TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The first phase of exhuming bodies from the former Dozier School for Boys has wrapped up following four days of excavation work by University of South Florida researchers in Marianna.
The USF team led by Professor Erin Kimmerle focused this past weekend on exhuming the remains of two boys located deep in the woods on the property of the reform school formerly operated by the state of Florida.
Dr. Kimmerle says a preliminary analysis of the boys' dental remains indicates they were between the ages of 10 and 13.
Now the skeletal and dental remains are heading to a secure facility at USF where they will be analyzed. DNA samples will be sent to the University of North Texas to try to find a match with families.
Kimmerle says that's the main goal of this mission -- reunite families with the remains of their loved ones.
"Most of all we hope that for those families that have come forward and given samples that we can find their brothers and nephews. I think that if we can identify those individuals it's an absolute success. Certainly there are things we can learn along the way and the history and we will put all that together. But the mission is really for the families. They asked the state for this and we've supported them and that's why we're here."
So far, 10 families have submitted DNA samples in the hopes they can find a long lost relative.
Kimmerle says the condition of the remains is good, but it's too early to know how the boys died.
The two burials are quite different even though they are close to each other in the area known as Boot Hill Cemetery.
Kimmerle says one of the coffins has very extensive and elaborate hardware, while the other has none. One was buried about 80 centimeters down, while the other was only in a shallow grave of about 40 centimeters below the surface.
"So it probably reflects very different periods of time and different people involved in the burial."
The unmarked graves are located about 40 meters from an area marked with 31 white, metal crosses. Those crosses were placed years after burials and have no correlation to the location of bodies in the cemetery.
But Kimmerle says the excavated graves had been covered by thick brush and the roots caused a lot of damage.
"We see a lot of roots into the graves and root damage with the remains and that compromised them. So they were literally lost in the woods."
The team of USF anthropologists limited their work to the two bodies in this first phase because they wanted to test their equipment and protocols for future work.
They were surprised to discover the water table was so high, even on the hill where they believe about 50 boys were buried between 1900 and 1960.
It's unclear who is buried in the area around the old Boot Hill Cemetery and how they died.
Kimmerle is pleased with the team's efforts. She says they intended to remove only a few bodies in this first phase of work.
"Our objective this weekend was two or three and given the rain and conditions, we just stopped at two. But it was really meant to be a weekend to get it started and work through the process and learning the logistics of it and some of these challenges will help us now in planning to come back. So that was really our purpose. We didn't plan to just come up and start all at once."
Kimmerle says the team of about 25 USF researchers will return to the property later this fall to excavate more bodies. The timing will depend on the weather.
If September is dry, she says they'll be back in October. But if it's wet, the work may be delayed until November.
They have one year to complete their work under rules set by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.
Kimmerle says she thinks that will be enough time.
"We want to get it done in a year. We're very focused on that so I think if we find what we expect, we'll be able to hit that. If there's something unexpected, then who knows."
The project has generated mixed reactions among local residents. Some question why the state needs to literally dig up dark secrets about Dozier School. Former students say they were abused and tortured there, and they believe boys were killed and buried to cover up crimes.
Kimmerle is making a point of thanking local residents for the support they've expressed in the team's work. She says residents are writing letters and verbally expressing their support for the work now under way at the old Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which operated from 1900 to 2011.
First Coast News