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First of Boys Buried at Dozier Identified

  It's taken University of South Florida researchers more than three years to provide one family with an answer they've been looking for, for more than 70 years.

The researchers uncovered remains from 55 unmarked graves on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna last year.  DNA testing has identified one set as belonging to George Owen Smith, who's believed to have died at age 14 -- shortly after being sent to the Florida Panhandle school in 1940.

USF Anthropologist Christian Wells says Smith was the first body found, but was in the worst shape.

“His burial was a little bit unique compared to the other ones in that they had removed his clothes and wrapped a sheet around him, or a shroud, burial shroud,” Wells said.

Enough of his body remained so that DNA samples could be taken and compared with those of family members of boys believed to be buried at Dozier.

Smith's sample ended up matching with that of his sister, 85-year-old Ovell Krell.

"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," Krell said.

She said that while the discovery gives her family closure, it should also give other families a reason to believe.

“I hope it's encouraging to stick in there and stick it out, you know? I did 73-and-a-half years, so there's still hope,” Krell said.

DNA profiles have been completed on 13 other sets of remains and will soon be compared to families' samples.

The state has also renewed the researchers' permit to continue work on the Dozier site for another year. The reform school was closed in 2011 after allegations of decades of beatings and abuse of students.

Krell says their mother refused to believe he had died.

"I was searching for him, not only out of my love, but for a vow that I had made my mother and father on their deathbeds that I would find my brother if it was in my power," she said.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Pool/Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa Bay Times
The Florida Channel

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Mark Schreiner has been the producer and reporter for "University Beat" on WUSF 89.7 FM since 2001 and on WUSF TV from 2007-2017.