TAMPA - The probe into the deaths of numerous boys at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna must continue, according to U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.
Anthropologists and archeologists have examined historical documents, used ground-penetrating radar, analyzed soil samples and performed excavations at the now defunct school uncovering 50 unmarked graves. The researchers also found that more deaths occurred at the school. They uncovered 98 deaths of boys between ages 6-18 in the years 1914 through 1973.
Nelson and others are calling on the governor to grant researchers more time additional grave sites were discovered last year. The probe will continue if the state agrees to give more time and to continue to fund the investigation.
Right now, the state is only allowing investigators be on the property until July 9.
Flanked by lead USF investigators, a former student of the reform school, former Lakeland police officer who lost her brother at the school and a man whose father and uncle were at the school, Senator Nelson told ABC Action News he wants to bring closure to some of the families.
Nelson wants the investigation to continue, the bodies to be exhumed and identified, the U.S. Justice Department to assist in the probe and for it to be determined if crimes were committed.
In December, ground penetrating radar uncovered 19 grave sites bringing the total number of graves to at least 50 and led USF researchers to speculate there is a second cemetery on the premises. State investigators estimated there were only 31 graves.
"Where there is smoke there is fire," said Nelson. "We owe this to the family who have suffered over the years. We owe it to the victims who have suffered over the years."
The state has tried to sell the site despite the investigation. Families of the dead boys, however, have opposed the idea because many are still searching for the body of their loved one.
Boys were sent to the school for committing serious offenses. However, as time passed, boys were committed to the school for petty things like trespassing and truancy.
Ovell Krell's brother, George Own Smith, who was accused of stealing a car while trying to get to Nashville to pursue his music career, was sent to Dozier.
"Once we got a notice he was the reform school we never heard another word," said Krell.
Krell's mother was then told her son ran away but was later caught and brought back to the school.
"He wrote my mother again said they found him on the highway and he got what he deserved," Krell recalled.
Krell's mother persisted with school officials to have communication with her son but only received one written letter from him. Never able to speak to her son via phone, she decided to plan a trip to Dozier.
The day before she was to go up and see her son, according to Krell's sister, the family was contacted by a pastor and told her son was dead. According to the pastor, Krell's brother was found dead under an off campus house in Marianna and was so badly decomposed they could only identify him by the number on his shirt.
By the time Krell and her mother arrived up at the school, they were told George, who had just turned 14, was buried the same day his body was found. They were taken to a grave where he was supposedly buried, Krell told reporters. He was buried despite family members asking the school to have his body sent to a local funeral home.
"I am suspicious of how he died. I think he was killed," Krell said.
Krell feels her brother was killed the first time he ran away from the school and that the correspondence Krell's mother received were fakes and not from her brother.
Robert Straley, who was committed to Dozier, also spoke about the horrors at the school. He said when he first got to the school it appeared well taken care of and thought it couldn't be that bad.
Straley was a "White House Boy," a group of men who claim they were lashed with a leather strap more than a 100 times inside of a cottage on the campus known as the "White House." This allegedly took place in the 1950s and 1960s.
"My rear end was black and blue," recalled Straley after being lashed Straley who was 13 at the time weighed 105 pounds. "lt looked like you took a syringe and stabbed me."
Straley, who worked in the school's hospital, said he became terrified when a young boy who tried running away came in for treatment after being lashed.
"His skin looked like hamburger meat. He was crying and shaking and didn't stop doing that for two days and never said a word. He was in shock," Straley.
Straley, who now resides in Clearwater, said the men who beat the boys were known as "whipmasters."
Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers were never able to substantiate the claims of physical
and sexual abuse. The FDLE's inquiry into the allegations was ordered by former Governor Charlie Crist. Officers found 81 students died at the school over the years.
Lead USF researcher Dr. Erin Kimmerle said the the amount of property that must be searched is extensive. The school originally encompassed 1400 acres. Some of the area was sold off and used for clay mining.
Kimmerle is looking to get an order to excavate and exhume.
"It would take about six weeks of field work," said Kimmerle. It would also be costly. Kimmerle is asking the state to provide $160,00 in funding to get the work done.
Kimmerle said researchers now believe the boys were buried in caskets that were made at the school.
"We have found evidence and tools for casket making," she said.
However, there was no known undertaker or proof any autopsies were performed.
"When it comes to murder there is no statute of limitations. We want to get to the bottom of it," Nelson concluded.