Researchers identify 2 more sets of remains from former reform school on Florida Panhandle

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TAMPA, Florida — Researchers have identified two more sets of remains buried on the grounds of a former Florida Panhandle reform school for over a half-century, the team announced Thursday.

The University of South Florida team said it has identified the remains of 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and 12-year-old Earl Wilson, who both died while confined at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

Varnadoe died in 1934, reportedly of pneumonia. Wilson was beaten to death in 1944, reportedly by four other boys while in a small confinement cottage on the property, known as the "sweat box." The other boys were convicted in his death.

In August, researchers said they had identified George Owen Smith as the first of 55 bodies they exhumed from the school property.

Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have for at least a decade accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it couldn't substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed. Many former Dozier inmates from that era call themselves "The White House Boys" after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.

Thomas Varnadoe's nephew, Glen Varnadoe, said at a Thursday news conference that his father also was sent to the school.

"It's been a long road for me and my family," said Varnadoe, of Polk County.

It was a priority for the family to "remove (Thomas) from the atrocity-laden soils."

Over the decades, both boys' families wondered where they children were buried. The Varnadoe family also questioned the cause of death.

"We got the report that he died from pneumonia. We didn't believe that in a minute," said Richard Varnadoe, who is 85 but was 5 years old when his older brother Thomas was sent to the school for allegedly stealing a typewriter.

Richard provided DNA to the researchers and it was a perfect match with the body found in one of the simple wooden caskets.

"It's been really bad in a way and really good in a way. It's almost unbelievable to go back 80 years," he said. "I'm elated."

A large photo of the wooded area where the graves were found, along with a grainy picture of Thomas — and a photo of the sweat box — were displayed at the news conference.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the investigation "has only just begun."

"There's a lot of mysteries still out there," he said.

Records showed 31 burials at the Marianna school between its opening in 1900 and its 2011 closure for budget reasons. But USF researchers found the remains of 24 additional people between last September and December.

In 2008, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice held a ceremony to officially "seal" the building and recognize the boys who passed through it. Some of "The White House Boys" were present and media coverage of the event, as well as an order from then-Gov. Charlie Crist, led to the investigation. Researchers, reacting to the allegations, excavated the graveyard at the school.

At its peak in the 1960s, 500 boys were housed at the Dozier school, most of them for minor offenses such as petty theft, truancy or running away from home.

In 1968, when corporal punishment was outlawed at state-run institutions, then-Gov. Claude Kirk visited and found the institution in disrepair with leaky ceilings, holes in walls, cramped sleeping quarters, no heating for the winters and buckets used as toilets.

"If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances," he said then, "you'd be up there with rifles."

Some of the bodies were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white, metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves.

Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush

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