DNA identifies boy buried at Dozier school

USF researchers, using DNA, identify the remains of a boy found in an unmarked grave at Dozier. 'Closure' after 73 years.

Tampa, FL -- Years of hard work and research are finally helping to bring closure to families whose sons, brothers and loved ones died at Florida's Dozier School for Boys.

Dozens of bodies have been found in unmarked graves at the former youth detention facility in Marianna, Florida, and now one of those boys has been identified.

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"I wake up at night sometimes, and I think I dreamed it. But then I said, 'No... this is true,'" said Ovell Krell, 85, who for more than seven decades had searched for the truth about what happened to her brother, George Owen Smith.

Just two weeks ago, Krell finally found out.

"At least I know he is dead. We didn't know for 73 and a half years," she said.

In 1940, George, who was just 14, was sent to Dozier, accused of stealing a car along with a 19-year-old boy.

George's family never saw him again.

His bones were found in a shallow, unmarked grave on the school's grounds. They are now the first of 55 sets of remains found by University of South Florida researchers to be identified using DNA.

PHOTOS: Excavation at Dozier School for Boys

"Hopefully this fall, we'll start to get more and more results back," said Erin Kimmerle, the USF researcher leading the effort.

On Thursday, state officials also agreed to allow USF's research at Dozier to continue for at least another year, through August 2015.

It's more time, they say, to bring "justice, meaning closure," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "Justice meaning they will find their loved one's remains."

It's unknown just how many young boys -- most of them African-American -- were abused and killed at Dozier over the decades. But the state appears to be committed to uncovering the secretive and dark story of what happened at Dozier for so many decades. Stories of beating, floggings, death; young prisoners used for low-cost or even slave labor.

"You're only held hostage to your past if you fail to honestly confront it," said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Krell, who lives in Polk County, says she and her family never gave up. They preserved evidence of George's existence: his birth certificate, family photos, an old letter from Dozier. Even her brother's "Junior G-man" badge.

"It is the answer to my family's prayer that we can take him back, put him with my parents and maybe we can all get some peace and closure," said Krell.

In addition to Smith, USF researchers say they are close to identifying at least three more sets of remains using DNA.

For those who cannot be identified, the state is working on a more dignified burial ground, a more permanent memorial to a dark chapter in Florida's history.


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