USF researchers find more unmarked graves at Dozier School for Boys

Family still searching for loved one's grave

TAMPA - "This was a very, very poor family.  As you can tell, none of the children are wearing shoes, they're all barefooted," said Glen Varnadoe, his nephew pointing to the photo.

The little blonde boy in the front of a black and white photograph is Richard Varnadoe's brother and it's the only one he has.

"This was Thomas, Jr.," said Glen Varnadoe.

Thomas was just three years old in the photograph.  He was 13 when a neighbor accused him of stealing a typewriter. He was one of thousands of children remanded to the Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle. The state reform school closed last year amid reports of severe beatings, torture and deaths.

"He was healthy when they picked him up," said Richard Varnadoe who remembers when deputies came to get his older brother.

But 38 days after Thomas went to Dozier, he was dead.

"Personally, I don't believe a word of it," said his 83-year old brother.

His death certificate reads pneumonia and notes he was buried on school property.  But his remains were never counted among the 31-marked graves known as Boot Hill Cemetery.

"I have a gut feeling that he's there," said Richard Varnadoe.

Now University of South Florida researchers are revealing there are many more graves at Dozier that have gone suspiciously unmarked, at least 19 more so far.

"The black and red rectangles mark the areas where we believe there are burial shafts," said USF Associate Anthropology Professor Christian Wells, pointing to a map.

The graves stretch deep into the woods so Dr. Erin Kimmerle and a team of researchers spent months mapping the property using ground-penetrating radar.

"Could some of these anomalies actually be two burials next to one another, and what we're detecting is one large anomaly, yeah, it could," she said.

School records show as many as 81 boys died at Dozier.  USF researchers believe as many as 98 children lost their lives here, including Thomas Varnadoe, Jr.

His family says he deserves a proper burial.

"We're not interested in money from the state. This is not about an issue of pay us for. This is not about a criminal investigation on Thomas Varnadoe," said his nephew.  "It's about disinterring his remains, and bringing him home."

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