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FDLE investigation into Florida School for Boys cemetery is over, but mystery lingers

By Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, Times Staff Writers In Print: Saturday, May 16, 2009

George Owen Smith, shown in what his sister says is one of the last photos of him alive, makes a face for the camera in an undated photo. Smith died at age 14 under murky circumstances at the Florida School for Boys in 1941. [Family photo]


Ovell Krell does not know what killed her brother Owen almost 70 years ago. Officials back then told her family he crawled under a house and died. She was only 12, but

it sounded like lies. Her family has always believed Owen, 14, was killed by staff at the Florida School for Boys.

Now she’s 80, and a state investigation and a glossy report offer no comfort and no new answers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded an investigation Friday into a cemetery at the Marianna school, now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

Its report identifies 31 people buried beneath white metal crosses on the campus, and finds no evidence that the school or the staff contributed to their deaths. But investigators also admit:

• They relied heavily — at times exclusively — on incomplete and deteriorated records kept by the school.

• They don’t know the exact whereabouts of any of the remains because the graves were unmarked for years, until a superintendent ordered Boy Scouts to make markers.

The same man supplied the number of graves — 31 — based on an educated guess. Some 20 years later, part of the cemetery was destroyed by prisoners farming the land.

Another superintendent ordered pipe crosses erected, but workers had no reference point and placed them based on “how they thought they should be arranged.”

• They did not exhume remains or use ground penetrating radar to determine how many bodies are in the ground or where they are placed.

Last month, the state-run reform school was the subject of a St. Petersburg Times special report, “For Their Own Good,” about dozens of men who said they were severely beaten there as boys in the 1950s and ’60s in a cinder block building called the White House.

In recent weeks the Times has also spoken with two men who say they were forced as boys to dig child-sized holes on the campus. These men, suspicious of authority, would not cooperate with investigators, fearing they would destroy evidence.

Mark Perez, FDLE chief of executive investigations, said “hundreds” of witnesses “did not provide any first-hand knowledge . . . that would refute the information provided in these records.”

But investigators did not talk to several people who claim to have knowledge of suspicious deaths. They did not talk to Roger Kiser, a founder of the White House Boys,

the group featured in the Times report. They didn’t talk to Johnnie Walthour, a 73-year-old Jacksonville man who told the Florida Times-Union a friend died after a beating in the early 1950s.

And they did not talk to Ovell Krell.

• • •

Owen and Ovell. They weren’t angels, but they sang like them. Brother and sister, listening through the scrub for the Saturday night sounds that wafted out of the juke joint. Singing, heads to the heavens, to the South Florida Ramblers.

Owen made his first guitar out of a cigar box because his daddy couldn’t pack oranges fast enough to buy the real thing. The Depression strangled Central Florida, but Owen tried to sing it away.

He had a rambling spirit. He would split for Gasparilla Island, without telling a soul, and come back with stories about fishing the gulf with his grandpa.

Then, in 1940, when George Owen Smith was 14, he left and didn’t come back.

His parents got word he was behind bars in Tavares. Auto theft, even if he didn’t know how to drive. The sheriff shipped him off to the state’s only reform school, a mean place called the Florida Industrial School for Boys.

Owen sent a letter home to let them know he was fine. Then the weeks went by with no word.

The next they heard he was in Bartow, not far from Auburndale, caught running from reform school. He had almost made it home.

Then came the letter from Marianna. “I got what was coming to me,” the boy wrote.

After that, the letters stopped, no matter how many stamps his mother licked.

Frances Smith wrote to the school’s superintendent, Millard Davidson, in December of 1940, asking about her son. Davidson wrote back saying no one knew where Owen was.

“So far we have been unable to get any information concerning his whereabouts,” said his letter, dated Jan. 1, 1941.

She wrote back, telling him she would be at the school in two days to search for her son.

That letter apparently arrived in Marianna around Jan. 23, 1941. That’s when the Smiths heard the news from an Episcopal priest in Auburndale. He was apologetic. Said the school had found Owen.

A friend drove them to Marianna. The school’s superintendent told the family that Owen’s remains were found under a house in Marianna. They identified him by his dental records and the markings on his laundry.

The superintendent led the family through the woods to a clearing, to a patch of fresh-turned earth.

Even at 12, Owen’s sister knew something wasn’t right. Her brother goes missing. Then just before the family arrives to help look, he’s found under a house, and buried before his own parents can pay their respects?

The family met with another boy in the presence of the superintendent. The boy told them he and Owen had escaped. They were walking toward town when the headlights hit them. The boy stood still. Owen split. The last time the boy saw Owen, he told the family, he was running across an open field. Men were shooting at him.

Ovell Smith is Ovell Krell now. She was a Lakeland police officer for two decades, one of the first female officers in Florida. She still doesn’t understand what happened to her brother. Why would he crawl under a house? Why would he not come out, even if he were starving or ill? Why would a 14-year-old boy just lay down and die?

Maybe that’s why she has kept those letters for all these years.

Her mother was never the same. For 40 years, she spent every day in bed, and every night on the porch, listening for Owen to come whistling home.

Early this month, Krell wrote a letter to the FDLE describing the family’s account. She got no response.

“I think they should dig further,” she said. “I stake my life that there was a conspiracy.”

According to the report released Friday, George Owen Smith “escaped from the school in September of 1940 and his remains were found in January 1941 under the Marianna residence of Ms. Ella Pierce. After a coroner’s inquest, no cause of death could be determined due to the extreme decomposition of the body.”

The report says he is buried with 28 children who died from fire, pneumonia, drowning, acute nephritis, tuberculosis, a ruptured lung, homicide, all while in state custody. He is one of five children whose death certificate lists no known cause of death.

Case closed.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 893-8650 or Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or PHOTO CREDITS: EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times ****************************************************



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