TAMPA, Fla. – University of South Florida researchers say they have used DNA testing for the first time to identify the remains of a boy buried at an unmarked grave at a reform school 74 years ago.
George Owen Smith, a 14-year-old sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in 1940 never to be seen alive by his family again, has been positively identified through a DNA match and will be the first remains exhumed from 55 unmarked graves by University of South Florida researchers to be returned to his family.
Smith, who's body was found in grave about two feet deep, wrapped only in a burial shroud, was positively matched with DNA collected from his sister, Ovell Krell of Polk County.
Researchers are continuing to work to identify the other remains recovered from the unmarked cemetery at the former Florida reform school in Marianna.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection along with the Florida Cabinet this week extended the permit for research work to continue on the Dozier site until Aug. 5, 2015.
Researchers will look for other possible remains, piece together answers on the identities of those buried there, and work with cabinet member and
The positive identification was made through a DNA sample collected from Krell and matched at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, which had extracted DNA from a skeletal analysis.
"I told my mother and father on their death beds that I would find my brother if it was in my power," Krell said.
"This is closure and the relief of a lot of heartache. I had a good life with my brother before he died."
Lead researcher Dr. Erin Kimmerle from USF says that Smith's parents were told that their son ran away from school and was found under a house after escaping.
"We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was," said Kimmerle
"But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.
"After all these years, this child will be afforded dignity that is every human being's right - the right to be buried under their own name and to have their existence recognized."
Dr. Kimmerle says that they have another tentative case that might be matched and identified next week.
Additionally, researchers will continue to search for victims of a 1914 fire at the school which is believed to have killed 10 boys. During their excavation of the unmarked burial ground known as Boot Hill, the researchers found evidence of burned remains but did not locate all of the presumed victims of the 1914 fire.
Since 2011, USF researchers have been searching for records and the identities of scores of boys buried at the school. The remains were excavated from 55 grave shafts at the site.
Researchers continue to work with UNTHSC, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to locate possible next of kin to collect reference samples for identification.
The researchers spent months last year digging up school's graveyard. Official records indicated 31 burials, but researchers found the remains of 55 people.