Smith, whose body was found in a hastily buried grave wrapped only in a burial shroud, was positively matched with DNA collected from his sister, Ovell Krell of Polk County. Researchers are continuing to work to identify the other remains recovered from the unmarked cemetery at the former Florida reform school in Marianna.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection along with the Florida Cabinet this week extended the permit for research work to continue on the Dozier site until Aug. 5, 2015. Researchers will look for other possible remains, piece together answers on the identities of those buried there, and work with cabinet member and Florida CFO Jeff Atwater to develop plans for the reburial of anyone unidentified.
The positive identification was made through a DNA sample collected from Krell and matched at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, which had extracted DNA from a skeletal analysis. The DNA matching services are supported by the Office of Justice Programs at the National Institute of Justice. The Dozier excavations are supported with funding by the State of Florida.
“We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was,” said Erin Kimmerle, the lead researcher in the project and an associate professor of anthropology at USF. “But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.
“After all these years, this child will be afforded dignity that is every human being’s right - the right to be buried under their own name and to have their existence recognized.”
Additionally, researchers will continue to search for victims of a 1914 fire at the school which is believed to have killed 10 boys. During their excavation of the unmarked burial ground known as Boot Hill, the researchers found evidence of burned remains but did not locate all of the presumed victims of the 1914 fire.
Since 2011, USF researchers have been searching for records and the identities of scores of boys buried at the school. The remains were excavated from 55 grave shafts at the site.
Researchers continue to work with UNTHSC, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to locate possible next of kin to collect reference samples for identification.
The identification of Smith’s remains is an important breakthrough in the project, and for his family finally provides at least one answer to many questions that have gone unanswered for 73 years.
Smith had been sent to Dozier in 1940. His mother, Frances Smith, wrote to the school's superintendent, Millard Davidson, in December of 1940 asking about her son only to receive a letter back saying no one knew where he was.
In January 1941, his family was told he was found dead under a house after escaping from the school. The family traveled to Marianna to claim his body, but when they arrived were led to a freshly-covered grave with no marker. Krell has said her mother never accepted that her son was dead and spent the last decades of her life waiting for him to return home.
DNA continues to be collected by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. All sets of remains recovered from the Dozier site have been sent to UNTHSC, where there are currently 9 viable family reference samples for comparison. Over the next year, efforts will be focused on also trying to locate additional families. Each set of remains has now been assigned a unique identification number so that in the event family members come forward in the future, a match can still be made.
-press release from University of South Florida