Murder & Torture in a Florida School

Dozier School graveyard

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Murder & Torture in a Florida School
| published August 14, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

It may have taken more than a century, but the Sunshine State finally decided murder, rape, forced labor, physical abuse, beatings and torture would no longer be swept under the rug, according to the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune. Numerous guards who worked at the Florida Industrial School for Boys in Marianna and the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee have been accused of brutality and heinous crimes against children, but several investigations through the years claim the charges couldn't be proven. To study the worst cases of child abuse in the United States, you might want to read Roger Dean Kiser's White House Boys, a book which describes a state which apparently allowed the rape of youths and the flogging of children as young as eight years old.

Many of the inmates were sent to the institution for smoking cigarettes, trespassing, school truancy, incorrigibility, and running away from home. One even asked to be sent there because it sounded better than what he was enduring at home. Their primary crimes were acting out and being poor, which doesn't usually engender sympathy from power brokers in a state dependent on tourism.

Florida waited until it was too late to prosecute anybody, but at least George Owen Smith's family can take his body home to Auburndale for proper burial. Just 14 in late 1940 when he was sent to what would later be renamed the Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle, near Marianna, Florida, Smith died under mysterious circumstances months later. A big country music fan, he used to whistle Gene Autry songs when the dark scared him at night.

His mother never recovered from the news of his death, sitting in her rocking chair on the porch for 40 years until her own passing—waiting for her boy to come whistling through the woods. And that's all she did: slowly shuffling from that rocking chair to her day bed until she died in the 1980s. She'd always done the family's cooking and cleaning, but those duties then fell to her husband and other children. Ovell Krell, a former police officer, swore to her mother that someday she would find her brother.

That day came August 7 of 2014. University of South Florida forensic experts announced the boy's remains were matched to Krell, following anthropological digs at the facility. Researchers used DNA and other testing to identify Smith's remains, but couldn’t say how he died.

Official records show 31 burials at the school, but researchers discovered the remains of 55 people following a year-long investigation highlighted by a four-month excavation last year. Smith’s body was found in a hastily-buried grave wrapped in a burial shroud. His mother wrote School Superintendent Millard Davidson in December 1940, asking for information concerning her son. She received a letter back stating nobody knew his whereabouts.

“We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was,” said Erin Kimmerle, lead researcher and USF associate anthropology professor. “But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.”

Numerous former students from the 1950s and 1960s accused employees and guards of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it could neither substantiate nor refute the claims. Approximately 300 former Dozier students from that era call themselves “The White House Boys” after the small, concrete block white building where the worst abuses occurred.

Researchers and investigators began last September excavating a burial ground known to be a school cemetery. Numerous questions and accusations have surfaced concerning how many bodies are actually buried at the facility. White House Boys also noted everything was segregated in the South at that time, although we're unsure if that extended to graveyards. That dig concluded in December.

The school opened in 1900 and housed more than 500 boys at its peak in the 1960s, most of them for minor offenses including truancy and running away from home. During its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, raping children, torture and murder of students by staff, according to the website. In a tragic quirk of fate, some of the most dangerous wardens may have been transferred to the Okeechobee campus in 1959 when it was opened to relieve overcrowding at the Marianna facility.

Despite periodic investigations, leadership changes and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued into the latter part of the last century. For what it's worth, the few guards who remain alive vehemently deny the accusations of abuse. The website Florida School for Boys, Okeechobee (see link below) claims many allegations were confirmed by separate investigations by the FDLE in 2010 and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice in 2011.

Several sources agree the physical beatings and segregation continued until 1967 at Okeechobee. However, you really need to hear from those who survived the living hell at both facilities to get a feel for the terror and hate, according to The Daily Mail.

Robert Straley, 13 when he was sent to Marianna for running away from his abusive mother's home, said at first glance it seemed like a decent place—possibly even pleasant. But a glimpse of normalcy turned brutal the first night. Straley, now 66, recalls being sent to The White House for discipline after getting caught sitting next to boys who were discussing running away. The mausoleum-like cinder-block building had two entrances—one for white boys and the other for blacks. Fans were turned on in an attempt to block out screams as the children were whipped and beaten.

"These were not spankings, they were floggings," Straley, from Clearwater, told ABC News. He was marched to the building, where he sat in fear as he listened to the sounds. "They turned on the big industrial fan, which made a large racket and muted the sounds of the screams and whips somewhat. The first boy came out with his eyes red from crying and his hands were buried in his crotch. He was pale and shaking with blood on his pants."

The structure housed nine barren cubicles where guards placed boys accused of rule breaking. Before the building was declared a crime scene, cameras were allowed to capture a series of chilling and eerie images. MyFoxOrlando recently showed disturbing footage from inside the building when cameras were briefly allowed. One room had a bloody handprint smeared on a painted wall, along with a number of other stains—some of them obviously blood. Another room showed graffiti with names of boys housed at the school, and one marking had the name Ellerbe, next to a note that said '19 times.'

The school closed in 2011, leaving bitter memories of brutality and segregation that is finally coming to light. Anthropologists began unearthing the remains of two boys aged 10 and 13 last Labor Day weekend, searching for almost 100 youths reported missing from the school throughout the years.

"It looked like a college campus, not a reform school," he said. "There were no fences, the cottages were surrounded by trimmed hedges and tall pines and oaks. There was a swimming pool and a chapel. It looked nice, but it was a beautiful hell."

Straley, the other survivors, and families whose children were sent to the school, may never have all their questions answered. In 2008, he and several other former students revealed horror stories concerning sexual abuse and frequent beatings they endured. Following dinner on his first day, he was held down on a bed in The White House and beaten 35 times with a 3-foot leather whip.

"I started screaming, begging, shouting to God to help me, but the beating continued," Straley said. "Each lash felt as if it were tearing off my flesh and with each lash the pain just got worse."

Dating back to 1901, stories leaked out claiming boys were being chained to walls in irons, and then there was the forced labor, and brutal whippings. There were at least six investigations but nothing changed. However, the most touching and high-profile case probably concerns Ovell Krell's brother—George Owen Smith. The Lakeland woman says the warden told her mother that Smith's decomposed body had been found under a house, and that he probably died of pneumonia.

He was buried in an unmarked grave before his family could claim the remains. After finally meeting other White House survivors, she suspected her brother may have succumbed to a fatal beating.

"When they told their stories, I almost lost it," Krell said. "I could see someone doing that to my brother and it would have been enough to kill him."

Straley and others pushed for a state inquiry into the reform school's missing children, but their stories were largely ignored until press interest attracted widespread attention in 2008. He's still haunted by occurrences at the school, including injuries inflicted on a 15-year-old who was whipped 100 times. Straley thought they were finished with the youth when he passed out, but evidently they were just waiting for him to wake up.

"They whipped most of the skin off of him. The flesh on his back and upper legs were red, black and bloody like hamburger meat," he said.

The boy went “missing” a few days later, but the other children were too afraid to alert authorities. When you think about it, who were they going to call? It took almost 110 years for anyone with power to take any interest in the matter. I guess it may have helped keep youths on the straight and narrow path for generations, because poor boys in Florida were threatened for decades with being sent to Marianna.

"If anyone talked and it got out, they were down for a beating of their life, or they ended up dead," Straley told ABC News. The suffering and brutality endured by Straley and others left him with anger management issues for decades, but last year he returned to school grounds and planted a tree in front of The White House.

"A Vietnam vet told me he would rather do another tour than go back to the White House," Straley said. The stories gained traction in 2009, with the publication of Kiser's The White House Boys—An American Tragedy. The book detailed the memories of abuse he and others experienced while incarcerated at Dozier. He was sent to the school in 1959 when he was 12, where he suffered brutal, bloody beatings in the infamous structure.

"Little did I know that America had its own concentration camp for little boys right here in the good ole U.S. of A," he wrote. "A devil was hiding behind every tree, every building and even behind every blade of manicured grass."

Writing on his website, Straley said: "The terrible screams I heard and the brutal beatings I witnessed as a 12 year old will remain in my memory forever.”

"The beatings I suffered are not my horrors today,” Straley wrote. “My horrors are the beatings of crying boys that I had to witness before my own beatings. The horror of knowing that I was next.

"The thick concrete walls and the loud industrial fan easily muffled the horrible screams of the boys as they were beaten bloody. Some were carried to the hospital in wheelbarrows and some had to have their underwear or pajamas surgically removed from the buttocks.

"For almost thirty minutes, at age sixty-two, I stood alone in the exact room where I was almost beaten to death. With my heart racing and the side of my neck pulsating, I lit a cigarette and I cried without feeling shame."

More graves shafts were found nearby in an area called “Boot Hill,” rising across a major highway from the closed school's razor-wire-topped fences. Other victims could be awaiting investigators, but privacy laws block them from accessing records after 1960. Overgrowth on the grounds has hindered full searches, but relatives and researchers hold out hope the digging is not finished.

Dozier was closed in June 2011 by the Department of Juvenile Justice following accusations of widespread physical and sexual abuse for several decades. A group of former students had sued the state in 2010, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Editor’s note: This is Part One of a new Two Part series on the beatings and torture at the Dozier School for Boys; Part Two will follow on Saturday.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Boot Hill’s Buried Crimes; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; Monday, February 3, 2014.