Police Find No Evidence That Reform School Abuse Resulted in Deaths

The questions had lingered for decades — who was buried under 31 white crosses at a Florida reform school, and how did they die?

Florida officials said Friday they now have the answers, and none of the 29 boys buried in the cemetery known as "boot hill" died at the hands of abusive school guards. Two of the others buried there between 1914 and 1952 were former staff members.

But the answers aren't so simple for the former students, some who say they were never interviewed for the investigation even though they endured savage beatings at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Many believe some fellow students died from the beatings. Investigators dismissed those claims as rumors, saying none of the former students has provided firsthand information that would identify any purported victims or perpetrators.

Agents are continuing to investigate allegations by ex-inmates, most now in their 60s or 70s, who say they were beaten bloody and raped by staff members during the 1950s and 1960s as punishment for offenses as slight as singing or talking to a black inmate.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey and Mark Perez, the agency's chief of executive investigations, said an examination of death certificates and other records, media reports and interviews with former staff members and students confirmed causes of death for all except six of the students. None of the bodies was exhumed because of the documents and eyewitness evidence.

One was a boy whose body was found under a Marianna house four months after he escaped in 1940. The other five died between 1919 and 1925, possibly from influenza, Perez said.

"We found no student who has specific knowledge of any unexplained death or burial at this site," Bailey said.

Twelve died of illnesses. A dormitory fire killed the two staff members and eight students in 1914. Two other students died accidentally — one drowned and another fell off a mule and ruptured a lung. One boy was killed by four fellow students in 1944 who wanted to keep him from ratting out their escape plan.

Bailey said the agency also found no evidence abuse caused 50 other student deaths from 1911 through 1973.

Roger Dean Kiser, who says he witnessed two deaths while a student and interviewed 200 others for a book, said in a statement on behalf of himself and other ex-inmates that he found it strange investigators have not contacted him. Kiser recalled being so bloody after the beatings he didn't recognize himself in the mirror.

"My personal feeling is that the state of Florida does not want to know the truth," said Kiser, now living in Brunswick, Ga. "It is just too horrible a tragedy for the general public to learn about."

Department spokesman Mike Morrison said agents still intend to interview Kiser.

Another former student, Johnnie Walthour of Jacksonville, said he also had not been questioned about the death of a friend — the last person buried on boot hill — that he believes resulted from a series of beatings.

A death certificate indicated that student, Billey Jackson, died from kidney disease in 1952. Perez said there's nothing to contradict that.

Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the investigation after former inmates went public with their stories of abuse. They've formed a group called "The White House Boys Survivors" named for a small, white building called The White House where they say beatings occurred.

The former inmates said they were repeatedly hit with a wide, three-foot-long leather strap with sheet metal stuffed in the middle. Victims have recalled being taken to a "rape room" and having to stifle their screams during beatings by burying their faces in a pillow covered in mucus and blood.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice last year dedicated a plaque outside the building to acknowledge the torture. The school remains in operation, but The White House has not been used since 1967.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the state on behalf of the former students, and it will be up to state prosecutors to file any criminal charges once the investigation is done.