been included in an updated version. He also pointed out that the 19 additional subsurface anomalies found by the anthropologists had not yet been proven to be graves. “Our standards are much higher in a criminal investigation,” he said.
But by the fall, as news of Kimmerle’s discovery spread, politicians throughout the state began lining up to back the USF team. In October, a judge ruled in favor of Varnadoe, blocking the sale of the Dozier land with a temporary injunction through the end of 2013. On March 12, Florida attorney general Pam Bondi filed a petition for a court order to allow the USF anthropologists to exhume the graves and determine how the boys died. “The deaths that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna are cloaked in mystery,” Bondi told me at the time, “and the surviving family members deserve a thorough examination of the site.”
Wansley Walters, of the Department of Juvenile Justice, agreed. “As far as I’m concerned, they can dig up every square inch of it,” she told me. “I think it’s about time that the state of Florida started to acknowledge the history of that and try to show that it was wrong.” The Florida Senate soon approved an additional $200,000 to fund USF’s investigation.
As public and political support grew for the cause, leaders within the town of Marianna tried in vain to intervene. Local historian Dale Cox, who had been named Citizen of the Year by the Marianna Chamber of Commerce in February, led the fight. “It strikes me as appalling and odd that taxpayer dollars would be spent on digging up graves that another taxpayer investigation has determined are in no way related to the allegations made against the school,” he wrote in a letter to state officials.
“I understand the families wanting closure,” Baggett, the police chief, told me, “but I don’t see what they’re going to discover.”
There was another problem, too: No one would authorize the dig. Attorney General Bondi’s petition was deferred by Judicial Circuit Judge William L. Wright in Marianna. An application that USF had made to the Bureau of Archeological Research was denied by Florida’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner.
There was a third option, however. The school occupied state land, the use of which was determined by the state’s Board of Trustees. The trustees consisted of the governor and his three cabinet members: Bondi, the state’s chief financial officer, and its agricultural commissioner. That meant if three of the four of them agreed to open the grounds of the Dozier school to the USF team, the dig could proceed. Bondi scheduled a vote.
On August 6, 2013, Kimmerle and Cooper both drove to Tallahassee for what they hoped would be their final battle. Dozens of White House Boys and their families filled the seats around them, facing Scott and his cabinet members. As they discussed the plan, Bondi turned to Scott. “We have to look at our history,” she told him.
Finally, the officials cast their votes. The first three were all in USF’s favor; Scott never had to weigh in. The anthropologists would have one year to do their exhumations, which could start as soon as they were ready. “Yes!” Cooper exclaimed, thrusting his fist in the air, as the other White House Boys burst into applause and Kimmerle breathed a sigh of relief.
In the rush of celebration in Tallahassee after the vote, Cooper didn’t approach Kimmerle, who was busy with the crowd. But on his drive home, his cell phone rang with a call from her. She told him she hoped the truth would finally come out about what happened at Dozier and that they’d be working hard to find it. “This is something that myself and the rest of the men have wanted for the last five years,” he told her. Cooper tears up now as he recalls that conversation. “Without USF coming in there, I’d still be running around in the woods trying to do something,” he says, “I thanked her so many times, you just don’t know. I thank her every time I can.”
Three weeks later, on Labor Day weekend, Kimmerle and her team once again made the short hike through the cedar groves to Boot Hill. This time they came to dig. That morning, a memorial service had been held in a small church in town, where survivors once again shared their stories of the reform school. Finally, they hoped, the answers they had sought for years would soon be at hand. With the reporters kept at bay beyond the fences and selected family members of Dozier’s dead accompanying the USF team inside, the anthropologists started their work.
A couple feet down, they uncovered burial shrouds and coffin pins dating back to the 1920s. And, soon enough, they found bones. By the end of the weekend, the anthropologists had recovered two bodies, which appeared to be those of a pair of boys ages 10 and 13. The remains were brought back to USF for analysis. The rest of the exhumations would take place over the following year.
Just what will come after that, however, remains unknown. Even in the case of suspected murders, Bondi told me, it would be difficult to pursue criminal prosecutions, since most of the school staff from the time in question are long dead. Nevertheless, Nelson said, “there could be reparations” for families based on the evidence the anthropologists find. “Science and technology now can determine a lot of things after the fact,” he said, adding, “There’s no statute of limitation on murder.”
No matter what is ultimately found, the discoveries at Dozier are already putting pressure on the state to reform its juvenile-justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice, after conducting its own investigation into the school and the neighboring Jackson Juvenile Offender Center, concluded that “despite the closure of these facilities, the deficiencies found by the United States implicate the continuing oversight obligations of the state. The state’s lack of adequate controls permitted these violations to persist.” Florida arrests and incarcerates more juveniles than any other state. “The problems go much deeper than Dozier,” David Utter, director of the Florida Youth Initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me.
Some of the problems may be buried 400 miles to the south, in the town of Okeechobee. In the mid-1950s, the state opened a reform school there, also called the Florida School for Boys and staffed with supervisors who had previous worked at the Dozier school; unlike Dozier, it is still operating today. Former staff members told me that the school had a White House, and an unmarked cemetery, of its own. According to the former Okeechobee staffers—some of whom wish to remain anonymous because they still work in the juvenile-justice system—the building used for beatings was nicknamed the Adjustment Room and contained shackles.
Former Okeechobee students claim to have been beaten bloody with leather straps and sodomized with plungers. Dan Eichelberg, the school’s program director from 2009 to 2011, saw several rusty cages in the Adjustment Room before it was demolished in early 2011. Eichelberg told me that staff who’d been there for years told him that boys “were put into the cages until they settled down. Sometimes they were stripped and humiliated.”
My calls to Okeechobee officials were referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice, which denies knowledge of any cemeteries at schools besides Dozier. But Jerry Cooper, who’d heard of the alleged Okeechobee grave site through the White House Boys, told me about his own attempt to find out the truth for himself.
Last December, Cooper says, he drove south to Okeechobee with a Christmas wreath on the passenger seat. Arriving at the school, Cooper told the guards that he wanted to leave the wreath at the campus graveyard. “You talking about the old boys’ school cemetery by the dairy farm?” one of them replied. The guard pointed toward a thicket of trees behind a maintenance shed. Cooper gripped the wreath under his arm and limped forward on his bad foot. Then Cooper heard a phone ring in the guardhouse. It was the school’s superintendent, who had the old man turned away.
The Bones of Marianna, by David Kushner, is Issue No. 29 of The Atavist Magazine, published September 2013.
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Author: David Kushner
David Kushner is the author of Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, and Jacked. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, he has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ. He grew up in Florida and can be found online at davidkushner.com.
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