With each scrape of the Florida Panhandle soil by an excavator's metal claw, anthropologists are moving a step closer to unraveling a century of mystery over the fates of missing boys from an infamous reform school.
Some of those sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys as "incorrigible" never returned. Those who survived have described decades of beatings, rapes — and possible murders — at the school in Marianna, Fla., from 1900 until it was shut down in 2011.
A team of anthropologists is carefully digging on the school grounds in search of boys buried in unmarked graves. Any remains will be autopsied and their DNA tested to help determine how the boys died while also returning them to their families for burial. Relatives of 10 missing students have provided DNA swabs for comparison.
"We're bringing a last measure of human dignity for these boys," said forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida, who leads the team.
Two bodies were recovered by hand during the team's first dig in September in woods near a school burial ground known as Boot Hill. A second dig with heavy machinery began last week, probing for 50 possible burial shafts identified by ground-penetrating radar.
The grave sites are not marked. Thirty-one white crosses that dot the burial ground were erected in the 1990s to commemorate the unnamed boys buried there.
The excavations have been a long time coming for men including Roger Dean Kiser of Brunswick, Ga., who was sent to the school at age 12 in 1959 and stayed two years.
"They're going to find a lot of bodies out there, and there are a lot more bodies they'll never find," said Kiser, now 67, who wrote a book about Dozier, "The White House Boys," named for a house on school grounds where students were beaten.
Kiser was twice beaten bloody with a leather whip reinforced by a slab of sheet metal, he said. Other boys were beaten so badly that their underwear was pounded into their bare skin. Many were sodomized or forced to perform oral sex on staff members, he said.
Boys were beaten for such infractions as spitting, cursing or talking back. Staff members placed bets on who could draw blood first.
An investigation by the U.S. Justice Department documented some of the abuse and led to the closure of the school. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded in 2010 that, although it found dozens of graves, there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges.
But Kiser and others sent to Dozier say they know what they saw, and their stories have a grim consistency.
Kiser said he saw a boy tossed into an industrial clothes dryer and spun until he died. Another was mauled to death by search dogs after he tried to escape. Kiser said he was working at the school infirmary when he was ordered to remove the dead boy's shoes, which were filled with blood.
Some bodies were burned in the school incinerator, he said, and he once saw a severed hand in the "hog bath" where leftover food was dumped to feed pigs.
After one of his own beatings, Kiser said, he told a staff member that he'd one day tell the world what was happening to boys at Dozier. The staffer replied: "Talking like that is a good way to end up dead tomorrow morning, sonny boy."
Historical documents suggest that more than 100 boys died at the school, Kimmerle said. School records say 34 boys were buried on the grounds and 31 were shipped home for burial. The remainder are unaccounted for.
"The graves we found were unmarked in the woods and completely forgotten," Kimmerle said. "This process is providing formal recognition for the children that died."
The team expects to excavate 25 to 30 grave shafts before this round of excavations ends this month. Kimmerle declined to say how many sets of remains had been found so far.
For relatives of boys who disappeared, the work holds the promise of long-awaited answers.
Robert Stephens was 15 when he died at the school in 1937 — reportedly stabbed to death by another boy. His great-niece, Tananarive Due, doubts the official story and hopes the excavations return Robert's remains to his family with answers about how he died.
"It would be very meaningful for our family to know where he is after all these years," said Due, a writer and teacher who lives in Glendora, Calif.
Due visited the burial grounds during the first excavation in September. She said she was moved by "the atmosphere of cruelty to children who had no one to speak up for them."
Boys at the school were rented out to farmers and timber companies as unpaid workers, performing backbreaking jobs as "modern-day slavery," Kimmerle said. Those who resisted or did not work hard were beaten, or taken away and never seen again.
Bryant Middleton, 69, remembers being whipped at the White House on his first day at Dozier for eating wild blackberries he had plucked from a fence. It was 1959 and he was 14. In all, he said, he was whipped six times — at least 20 lashes each time and 57 during the worst whipping.
"My buttocks turned black," he said.
Middleton said a man who claimed to be the school psychiatrist often pulled him and other boys out of showers, naked, and then ogled or touched them. "You either got tough real quick or you were sexually abused," Middleton said.
One boy disappeared after the hospital director hauled him away as punishment for drinking rubbing alcohol mixed with orange juice, Middleton said. Another student who escaped on a stolen school tractor was captured but never seen again.
"Every single boy there was victimized in some way," Middleton said. "These were young boys who had no way to defend themselves."
Middleton, a retired military officer who lives in Gainesville, Fla., was wounded half a dozen times in Vietnam. "I'd rather go back to Vietnam than spend one more day at that school," he said.
Middleton has visited the site and is convinced researchers will find far more than 50 bodies. "That place is littered with them,'' he said.
Kiser, too, has visited the excavation site. He does not expect anyone to be held accountable after all these years.
"Digging up the bodies is very important for their families," he said. "But it won't bring any closure or healing for the boys who were raped and beaten."