TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A former inmate at a Florida reform school known for severe beatings decades ago says he remembers walking into a laundry room, peering through a foggy dryer window and seeing a boy tumbling inside. Afraid of retribution, Dick Colon walked away.
But Colon now wonders whether the boy he saw could be buried near the school. Florida law enforcement said Tuesday they have started an investigation into the enduring mystery: Who lies beneath the more than 30 white metal crosses — bearing no names or dates or other details — at a makeshift cemetery near the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, where youngsters were routinely beaten and abused in the 1950s and '60s.
"I think about it very often because I feel guilty. I felt as though I could have walked over there and opened the door and tried to give him some help, but then what the hell was going to happen to me if I did?" said Colon, now 65 and living in Baltimore. "That particular kid was never seen again."
Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate at the urging of Colon and other men who committed crimes as boys and were sent to the school. The agency was tapped to find out what was in the graves, identify any remains and determine whether any crimes occurred.
"Justice always cries out for a conclusion and this is no different," Crist told reporters. "If there's an opportunity to find out exactly what happened there, to be able to verify if there were these kinds of horrible atrocities ... we have a duty to do so."
The Department of Juvenile Justice has no records that explain what's in the cemetery near the 108-year-old reform school.
One theory is the graves contain the bodies of six boys who died in a 1914 school fire. But that would only explain a fraction of the markers.
Current school superintendent Mary Zahasky hopes the graves do not contain children.
"When I first saw it — those kinds of things tug at your heart. I'm a mother myself," she said. "I just can't imagine having my child buried out there like that."
Colon is part of a group of men who call themselves "The White House Boys Survivors" because they suffered abuse in a small, white building known as the White House. It contained two rooms where guards would beat children, one for black inmates; one for whites.
The boys were forced to lie on a bed, face down in a pillow covered with blood, spit and mucous, and were repeatedly struck with a long leather-and-metal strap for offenses as slight as singing, or talking to a black inmate. They described beatings so severe that underwear became imbedded in skin.
The Department of Juvenile Justice acknowledged the abuse in October, placing a plaque on the now-closed white building.
"The staff was so brutal that just even the slightest frown on your face or even the slightest word out of context could cause you to be sent down to the White House and be viciously beaten to the point that you would become unconscious and bleed profusely down your legs and your back," Bryant Middleton, 63, of Fort Walton Beach, said Monday.
After the October ceremony, Department of Juvenile Justice staff took five of the former inmates to the cemetery, which is located near the facility that used to house black inmates. An adult prison now stands on the property.
"This is a big occasion for the state of Florida," Michael O'McCarthy, 66, who was sent to the detention center when he was 15 for stealing auto parts, said of the investigation. "Rarely do state or federal governments like to admit that they have committed this type of egregious, destructive kinds of crimes, especially to children."
At least one former reform school student said the men's stories may be exaggerated.
"They were justified in giving me these paddlings because, hey, I was wrong," said Phil Hail of Anniston, Ala., who remembered going to the white building once for getting low grades in 1957. "It comes down to if you abide by the rules, you're not punished."
Hail's description was similar to what the other men described, but he said the school wasn't a "house of horrors."
"Was (the school) run with a very strict hand? Yes, it was," he said. "Were the paddlings very severe? Yes, they were."