Posted: Aug 07, 2014 3:48 PM EDT
By: Hetal Gandhi,
FOX 13 News -TAMPA (FOX 13) -
George Owen Smith loved music and had big dreams of going to Nashville one day. Instead, the 14-year-old Polk County boy ended up buried in a shallow grave at the former Florida Industrial School in Marianna, Florida, also known as the Dozier School for Boys.
"I was searching for him, not only out of my love, but a vow that I had made my mother and father on their death beds that I would find my brother if it was in my power," his sister Ovell Krell explained. "I would look till I died."
Ovell never gave up the search for her brother and was determined to solve the mystery behind his death.
"My brother had never been in trouble in his life and he certainly had never been in jail," she continued.
It was Owen's first run-in with the law that landed him at Dozier. In 1940, he was accused of going on a joyride in a stolen car with a 19-year-old friend. The friend was able to escape charges, but Owen was taken to a juvenile facility.
Unbeknownst to his parents, he was transferred to Dozier. He wrote his mother a letter telling her where he was.
The conditions were bad and he tried to escape several times.
"We got the second letter from my brother who said they found him, they brought me back and I got what was coming to me. That was the end of any correspondence we ever had with my brother," said Ovell.
Decades later, Ovell continued her search, knowing that there was a veil of secrecy surrounding her brother's death. She still has a copy of the last letter the family received from Dozier. It stated that they didn't know where Owen was.
The family said it was among the many lies they've heard from the school.
"From that day until now, we really did not know if it really was him that was found there, if he was dead, if he was alive," said Ovell.
In 2011, USF researcher Erin Kimmerle began an extensive project to dig up the area where the suspected graves were located. After excavating 55 remains, the very first body they found turned out to be that of Owen.
A DNA sample from his sister provided the positive identification.
The circumstances surrounding Owen's death are still a mystery.
"We see from his burial, an unclothed boy, buried in a shroud, lying on his side along the edge of his grave. It was a hasty burial," Kimmerle explained.
Conditions at the school were reportedly so brutal, grown men like James Denyke, who is among the so-called "White House Boys," have suffered lifelong scars.
"I've got physical problems from the beatings I incurred over there," he said.
DeNyke went on to explain, "I've been married five times. I've been to prison. I'm an alcoholic."
Like many survivors, he still struggles with what he faced decades ago as a young boy.
Meanwhile, the search for continues in the 54 other cases that still remain a mystery.
"I'd like to just see closure for all of us, an apology from the state, is what I'd like," DeNyke added.
The medical examiner will begin searching for a manner of death tomorrow. Meanwhile, Owen will finally get the burial he deserved, right alongside his parents' graves in Auburndale.
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