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Research to continue at Florida reform school

Tampa, Florida - U.S. Senator Bill Nelson remembers growing up near a reform school in the panhandle where there have been reports of abuse, torture and even death.

Friday afternoon, Senator Nelson announced his support of scientists from the University of South Florida who want to continue their work uncovering what happened to boys who died at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

The goal, he says, is to also finally return some of the bodies to relatives.

It's something Ovell Krell is on a mission to do before she passes away. Krell, who is in her 80's, is still searching for answers about brother's mysterious death at the school. She wants to give her brother a proper burial in between her mother and father.

Krell says, "So we do have proof that he died and is there, but he's not listed in the Bureau of Statistics as being dead. As far as they're concerned, he's still alive."

She says her brother ran away from home and got in trouble with the law. He was accused of stealing a car with another young man. Her family, she says, was never notified that he was being sent to the reform school. 

Krell's mother pressed the school to allow her to hear from her son but she says after two letters school officials claimed he ran away.

When Krell's mother pressed for a handwritten letter from her son explaining how he was, they received a letter from him. Her mother insisted on seeing her son and the day before her family was to arrive at the school a pastor notified them that her brother's body had been found under a house badly decomposed. She says they claimed they were able to identify him through the number on his uniform.

Krell's mother insisted his remains be held for the family to recover, but when they arrived they learned he'd already been buried. She says they eventually learned from a witness that her brother had tried to run away, but as he took off through a field men from the boys home shot at him with a rifle. 

Krell says, "I feel in my heart he's gone and probably dead, but I'm just suspicious in the matter in which he died."

Nelson asked Florida's governor to grant the scientists' request to remain on the state-owned site and continue their forensic team's investigation.

The state has tried to sell the site, despite opposition from families of some of the dead boys. Friday however the state said the probe could go on.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has defended its investigation of alleged abuse at the reform school.

Last year the agency responded to questions about why it listed fewer deaths and gravesites in a 2009 report than cited in the recent University of South Florida study.

FDLE officials attributed the lower number to differing requirements for criminal investigations and academic research.

The agency's investigation was not able to substantiate or refute claims of abuse by former students at the school in Marianna about 60 miles west of Tallahassee.

Criminal investigators identified 85 student deaths and 31 gravesites. The university identified 98 student deaths and 50 gravesites.

FDLE officials said the university study included "probable" and "possible" information that has limited or no value in a criminal investigation.

Robert Straley says he survived abuse at the school. He says he remembers being taken to what was called "The White House" in his pajamas. "I heard a lot of groans and screams and things that I'd never heard. It's nothing like you'd ever hear at war or say if you were an ambulance person or worked in a hospital."

But Straley says the sounds and were nothing like what he experienced during a beating with a leather whip with a wooden handle. "They took me in there and asked me to grab the headrail and said bite the pillow and look at the wall. Don't scream. Don't get up or you'll get more."

USF researchers say they need at least six more weeks to do their research and they'll like to get that work done before the rainy season.

Follow 10 News Anchor Tammie Fields on twitter @tammiefields

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