The latest chapter of the ongoing saga to exhume bodies at the Dozier School for Boys is another one of rejection -- this time from the secretary of state. A team of researchers from the University of South Florida, led by Erin Kimmerle, has been working tirelessly on exhumation after Attorney General Pam Bondi received a similar rejection earlier this year from a circuit court judge.
In a letter addressed to Dr. Christian Wells and Dr. Erin Kimmerle, associate professors at the University of South Florida, Secretary of State Ken Detzner says the Bureau of Archaelogical Research granted the USF research team an extension on two permits to "facilitate efforts to identify and protect human burials." The permits authorized surface-level research to determine the location of the grave sites in order to preserve the cemetery "as a valuable historical resource for Florida and surviving family members."
But the rejection came on grounds of the third permit to directly exhume bodies from their grave sites, an inquiry Detzner said "diverged from its original objectives" of researching the burial grounds at the Dozier School.
"The Department of State does not have the statutory authority to fulfill your request," said Detzner in the letter. "Under Florida law, human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes. To the contrary, the law presumes that buried human remains will rest undisturbed, and allows their intentional disinterment only in narrowly defined circumstances for which specific procedures are provided in law."
Detzner did note that the USF research team could continue to work with the attorney general, the state attorney, and the medical examiner to "discover the truth" about what really happened at the Dozier School, but explained the Florida Department of State has no authority with respect to criminal investigations.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was outraged over the rejection, calling it a "classic run-around." Nelson has been a strong advocate for uncovering the truth about what happened at the Dozier School and appears at many events and press conferences regarding the exhumation process.
The Dozier School for Boys has come under fire several times since it was founded 113 years ago in 1900. Allegations of torture and abuse, both physical and sexual, of boys living at the school became more common in recent years. The "Boot Hill Cemetery" is already widely known, but the possibility still exists of more burial sites scattered throughout the school grounds. USF researchers believe there may be more than 50 unmarked graves at the school.
Historically, if you look at other state institutions, in Florida and in adjacent states, there are often segregated cemeteries two cemeteries, Dr. Christian Wells explained to Sunshine State News. That said, based on our historical and archival research, we would not be surprised if there were additional burial areas; by which I mean, where some bodies were buried indiscriminately, but not in a formal cemetery setting.
USF staff will meet with their counsel Tuesday to figure out what their next step will be, but a spokesperson said the letter was not an outright rejection, but moreso a statement that the Bureau of Archaeology can't give the team permission to exhume the bodies at the Dozier School.
Seven families hoped they'd be able to retrieve the remains of their family members at the Dozier School and came forward in June to provide DNA samples to help identify remains at the school. Some were identified through historical records, while others emerged in the midst of the lengthy investigation of the Dozier School, but it remains to be seen whether the team of researchers -- who have been working to exhume bodies since 2012 -- will find the answers they are so desperately searching for.
Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at email@example.com.