TAMPA — Researchers from the University of South Florida wrapped up their first mission to unearth bodies from a cemetery at a Panhandle boys school, returning to Tampa today with remains from two graves.
USF anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle, who is heading up the project at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, said the four-day effort yielded dental and skeletal remains that could provide a biological profile of the two subjects as well as a cause of death.
“We had hoped that this weekend would be an opportunity to work through the process,” Kimmerle said.
A group of about 20 researchers, graduate students and law enforcement officials began the work Saturday. Hampered by rain and soggy ground, the group will return later this fall and then periodically as it excavates what is known as the Boot Hill cemetery.
Kimmerle and her team began examining the site in 2012 after stories of horrific beatings and disappearances circulated from men who served time there as boys. The school was open from 1900 to 2011, when it was closed for budgetary reasons.
Using ground-penetrating radar, the USF team found what appeared to be 50 graves at a site said to hold just 31.
The researchers received permission from the state Cabinet to expand their investigation and carry out the excavations and forensic testing.
Anthropologists will try to identify the bodies and perhaps determine a cause of death. DNA samples will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for analysis and comparison with its national database.
Kimmerle said the two bodies unearthed this weekend were both in coffins, which were of different styles. One was ornate, yielding hardware that could help researchers date the grave, and the second was much smaller and simpler.
“Maybe that is indicative of a different time period,” Kimmerle said.
Family members of boys believed to have died at the school have contacted researchers with an interest in identifying remains of a loved one and possibly reburying them at family grave sites.
A group of men calling themselves the White House Boys has been lobbying for the investigation. They took the name from a cottage on the school grounds where they said they were savagely beaten with a reinforced leather strap.
Robert Straley, a spokesman for the group, said he was pleased with the USF group’s progress.
“Anybody that was there and got one of those whippings is never going to have peace of mind,” he said Tuesday. “What it does, though, is partially vindicates what we’ve been saying, that there are more bodies. … It does make me feel better to know what happened there will be found out.”