Tampa, Florida -- Using ground penetrating radar and other methods University of South Florida anthropologists and archaeologists say they have now found 50 grave sites on the campus of the Dozier School for Boys. Previously, officials reported 31 boys were buried on school grounds in a cemetery known as Boot Hill.
The findings were somewhat encouraging for the Brooksville family of Thomas Varnadoe. In 1934, Varnadoe died at the school. But there are no records of where 13-year-old is buried and his family is very suspect of how he died. They believe abuse played a role.
"Also, the fact that his death certificate reflects no autopsy and no undertaker was suspicious," Glen Varnadoe, Thomas Varnadoe's nephew told reporters in Monday.
In a 200-page report, USF researchers also say 98 deaths occurred at the state-run reform school between 1914 and 1973; that's 17 more than previously stated.
The researchers have also identified discrepancies in records of the cause and manner of death reported for several boys.
They noted a high number of boys, 20 in all, also died within the first 3 months of being sent to the school.
Varnadoe had been at Dozier just 38 days before he died.
"I don't want to say that it was a cover-up, I think there was sloppy bookkeeping I think that there were efforts though out its history where they did try to project a certain image," says Dr. Erin Kimmerle a USF forensic anthropologist.
But while USF researchers may not be willing to say there was a cover-up to hide brutal abuse at the school, a number of former wards including Robert Straley of Clearwater, say that's exactly what's happened.
Straley says he spent 10 months at the school and was beaten with a leather belt the first night he was there.
Straley says so many burials and deaths should be a red flag that something was very, very wrong at the school.
"Well, this is never going to be a happy story but what is good is it's finally being told," he said.
Varnadoe's family has filed a lawsuit and wants to find Thomas' body so they can have it exhumed and then buried next to his mother in Brooksville. They believe the USF findings help bring them one step closer towards making that a reality.
Dozier, which is located in Marianna, was closed last year after 111 years of operation.
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