TAMPA – A team of university researchers will try to match DNA samples taken from the living relatives of boys buried long ago on the grounds of a now-shuttered reform school in the Florida Panhandle. It’s an important next step in solving the mysteries behind dozens of unmarked graves found at the site.
Forensic experts from the University of South Florida will begin collecting the DNA samples Friday from several relatives they have identified through historical records or who have come forward during the school's ongoing investigation into some 50 unmarked graves researchers discovered at the now-defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.
Over the years, the reform school has been the subject of several major investigations stemming from allegations of abuse. Florida officials closed the school in 2011 following a state police probe into the latest such allegations that found no evidence of any crimes.
But that probe was called into question late last year when a USF forensic team began examining the site and found more unmarked graves than police had said were there.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) came to the school's aid after a Polk County man asked the lawmaker's office for help last year in locating his uncle's remains known to be buried in an unmarked cemetery on the grounds of the reform school.
Since then, Nelson has written the governor urging him to the back the school’s work. And he is pushing the school’s application for a Department of Justice grant he helped identify that would cover the costs associated with forensic research involving the use of DNA to identify missing or dead persons. Up to $3 million will be awarded to select applicants.
Last month, a Jackson County circuit court judge rejected a request by state Attorney General Pam Bondi to grant a local medical examiner permission to exhume the bodies buried on school grounds.
In his order, the judge wrote that either the local medical examiner or the state’s chief archaeologist could initiate exhumation without court permission. USF is now seeking permission from the state's chief archaeologist.
On Friday, the USF forensic team, which is led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, will be joined by Nelson, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, two members of the Florida Legislature and representatives from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Kimmerle also will provide an update on the status of the school's investigation.
“The only way to give the families of these boys closure is for researchers to be able to carry on," Nelson said today. “That includes matching DNA that will be collected by the sheriff's office tomorrow.”