The Dozier reform school excavation project has been understood by many local residents to be a taxpayer-funded archeological dig for the purpose of identifying half-century and century-old gravesite remains. But the three-year effort is turning out to be equally a forensic examination, complete with calls for renewed criminal investigations, warranted or not. A state-required report issued last week from Prof. Erin Kimmerle and the University of South Florida to the Florida Cabinet—and released to frothing news media reps as well--makes it clear that the USF Dozier reformatory project is nothing short of a multiple cold-case crime scene investigation, just like on TV’s CSI programs, and just as lucrative to those pursuing fame as detectives and writers. However, as the claims regarding beatings, rape, torture and murder grow wilder and wilder, the evidence remains as always, scant to non-existent. That is not a problem for USF; they are still on the case.
Kimmerle’s Feb. 5, 15-page report contains only two new revelations pertinent to the task of identifying the deceased for their longsuffering families, neither of which regard a client of Dozier at the time of death.
The news involved the identifications of two sets of remains buried in the Dozier campus cemetery—those of an employee (Bennett Evans, confirmed by DNA) and a one-time client of the reform school who returned to work there apparently of his own free will (Sam Morgan, confirmed by DNA samples). And the identification of Evans, wrote Kimmerle who has been working on the excavation project since September 2013, is only “presumptive.” Buried in the report but dug out by the media are some of the most lurid and sensational allegations and suppositions made public since the “White House Boys” group began its campaign in 2007, allegations which typically appeared in the headlines of newspapers and the internet last week from Florida to California.
There were reports of “possible buckshot” found among the remains of a “victim” (not Morgan or Evans or the three other identified former clients). Also, Kimmerle says she was told by “men who were sent to the school as boys and former staff” that an old gym (no longer in existence) had a basement that “was referred to as the ‘rape room’ or ‘rape dungeon’ by several men who reported to us that they were raped or molested while incarcerated at the school.” Kimmerle adds the following sentence, without attribution or confirmation, “Some of these men were under the age of 12 years old at the time of their abuse, others name specific perpetrators.” Kimmerle does finally acknowledge that the “rape dungeon” allegations may be false, but not with the use of the word false: “It should be further stated that while we did not find physical evidence to substantiate such claims—though it was not our intent to do so—we did not find credible evidence to disprove or discredit the testimonies we did take.”
Still, Kimmerle calls repeatedly for renewed criminal investigations by the state: “A review of the facts surrounding certain students’ deaths reveals a compelling need for further investigation in some cases,” she says on page 7. On page 10, after airing the lurid reports of the “rape room” (located among no- longer-existent “underground tunnels,” no less), USF’s famed forensic anthropology teacher says that “Since the investigation of abuse, sexual assault and rape is beyond our expertise and may have criminal or other civil consequences, particularly because several of the men were under the age of 12 years at the time of the incident and at least one of the named perpetrators is still living to our knowledge, we recommend sworn statements be taken by qualified law enforcement.” The “perpetrators” are not named.
On page 2, Kimmerle explains that “justice” is one of her motivations for the project. “After three years, our focus is more than ever on the present—educating the living about what happened in the past through our research and scholarship, mourning with families of those who died at Dozier and supporting them as they seek justice and facilitating processes of memorialization that serve to bring communities together and creating a more affirming future for all citizens of Florida.” Though there was a session between a member of Kimmerle’s staff and members of the Marianna, Jackson County, community in 2013, USF has released no report of that session. Nor has Kimmerle made public any comprehensive study of the thousands of clients served by Dozier in its century of existence, or the economic impact to the community when the state closed the facility amid the negative publicity in 2011, costing more than 150 persons their jobs. Kimmerle and USF, as well as the Tampa Bay Times newspaper have rejected repeatedly documentation and evidence from Jackson County historian Dale Cox that further criminal investigation may not be warranted. The Dozier buildings today, some modern, some ancient but remodeled, sit on more than 100 acres off Penn Avenue between downtown Marianna and I-10, with no prospects on the table for their future use.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement already has become involved in the forensic side of the Dozier excavations project. Kimmerle explains what the Tampa Bay Online media website and others papers are calling the “possible projectile” on page 4: Kimmerle writes that among the remains in one still unidentified grave “was a small lead ball consistent with a projectile. It was submitted to the FDLE crime lab in Tampa by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. FDLE ballistics experts concluded the following: “The exhibit lead ball cannot be definitively determined to be an ammunition component due to damage and corrosion; however, it is consistent with 000 Buck size shot pellets for various muzzle loading balls based on weight, size, and physical appearance.” Although Kimmerle states that “The conditions of the remains was poor due to erosion of the tissues from root damage (and) cause of death could not be determined,” she somehow determined that the piece of metal was found “along with the remains near the left lower abdomen/upper thigh region of the body.” She also points out that the remains of the “most likely of African American ancestry” from a “14-17 year old child” buried probably “during the latter part of the period in which the burial ground was in use” was buried in a casket “with clothing, evidenced by buttons and a metal belt buckle.” Kimmerle’s report did not include the comment of a law enforcement officer at the Thursday press conference, Greg Thomas of HCSO, who pointed out at the press conference that the piece of metal could have been from the boy’s pocket.
The FDLE investigated the allegations of the White House Boys group in 2009 and a lawsuit was filed by former clients against a former Dozier employee. The lawsuit eventually was dismissed by a judge and the FDLE concluded that it could not prove or disprove any wrongdoing at the institution—ever. All investigations were hampered by the fact that many persons accused as perpetrators long since have passed away. Kimmerle’s report says the USF team will be back at Dozier in the spring for “additional fieldwork” but that their “access to the property ends on August 6, 2015,” two years after the excavations began. Though a $200,000 grant from the Florida Legislature for the gravesite identifications may be expired soon if not already, USF also in 2013 was awarded a federal grant from the US Department of Justice in excess of $400,000.
According to author and historian Cox, Sam Morgan was not a client of Dozier when he died and was buried there. Cox’s just-released book entitled “Death at Dozier School, The Attempted Assassination of an American City,” says Morgan was a free and grown man at the time of his death in the 1920s. “They call him a child (in the USF report),” Cox said last week in a statement to the Jackson County TIMES, “but he was a grown man that chose to stay behind and live and work in Jackson County. He was not an indentured servant (as the report suggests). He fell ill with a severe fever and the family that he was living with rushed him to the infirmary at the school. He was unconscious when he arrived and died while receiving medical care. He is in the ledgers and appears in a report to the state.” And concerning the “buckshot” case; what else, besides “a projectile,” could the metal have been? “FDLE has determined that the lead shot found with the unidentified body could have been from a muzzle-loading weapon. Muzzle-loading weapons went out of use locally 30 years before the school was even built.” Cox said.
Bennett Evans was Dozier employee believed to have died in a dormitory fire in 1914.