In June of 2013, Robert Stephens of Tampa received a phone call from his sister. She told him that an uncle they had never met had died at the Dozier School for Boys in 1937 under mysterious circumstances.
She added that University of South Florida researchers wanted Stephens to submit a DNA sample to see if they could identify his 15-year-old uncle as one of the bodies believed to be buried in an unmarked graveyard on the now closed reform school’s grounds.
Just days later, Stephens found himself at USF, cameras flashing as investigators swabbed the inside of his mouth. It was just the beginning of a two-year waiting period to close out an almost eight decade old mystery.
"It was overwhelming, it was just weird, kind of surreal, and then to come in here and, you know, looking at the pictures and then to see your name on a list of deceased," Stephens said at that time. "It was kind of awkward, just kind of scary, humbling, to see your name up there: 'Robert Stephens, 1937' and to know that was your uncle."
An uncle, that until that very moment, Robert Stephens didn’t know he was named after.
Flash forward to last week, and another press conference. This time, Stephens received the news he had longed to hear - thanks to samples from Stephens and his cousin, Gary Roberts, investigators were able to identify their uncle's remains, the sixth such set their research has given a name to.
"It’s exactly what we set out to do and to be able to accomplish that is very exciting," USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle said. "In this case it’s actually also exciting to see that by obtaining multiple family reference samples, we’re able to combine them and get a match. I think it’s very encouraging overall; it’s more work because you have to go back and get all of these additional samples, but it gives hope to getting even more identifications."
Between Stephens’ DNA collection in 2013 and the identification this year, investigators exhumed 51 sets of remains, including those of his uncle, from 55 grave shafts on Dozier’s grounds.
During that time, Robert Stephens has learned much – not just about his uncle, who court and school records indicated was stabbed to death by a classmate – but about the rest of his family.
"I talked to a niece that I had never spoken to and we spoke last night and she mentioned the stabbing to them, so it’s I mean I’m just really meeting people," Stephens said. "She has kids I’ve never met, never seen before so it’s a lot of family information I’ve got to catch up on."
"We’ve been able to sort of introduce distant family members that didn’t know about each other or had never met," Kimmerle added. "It wasn’t something I would’ve anticipated going in, but it’s been really interesting to learn more about genealogy and how you put those pieces together and then reconnect families in these different ways. "
Stephens’ identification was just one of a number of new developments in USF’s research of the Dozier School for Boys announced last week.
As we’ve documented previously, the reform school in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna was open more than a century before state officials closed it in 2011. For decades there were rumors that school officials whipped, tortured and even murdered students. For the past few years USF researchers have tried to find out what happened.
Their final report is due to the state early next year. To help them meet that deadline, state officials have extended investigators access to the school grounds through the end of January. Kimmerle complimented state officials, particularly the Department of Environmental Protection and CFO Jeff Atwater, for the support they've given the investigation.
"This is ultimately a state project for all Floridians and for the state and that’s the sort of commitment that it takes, so we’re really thrilled to be working with them and to see the level of commitment there," she said.
Investigators also have DNA samples from family members of ten boys believed to have been buried at Dozier awaiting analysis. They're continuing to seek relatives of a few dozen other boys, particularly three whose exceptionally young ages should make identification less difficult.
One of those boys, George Grissam of Washington County in the panhandle, was just six years old when he was sent to Dozier in 1917 on delinquency charges. He died there the very next year.
"He was there with an older brother, Ernst, who was two years older and their mother is listed at Peg, which might be short for Margaret Grisham, and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to track down her and the older brother thinking maybe he was released from the school at a later date and what might have happened to him, and so far we’ve just not come up with any leads," Kimmerle said.
"Since he was African American, it does make us wonder if it doesn’t reflect policy at the time to convict children that young, that there are more racist tendencies in the policies at time," she added. "So that’s something that we’re kind of looking at and trying to explore further: how do you get a delinquency charge when you’re six years old?"
A deal has also been signed with award-winning production company, Part2Pictures, to make a TV documentary on the research. It is scheduled to air in 2016; a broadcast station has not been named yet.
"The idea was that we’d kind of tell the story of what we’ve done, the research and what we’ve found from start to finish in one place because you can certainly find a lot of that information out there, but it’s in snippets and it’s in pieces," Kimmerle said. "I think if you’re trying to look back at what’s this whole story and what does it all mean, hopefully this two-hour special will provide that sort of a review."
And other big questions remain, not just for the investigators, but for the state of Florida: what's the future of the Dozier grounds; what happens with the remains that aren't identified; and how should this whole horrible chapter be remembered?
"I think that ultimately as long as the various state leaders and local leaders in that community come together with a really thoughtful and long-term vision, I think it (the school grounds) could be transformed into something positive," Kimmerle said. "We’re talking about a lot of space, nearly a hundred buildings, some of which are in completely disrepair and full of asbestos and mold and need to be remediated and others that are essentially new and could be repurposed. So I think there’s a lot that could be done with that space in the future but I’m happy to see those discussions to be going on."
As for a memorial, Kimmerle would like to see something more than a simple plaque or marker.
"We’re thinking of it in a much broader sense and more of a transformative sense in that how do we take all of this information and what’s been done and learned and experienced and try to turn it into something positive and move forward," she said. "Those are bigger questions and that’s why it takes a process but I’m excited to see where it might lead."