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Bodies Identified, Investigation Continues at Reform School

The bodies buried in 31 unmarked graves at a north Florida reform school have been identified, Florida law enforcement officials said on Friday though other questions remain.

So far, the deaths of those found in the graves are not attributed to any wrongdoing at the Arthur C. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, where some former residents say beatings and abuse routinely took place in the 1950s and 60s.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said the state’s investigation into allegations of abuse would continue, looking at deaths at the school from 1911 to 1973. The state continues to operate the facility.

Actions at the juvenile facility came under fire last year after 31 graves, marked only by white metal pipe crosses, were found as part of an investigation prompted by former residents who claim they and others were beaten at the state-run facility.

So far, the agency has concluded that 24 of the cemetery inhabitants died of illness or accidents, including 10 students and staff who died in a fire in 1914. In addition, one student was murdered by fellow residents in 1944 and another resident’s decomposed body was found four months after he escaped in 1940.

The cause of death of five residents remains undetermined but investigators said they may likely have succumbed to influenza outbreaks between 1919 and 1925.

“There is no evidence in any of these cases to suggest that the school or staff made any attempts to conceal any of those deaths,” Bailey said. “Further, there is no evidence to suggest that the school or staff caused or contributed to any of these deaths.”

During their investigation, agents relied upon official medical records, school newspaper accounts and interviews with hundreds of former residents, staff and others familiar with the school, to determine the names of those buried in the school’s cemetery, known as “Boot Hill.” No bodies were exhumed.

Not included in the list of witnesses, however, is a former resident who claims that a fellow student was beaten repeatedly at the school and later died. His body was not among those at the school site.

Mark Perez, FDLE chief inspector in charge of the investigation, said the student referred to by the witness, Billy Jackson, died of kidney failure and agents found no link between the death and beatings the witness has said took place less than two weeks before. The agency reviewed hospital records, which stated an autopsy had been performed.

“There is nothing to refute the information that was on the death certificate,” Perez said.

Perez said investigators said they have not spoken to the witness, but plan to do so as part of the ongoing abuse investigation.

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