MARIANNA, Fla. – A project is under way in the Florida Panhandle to exhume dozens of graves at the former Dozier School for Boys.
Researchers spent months mapping out the land trying to figure out where potential grave sites might be, so they could finish this project in the year-long timeframe they have.
The research project at the Dozier school in Marianna began bright and early Saturday morning just before 8 a.m. Researchers said the process of digging up these graves is going to be a very long one, very deliberate one.
"If we're looking for things that were buried in 1914 or 1920, 1930 the way that land was used, the roads, the fences, it's very different than today," said USF researcher Dr. Erin Kimmerle.
During their first day of digging, researchers said they found large bone fragments of human bones in the research area on the Boot Hill Cemetery.
Dr. Christian Wells of the USF research team said they also found evidence of burial casket hardware, similar to what would have been used in the 1920s and 1930s.
Researchers said they only expect to be able to get through about 4 to 6 grave sites. This phase of the research project is expected to take four days.
After they finish, researchers said they have to closely analyze everything they find both on site and back on the University of South Florida campus.
"It's everything about you we can tell from your biology. That gives us an idea of who the person was," said Kimmerle. "Because we have a list of who are looking for it allows them to start narrowing that pool. For example, age, we can narrow that list down and make what we call a presumptive identification."
John Bonner, who attended the Dozier school, was out for Saturday's dig. He knows that some people are questioning whether or not the dig should be taking place but said the families of the boys who were buried there deserve final answers as to what happened.
"Today is going to verify some things that were alleged about this place, and people gonna be totally shocked by what they find here," said Bonner.
"If you had a relative missing all these years, you'd want answers, and just say no, don't dig up the bodies now, you have to dig up the bodies," said Jan Poller. "Nowadays, you can do DNA and all kinds of things they didn't have back then."
Researchers said any skeletal remains found on site that are not positively matched with DNA on file will be buried in coffins on site. They said a proper burial for these boys is long overdue.
Digging at the former Dozier school will continue through Tuesday. This is just the beginning phase of the project. Researchers said they'll be back on site later in the year to try to dig up other areas.
Researchers will be back on-site to continue digging early Sunday morning.