TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi wants authorities to exhume human remains on the site of a now-defunct Panhandle reform school where an untold number of bodies were buried over a period of 60 years.
Bondi's office filed a petition Tuesday on behalf of Dr. Michael Hunter, the appointed medical examiner for the 14th District of Florida.
She is seeking a court order to exhume bodies from "Boot Hill Cemetery" and surrounding areas, where it is believed there may be unmarked graves and unaccounted bodies of boys who died. The school, formally known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, was closed in 2011, largely for budget purposes.
Bondi said authorities want to locate unidentified graves and human remains and conduct complete autopsies to determine the cause of death. The school, located in Marianna about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was once the nation's largest reform school with 698 youths.
"Surviving family members deserve a thorough examination of the site," said Bondi, who noted that many of the school's deaths remain cloaked in mystery.
A team of researchers from the University of South Florida used historical documents to verify the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children - ranging in age from 6 to 18 - between 1914 and 1973. Records indicated that 45 individuals were buried on the 1,400-acre tract from 1914 to 1952 while 31 bodies were sent elsewhere for burial.
Death certificates and other records, media reports and interviews with former staff members and inmates showed some died from illness and accidents, including a 1914 dormitory fire that claimed the lives of six boys and two staff members who became trapped inside the building.
"For too many years the plight of these children has been neglected," said Erin Kimmerle, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. "Through this effort we hope the identity of many of these children will become known."
She said it would take approximately a year for the exhumations, autopsies, DNA testing, analysis and reporting to be completed.
The school was plagued by scandal soon after it opened in 1900. Three years later, investigators found children "in irons, just as common criminals."
In the 1950s and early 1960s, boys were taken to a small building called The White House, where guards beat them for offenses as insignificant as singing or talking to a black inmate. The boys would be hit dozens of times - if not more - with a wide, three-foot long leather strap that had sheet metal stuffed in the middle.
In 1968, when corporal punishment was outlawed at state-run institutions, then-Gov. Claude Kirk visited and found the institution in disrepair with leaky ceilings, holes in walls, cramped sleeping quarters, no winter heating and buckets used as toilets.
Bondi also said she supports by the Department of Environmental Protection for a 150-day extension of an injunction that prohibits the sale of the state-owned land.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to help the USF scientists with funding and if that isn't possible, open a federal criminal investigation although criminal prosecution for most of the allegations would be barred by a four-year statute of limitations. However, felonies resulting in death and capital felonies could be prosecuted any time.
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