TAMPA, Florida — In December 1940, Owen Smith's mother wrote the superintendent of the then-Florida Industrial School for Boys about the welfare of her 14-year-old son, who had been sent there months earlier for being with a friend in a stolen car.
Frances Smith received a letter from superintendent Millard Davidson that said no one knew where Owen was. A month later, the family was summoned to the Florida Panhandle school and led to an unmarked grave. Owen was in it, they were told — he had escaped and was found dead under a house. Frances Smith never accepted the story. She waited for him to come home.
On Thursday, University of South Florida researchers said they had identified George Owen Smith as the first of 55 bodies they exhumed from the grounds of the renamed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, an institution with a troubled history where the facilities were often decrepit and guards were accused of brutality. The researchers were unable to determine how Owen died, and they will probably never know.
Owen was hastily buried in a two-foot grave, lying on his side with his hands over his head, they said. He was unclothed other than a shroud. His family says he will soon be reburied next to his mother and father in the central Florida city of Auburndale.
"This is what we worked for," said his sister, Ovell Krell, now 86. "It was not an easy road."
The identification was made through a DNA sample collected from Krell.
Official records showed 31 burials at the Marianna school between its opening in 1900 and its 2011 closure for budget reasons, but researchers found the remains of 24 additional people between last September and December.
Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have for at least a decade accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it couldn't substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed. Many former Dozier inmates from that era call themselves "The White House Boys" after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.
In 2008, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice held a ceremony to officially "seal" the building and recognize the boys who passed through it. Some of "The White House Boys" were present and media coverage of the event, as well as an order from then-Gov. Charlie Crist, led to the investigation. Researchers, reacting to the allegations, excavated the graveyard at the school.
Krell said her older brother would wear a guitar string around his neck and that the family would sing country-western songs for entertainment. He hadn't been in trouble before the stolen car, she said.
Over the years, the family had kept his wallet, which was displayed at Thursday's press conference.
"It was important to him and I often wondered why he left it," Krell said. The wallet had a Junior G-Man card, which was tied to a popular radio program that featured a former FBI agent.
At its peak in the 1960s, 500 boys were housed at the Dozier school, most of them for minor offenses such as petty theft, truancy or running away from home.
In 1968, when corporal punishment was outlawed at state-run institutions, then-Gov. Claude Kirk visited and found the institution in disrepair with leaky ceilings, holes in walls, cramped sleeping quarters, no heating for the winters and buckets used as toilets.
"If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances," he said then, "you'd be up there with rifles."
Some of the bodies were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white, metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves.
Erin Kimmerle, the lead researcher and an associate anthropology professor, said another body could soon be identified.
Officials have said it's unclear if there are other graves elsewhere on the school site. The team excavated only five of the property's 1,400 acres.
Jerry Cooper, who is head of a White House Boys group, said the circumstances of Owen's disappearance and the way he was buried support their contention of abuse.
"I want an apology from the state for what happened there, but so far no go," said Cooper, who was sent there as a teenager in the early 1960s for riding in a stolen car. He has said he suffered horrible beatings with a leather strap in the White House. "If they apologize, they are admitting guilt and they aren't going to do that."
Spencer reported from Miami.