DNA analysis leads to 2 more IDs at Florida reform school

Photo credit: University of South Florida

The Missing Persons Lab at UNT Health Science Center used DNA analysis to help identify two more boys buried decades ago in unmarked graves at a reform school in Florida.

One of the cases involves a 13-year-old boy who died in 1934, making the 80-year-old case one of the oldest to result in a positive identification with assistance from UNTHSC. The DNA associations are the second and third from among 55 sets of human remains excavated at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.

One of the boys identified was 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe, who was sent to Dozier in 1934 along with his brother after being accused of stealing a typewriter off a school teacher’s front porch. The brother was released the following year, but Thomas died after a month at the reform school. His grave location was unknown until the recent excavations and positive identification.

The other identification was of Earl Wilson, who was 12 when he was sent to Dozier in 1944. He died 10 weeks later, and four other boys housed at the school were convicted of his murder.

“These families spent a lifetime wondering what happened to their sons and brothers,” said Arthur Eisenberg, Chair of Molecular and Medical Genetics at UNTHSC. “It’s gratifying to know that we can help provide some answers.”

The excavation efforts are led by an anthropology team at the University of South Florida under the direction of Erin Kimmerle, PhD. UNTHSC scientists then test and analyze bones and teeth, along with DNA samples from surviving family to help identify the remains.

So far, nine families with ties to the Dozier school have provided 13 reference samples.

Since 2003, the Health Science Center has processed more than 5,200 human remains, making more than 1,100 DNA associations that led to identifications.

UNTHSC is the nation’s only lab set in an academic center that is approved to upload genetic data for unidentified remains to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a criminal justice database and software better known as CODIS.

The work in Florida and Fort Worth is supported by the National Institute of Justice, whose commitment to innovation and creativity in forensic anthropology and forensic DNA helps strengthen the forensic sciences and advance justice. Through a grant from the NIJ, UNTHSC also maintains the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a national clearinghouse for missing person cases, unidentified remains, unidentified living individuals and unclaimed bodies.

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