MARIANNA, Fla. - University of South Florida researchers have turned their focus to the arduous task of identifying the remains of two boys exhumed from half-century-old unmarked graves before returning to unearth more bodies from a now-closed Panhandle reform school.
A team of 10 USF researchers and graduate students Tuesday wrapped up a weekend of excavating a burial site that sits just outside the Boot Hill cemetery at the former state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which is in the Jackson County community of Marianna.
The remains of the two boys are among at least 50 sent to the school between 1900 and 1952 who were buried in unmarked graves, said Erin Kimmerle, a USF anthropologist who is one of the leaders of the excavation.
Others have claimed the body count could top 100.
"We found coffin hardware, a little bit of coffin wood, that was unexpected given the amount of time that has passed," Kimmerle said. And "dental and skeletal remains, so we have samples to send off for DNA."
The researchers intend to return in October or November --- the drier the weather the quicker the return --- to exhume bodies from unmarked graves in other locations on the once 1,400-acre campus that now sits closed behind chain link fencing topped with barbed wired.
The state hopes to eventually sell the land, a move that has been put on hold. With the approval of Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet, the university researchers have a one-year window to search the grounds for reportedly unaccounted-for bodies.
Questions have arisen about whether boys, who reportedly died of pneumonia and other natural causes, were killed at the school.
The work Tuesday included recovering the coffins. The bones of the two long-dead boys, one identified as having died after the 1930s, have been sent to USF's secured Forensic Anthropology Laboratory. The hope is to determine who they were.
Finding the additional bodies isn't expected to be that difficult as much of the ground has already been scanned and locations of potential grave shafts have already been mapped out. But Kimmerle acknowledged that identifying any remains will be a long-shot.
"As children, they didn't have direct descendants and the parents had their last known address over 50 years ago," Kimmerle said. "So you really have to find aunts and uncles, and then the cousins and go down a generation or two and find where these people are living today."
So far, the researchers from the Tampa-based university have received voluntary DNA samples from 10 families that believe they have relatives who died at the reform school.
The Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System provided assistance during the dig, while the search for relatives is being aided by cold-case members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
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