A boy missing since 1940 has been id'd: He is George Owen Smith, now deceased. Turned over to the Florida Industrial School for Boys at age 14, Smith was a ward of a juvenile home now well-known for its abuse and maltreatment of those under its charge. Renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, the reform school’s secrets were never veiled. Smith’s remains were the first to be identified from dozens of young bodies dumped into shallow graves on the school’s property.
CNN on Aug. 7 profiled the story of George Owen and his sister Ovell Krell. Writes CNN:
On their deathbeds — her father's in the 1960s and her mother's in the 1980s — Ovell Krell's parents made her promise she'd never stop looking for her brother.
“Will you find Owen and bring him back?” she recalls her dad asking.
“I'll try until the day I die, Daddy,” she replied.
After more than seven decades, the 85-year-old has found Owen. She hopes to soon lay him to rest at the Auburndale, Florida, cemetery where her parents are buried.
Her mom, after all, instructed her, “Put him with me and daddy.”
The 50-year-old mystery is but one story. Fifty-four more bodies, namelessly marked haphazardly by white crosses, were exhumed from the 1,400 acres and have yet to be identified. In 1940, Owen was sent off to the school, at the time the largest juvenile reform institution in the U.S. The school’s history is stained with allegations of mistreatment and torment. Says its Wikipedia page:
Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued. Many of the allegations were confirmed by separate investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2010 and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice in 2011. State authorities closed the school permanently in June 2011.
Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthropologist, spearheaded an effort to reconcile the bodies and the names behind them. In 2012 and 2013, her team unearthed remains on the former campus. Owen’s body was the first to be pulled from the ground; he’s the fist to be identified, hopefully of many.
“We hope it's the first of many identifications to come,” Kimmerle said.
Ovell describes the moment that Kimmerle, flanked by officers from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Department, respectfully visited her to share what they had found.
“It was a total and complete surprise. It shocked me totally numb for a moment. I couldn't say a word. I just looked at her,” Krell said. “This, to me, is a miracle because when I think of all the boys and all the graves – I know they sent 55 remains to be tested, and I'm the only one where they found a match?”
The school at the time had told Ovell’s parents that Owen died after running away, hiding under a nearby porch, and contracting pneumonia. Medical examiners are still working to confirm whether that is true.
Head over to CNN for the rest of Owen’s story.