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Deputies, grad students helping at Dozier dig

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MARIANNA, FL (WFLA) -

University of South Florida graduate students and Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputies are all helping uncover the past at an old state boys school in the panhandle.

Erin Kimmerle, Associate Professor of Anthropology at USF, has a team of about 20 people helping her sift through the soil at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

One of them is Tom Pettis, a detective in the Hillsborough Co. Sheriff's Office violent crimes unit.

"It is part of history here and it's a quest for the truth as well," Pettis said.

He's helped dig into the ground around unmarked graves in which researchers believe as many as 50 different sets of remains could be. The school, under several different names, opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. State and school records show nearly 100 children died here. Many of those lives were lost in a 1914 dormitory fire and then a flu outbreak four years later.

But records can't account for 22 other children who died at the school and no one is sure where any of them might be buried.

"Often times justice comes in many forms," Pettis said. "I think in a case like this – justice won't come through the criminal justice system, but it'll come through the endeavor of the people we're working here with."

Pettis and other deputies are helping researchers collect DNA from family members to try and match those with the remains that could come out of the ground this weekend.

So far the teams have been working around 3 grave shafts and have unearthed one set of bones. According to Christian Wells, who is also helping guide the exhumation, the bones were likely wrapped in a shroud and could be from the 1920s or 30s. Kimmerle said her teams also found nails, handles and even wood from a coffin, which surprised her.

"I think that speaks well to the preservation we can expect going forward," she said.

Throughout the weekend volunteers like Pettis and Meredith Tise, a USF graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in anthropology, got to meet at least one of the families hoping to get closure. The Tananarive Due family came on site Saturday to say a prayer. Due's great uncle, Robert Stephens, died in 1937. His official cause of death was stabbing by another inmate but the family always wondered what the exact details were. They hope researchers are able to find him among these unmarked graves so they can eventually lay him to rest in a family cemetery.

"It made the project seem that much more important," Tise said.

Soggy soil from recent rains has made the work slow and somewhat difficult. Even getting to the first set of bones was a challenge.

"[The remains are] very deep so it was a lot of work to get down to that point," Tise said. "But once we get there, we can take a deep breath and really go slow to focus on where we're at to make sure we document it really well with photography and mapping."

Beyond the science, she understands there's a personal story behind what's out here.

"Knowing these remains were an individual and being able to bring them out and return them to their families – that's really special," she said.

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