Three bodies IDed; scores more discovered at abandoned reform school

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University of South Florida researchers unearth the first of dozens of bodies buried at the former boys reform school. (Credit: CNN)

MARIANNA, Fla. — A research team has identified two more sets of remains from unmarked graves at a former reformatory in Marianna, Florida, reported the University of South Florida.

Thomas Varnadoe and Earl Wilson were the second and third students at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys identified through a DNA match, USF said in a press release issued Thursday. Wilson was the first African-American student identified.

Investigators now say there’s evidence 98 boys died at the school. Remains have been excavated from 55 unmarked graves, USF says.

For years, stories circulated that boys were beaten, tortured and murdered at the school about 65 miles west of Tallahassee, Florida, but nobody was ever prosecuted. The school opened in 1900 and closed in 2011 for budgetary reasons.

Records about who died at the school are sketchy, authorities have said, so an effort to locate and identify remains began several years ago.

Thomas Varnadoe, 13, was sent to the school in September 1934 with his older brother, Hubert, USF said. According to USF, a death certificate said Thomas died of pneumonia 34 days after being admitted.

His body was found very close to the body of George Owen Smith, the first student whose remains were identified, USF said. Thomas’s remains were positively matched with DNA from his brother, Richard Varnadoe, USF said.

Four students killed Earl Wilson, 12, a few days after he arrived at the school in August 1944, USF said. Medical evidence presented at the trial of the students listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head, USF said. Results of the trial were not included in the press release.

Wilson was positively matched with DNA collected from his sister, Cherry Wilson, USF said.

His body was found in an area of the school grounds where crosses were placed in the 1990s, though the crosses didn’t reflect the location of the graves or the number of children buried.

“Our ability to provide answers and the physical remains of those who died to their brothers and sisters after more than 70 years is a remarkable privilege,” said Erin Kimmerle, lead researcher and USF associate professor of anthropology, “We recognize the need to help families and victims find resolution, no matter how many decades pass.”

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