WASHINGTON, August 27, 2013 — The State of Florida has announced exhumations will commence on August 31 at one or more mass grave sites in the deserted grounds of the notorious, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys at Marianna Florida, a former reform school forcibly closed in June 2011.
The news comes as a past inmate and “White House Boy” announced plans to present a case to the Department of Justice to plead for an official investigation into the death of football player, 16-year-old Edgar Elton, allegedly murdered at the school during an illegal pre-season practice in 1961.
Elton is one of around 100 boys aged between 6 and 18 years old who are said to have died at the school in questionable or “unknown” circumstances between 1914 and 1973
A murder investigation into any of the deaths could provide crucial evidence and give added impetus to the painstaking bid to piece together the mystery of the lost boys of Marianna in the South Florida panhandle and bring justice for the decades of heinous crimes against children said to have been committed there.
Researchers trying to match documentary evidence with 31 crudely marked graves have shown far more bodies are buried at the school than acknowledged by the State in a 2009 report following a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation.
That report concluded, “No crimes were committed in association with the deaths.” Yet records have been found showing 45 bodies were buried on the school’s 1,400 acre tract between 1914 and 1952 and a further 31 bodies were possibly sent “elsewhere.” What happened to the remainder is unknown.
The FDLE report favored official state and school records and newspaper accounts that many of the students died from natural causes such as influenza, or in a fire. Only the persistence of former inmates, aided by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida who used ground penetrating radar and trenching methods to locate bodies, was able to persuade Florida Governor Rick Scott that more action was needed to resolve matters pertaining to Dozier’s troubled history.
In early August this year, Scott finally acknowledged the need for exhumations to identify human remains and where possible, establish cause of death. He also agreed to reinter bodies under respectful burial conditions in a bid to bring closure to long grieving relatives.
In recent years, over 300 former school inmates have stepped forward and declared that abuse, torture, rape and murder were a regular part of the staff culture at Marianna. They allege that institutionalized depravity went to the highest levels of management.
The “White House Boys,” epithet was chosen in common recognition of a dank, white school building, forever etched in their minds.
The boys say many of them and their fellow students, some as young as eight-years-old, were forced to lie on a soiled, torture stained bed, their heads biting into a filthy pillow. There, they say they were systematically beaten till their bodies were limp and bloodied and undergarments were embedded in their skin, requiring surgical removal.
Survivors have talked of sadistic brutality and a Ku Klux Klan mentality towards students of color. They have told of boys trying to escape who were hunted down and savaged by vicious dogs or shot at by pursuers whose careless bullets too often made their human mark.
Some boys were allegedly taken from their beds in the middle of the night to be punished, often for a minor infraction such as eating too fast or too slowly. They were taken to the white house to be beaten. Some were never seen again. Many survivors believe murder was commonplace and they point to the mass graves and the inconsistency of the records of deaths and burials.
As details steadily emerged, the sordid tales sent shockwaves around the Nation and overseas.
Jerry Cooper, 68, a former quarterback, was known to be a “jock.” He was the all-star pitcher for the school’s baseball team and the only pitcher who had ever pitched a two-hitter game to win the series conference in the history of the school. He was an obvious choice to train for football selection in 1961, the year the school was so desperate to win the conference they bought in a pro-player, Vic Prinzi to coach the team.
Prinzi had been a star quarterback with the Denver Bronco’s and New York Giants before injury resulted in the removal of his spleen.
Prinzi was best friends with actor Burt Reynolds, and his experience at Dozier is said to be the inspiration behind the 1974, Burt Reynold’s movie, “The Longest Yard.” Ironically, both the original movie and the 2005 Adam Sandler remake were produced as comedies, despite the alleged torture and abuse at the school.
Cooper is seeking justice for the death of his former best friend and member of the Yellow Jackets football team, Edgar Elton. Cooper and other students say they witnessed Elton cruelly “run to death” in over 100 degrees of stifling heat during an illicit practice session in the school gym on July 10, 1961.
He said the practice flouted season regulations, and staff showed contemptuous disregard for Elton’s medical condition and doctor’s advisory that he should not participate in sports.
Cooper has asked Florida State Attorney Glenn Hess to press charges against the man he claims is the remaining living perpetrator, named as former school supervisor Troy Tidwell, 87. An earlier attempt to indict Tidwell in a class action suit launched in spring 2009 failed. Cooper says if Hess is not forthcoming, he will take his case all the way to Washington.
Cooper says the official version of Elton’s death as reported at the time in the school’s Yellow Jacket newspaper was “a complete and total lie.” Elton was said to have died of a heart attack after receiving expert medical attention on site. There was no mention of forced exercise or neglect contributing to his death.
In contrast, on the day in question Cooper claims,
“We were forced to practice football in the stifling hot gym even though we had a perfectly good football field. We were told we couldn’t afford to be seen.
When you were called to play football, practice was mandatory. Refusal would have led to a trip to the white house.
I was the second player in line behind Edgar during a passing session. It was extremely fast pace and very exhausting, and it was very difficult for every team member to keep pace. Edgar went into an asthma attack and fell to his knees. I didn’t know till that day he had asthma, but at the start of practice he told me he couldn’t breathe. I told him to go to Troy Tidwell and Mr. Hatton (the director) who were both present in the gym. As he climbed to his feet and stumbled toward them; he was met by Tidwell about half-court. Tidwell screamed “get your f***ing ass back in line.
Tidwell made Edgar keep running. When I broke line to tell them he was having a breathing attack; Hatton reached up to his side and placed his hand on his pistol. Tidwell turned toward me and began screaming, calling me a “motherf***er.”
Cooper said the next run Edgar made was his last. He collapsed, hitting the floor “like a ton of bricks.”
“I saw him go purple and he urinated in his pants. I knew then it was all over and he was dead within a minute. He was not rushed to the hospital as the school later claimed. It took at least 15 minutes for Dr. Wexler, the decrepit and half blind school physician to show up. He just looked at him and pronounced him dead. His lifeless body was lying on the floor. No one gave him any kind of aid. No attempt was made to resuscitate him. No other Doctor was involved, whatsoever. He certainly wasn’t rushed to the infirmary as the newspaper article suggests.”
Cooper has obtained witness statements corroborating his evidence. He surmises,
“What was the purpose for all these lies; other than to cover up a murder or manslaughter conviction for those responsible?”
Since the story of the Dozier Schools gruesome past and the sufferings of the White House Boys first came to light, it has drawn a huge media response and has spawned more than one documentary and there are further ventures in the offing. As Cooper says,
“Now we have the green light for exhumations, I believe the best stories are yet to come.”
Cooper has approached and been rebuffed by Burt Reynolds. He thinks Reynolds may have been worried he wanted financial redress and was seeking to take some kind of copyright action against him. Cooper swears this was not the case. All he wanted was information to help him get justice for Elton.
He is convinced Vic Prinzi must have confided in Reynolds about conditions at the school when they were discussing the plot for the Longest Yard. He wants to know what Prinzi told Reynolds about the fateful day Edgar Elton died in the school gym.
Cooper is hoping to be able to reach Adam Sandler whom he thinks might be more amenable to help if he were to hear the story of Elton’s death and the conditions at Dozier. He hopes Sandler’s influence might be able to bridge the gap between the official story of his friend’s death and justice.
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