MARIANNA, Fla. -- University of South Florida researchers began exhuming dozens of graves Saturday at a former Panhandle reform school where horrific beatings have been reported in hopes of identifying the boys and learning how they died.
The digging and work at the site of the former Dozier Boys School will continue until Tuesday, with researchers hoping to unearth the remains of four to six boys before resuming at a later date, said Erin Kimmerle, the anthropologist leading the excavation.
After work began Saturday, relatives of one of the boys believed to be buried held a private prayer at the grave sites. The family has provided DNA in hopes of finding a match with Robert Stephens. Records show he was fatally stabbed by another inmate in 1937, but his family hopes to confirm how he actually died through the exhumation efforts.
Former inmates at the reform school from the 1950s and 1960s have detailed horrific beatings in a small, white concrete block building at the facility. A group of survivors call themselves the "White House Boys" and five years ago called for an investigation into the graves. In 2010, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ended an investigation and said it could not substantiate or refute claims that boys died at the hands of staff.
USF later began its own research and discovered more graves than the state department had identified. USF has worked for months to secure a permit to exhume the remains, finally receiving permission from Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet after being rejected by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who reports to Scott.
The initial work is meant to ensure that the process works before researchers return to the site.