TAMPA, Fla. - A researcher from the University of South Florida said Tuesday that a team of forensic experts is using DNA, skeletal analysis and digital X-rays to identify the remains from a former reform school on the Panhandle.
Erin Kimmerle and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee met with U.S. Sen Bill Nelson to share what they have found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
So far, Kimmerle said, DNA has been fully analyzed on 12 sets of remains.
"It's a very slow process, but it's thorough," she said.
University of South Florida researchers began excavating the graveyard at the now-closed school in September. The dig finished in December.
Official records indicated 31 burials at the Marianna site, but researchers found the remains of 55 people.
If remains are identified, it could shed light on a possible criminal cover-up that's spanned a century.
"There are those that want the secret past to stay there," said Nelson.
Channel 9 was in Tampa on Tuesday where Nelson was briefed by researchers. Twelve sets of
remains excavated in Marianna have been successfully DNA -tested.
"We're trying to establish the facts and what happened," said Kimmerle.
The reform school for boys was long suspected of abuse before closing several years ago.
Nelson said a state investigation failed to find the facts Kimmerle and her team of researchers discovered.
"She has already found twice the number of graves than reported by the (Florida Department of Law Enforcement)," said Nelson.
Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have 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.
Kimmerle said that it will take months to extract and analyze the DNA from the 55 exhumed bodies. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said his agency is trying to help by looking for relatives of some of the boys that were known to have been buried at the school.
Kimmerle showed Nelson a computerized image of a young boy -- a facial composite of one of the sets of remains excavated from the site. The photo is of a black boy about 10 years old.
"It's an effort to put a face with the remains," she said.
All the bodies found were interred in coffins either made at the school or bought from manufacturers, Kimmerle said. Some were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white, metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves.
Some residents have questioned whether the graves are related to the alleged abuse at the school and have said the graves shouldn't be exhumed without permission from surviving relatives.
Kimmerle said it's unclear if there are other graves elsewhere on the school site. The property is 1,400 acres and her team has excavated about
5 acres -- although she has received tips that graves are located elsewhere on the property.