A five-month Florida state investigation has found no evidence to support claims by former students of a state boys reform school that students were killed by abusive staff members or that the school covered up student deaths.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation last year into 31 unmarked graves near the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., after a group of former students, who have come to be known as the White House Boys, said they were brutally beaten and, at times, raped by the school's staff.
Some former students, who were at the school in the 1940s and 1950s, also claimed that students were murdered at the school or were taken away for beatings and never returned.
The state investigation found that most of the 31 graves were filled with teens or staff who died in a 1914 dormitory fire, from an influenza epidemic or from other accidents. One student was murdered by a group of other students in 1944 after he learned of an escape plan, the report said. Five people, who were buried between 1919 and 1925, had no listed cause of death, the investigation found.
The state still is investigating allegations of abuse at the school. A group of former students known as "White House Boys," who claim they suffered vicious beatings with a steel-lined leather strap in a small, white cinder-block building known as the White House, has filed a lawsuit over the alleged abuse.
The report said investigators could not corroborate that any of the administrators or workers contributed to the deaths of any of the students.
But, several former students said they were not convinced by the report. One man who says he buried a friend of his when they were both at the school in the 1950s said he does not believe that school officials were not involved in the boy's death.
Johnnie Walthour, now 73, said he dug a grave for a friend he knew only as Billy, a slight boy of about 12 who died not long after developing a bloated stomach. Walthour said Billy was repeatedly beaten in a building known as the White House after he tried several times to run away from the school.
After one beating, Walthour claims, he saw Billy with a swollen stomach. He said the boy was beaten again and was hospitalized. The next time he saw Billy, Walthour said he was digging the boy's grave.
The report identified Billy as Billey Jackson, who died at the hospital of a kidney infection. But Walthour said he didn't believe his friend died of natural causes.
"I know they killed him," he said. "I'll always believe they had something to do with it."
Dick Colon said when he was at the school in the late 1950s, another boy was stuffed in a dryer. Colon said he was too afraid the let the boy out.
"There's no doubt in my mind he died. He was alive when I saw him. Through absolute torment and fear, I didn't let him out," he said.
Colon said the men who are suing the state over the alleged abuse want the graves exhumed.
"I'm afraid that looking through the historic archives and coming up with names and letting that be the end of it is really short of what we had hoped for," he said. "I doubt if we're going to walk away with our heads down."