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Relatives urge Florida to issue permit for exhumations at school

White metal crosses mark graves at the cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, December 10, 2012. REUT
White metal crosses mark graves at the cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, December 10, 2012. REUT

By Saundra Amrhein

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Relatives of boys who died at a Florida reform school urged the state on Friday to issue a permit allowing investigators to exhume human remains found on the grounds of the school, which has long been plagued with accusations of abuse and mysterious deaths.

Dozens of unmarked graves have been uncovered at the Dozier School in the Florida Panhandle city of Marianna. Investigators are trying to determine the circumstances surrounding the deaths, which experts say likely occurred between 1914 and 1952. The school was closed in 2011.

On Friday, relatives of three boys who died at the school submitted to DNA cheek swabs in the hopes that these and other families' samples can soon start being compared to the remains discovered at Dozier, once the state's major reform school.

A more than two-year-long investigation led by researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) has hit a snag while relatives, surviving former students and prominent politicians await a state decision for a permit to begin the exhumations from more than 50 unmarked graves.

Some are questioning the delay.

"Why are we in this conundrum?" a frustrated Glen Varnadoe asked after his elderly uncle, Richard, submitted to a DNA cheek swab. Glen Varnadoe's uncle, Thomas, who was Richard's brother, died at the school in 1934, one month after he was remanded there at age 13.

Last year, Varnadoe's lawsuit over the return of Thomas' remains forced a judge to halt the state's sale of the Dozier property.

Several years ago, former students told horror stories of sexual abuse and frequent beatings in a mausoleum-like building on the school's grounds dubbed the "White House."

Despite strong opposition among some residents near the school, the state legislature recently allocated almost $200,000 to help investigators exhume the bodies, identify the remains and determine the cause of death.

In March, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi asked a state judge for permission to start the exhumation, a request that was denied last month in a ruling that said the state archaeologist has jurisdiction over remains interred for more than 75 years.

USF investigators received a reply from State Archaeologist Mary Glowacki regarding their permit request on Friday. The two-page letter consisted of a long list of additional questions.

A call to Glowacki's office for comment was forwarded to the Florida Department of State and not immediately returned.

Erin Kimmerle, lead investigator and associate professor of anthropology at USF, said her team needed time to review the questions.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, warned that if the permit process continued to drag on, he would ask the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct its own investigation.

"If it's an attempt to delay and obfuscate," Nelson said, "the people of Florida are not going to stand for it."

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Andre Grenon)

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