"Torture, Plain and Simple"

Okeechobee school under construction

A building at the Florida School for Boys under construction in August 1958;
photo courtesy of Florida State Archives

"Torture, Plain and Simple"
| published July 15, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

It's a horrible thing when a narrative could eclipse murder, rape, forced labor, physical abuse, beatings and torture, but Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee may eventually do just that, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

These were fairly common occurrences during the 111-year history of the Florida School for Boys in Marianna (also called the Arthur Dozier School for Boys), according to horror stories which were finally taken seriously the last couple years.

One of the largest reform schools in the nation at its peak, the facility at Marianna was beyond overcrowded by the mid-1950s, with troubled children, orphans and wards of the state sleeping head to foot, two to a twin bed. To ease overcrowding, the state spent $4 million building a new state-run facility on 1,800 acres just north of Lake Okeechobee. Opened in late 1958, the new school was patterned after the facility in Marianna, even to the extent of transferring the guards accused of administering beatings in the Panhandle.

Joseph Johnson looked like he might be one of Florida's lucky youths when sheriff's deputies saw blood on the back of his shirt. In 1959, the 12 year old was walking down a Sarasota street following another brutal beating from his stepmother.

"There is no way this is going to happen to you again," one of the deputies said. They had no idea what terrifying ruination they were visiting upon the child, with him being accused of running away soon after arriving at Okeechobee. Guards handcuffed him to a cot, and soon blood soaked through his jeans as they beat him with a leather strap.

"It was torture, plain and simple," said Johnson, 68, who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. "They beat us kids. Some of us they beat to death." Johnson and other victims have recently stepped forward with harrowing stories, prompting the Okeechobee County Sheriff's office to launch an investigation into the seamier side of the Sunshine State's reform school policies. The sordid accusations include bodies being buried on school grounds—a reprise of some of the same stories told about the facility in Marianna, where in 2013 scores of remains were exhumed from unmarked and sometimes hidden gravesites. Some of the bones recovered from wooded areas near the Marianna reform school may be eventually linked to teenage boys who went missing in the middle part of the 20th century.

"Any time there's an accusation like this, we have to check it out," said Capt. John Rhoden, who is leading the investigation. "If there's a body out there somewhere, I'd sure like to find it."

Upon the facility's opening, Okeechobee rolled out the red carpet for its newest business, seeing the opportunity to stimulate the local economy with new jobs and help others at the same time.

"Sunday, December 1, 1957, will be a day long-remembered in Okeechobee, for on this day comes a turning point in the welfare and the way of life in this area," the Okeechobee News trumpeted in a front-page story concerning the groundbreaking, which was attended by 1,500 residents and Florida Governor LeRoy Collins. The paper said the new school "will grow to be the finest school of its kind in the world."

Within two years, the state was pouring youths onto buses in Marianna and shipping them to Okeechobee, which was designed to house more than 500 boys. The paper's sunny headlines would be a thing of the past. "Outburst of Runaways Irks Officials at School for Boys," read one.

The general public had no idea the practice of extreme beatings with leather straps had followed the boys from the Panhandle to Okeechobee.

"If you saw it from the outside, you'd think they were being really nice," said Louis Alexander, 64, who was committed to the school in 1963, at the age of 14. "But there was no niceness in these people. No compassion."

"We were tortured, mentally, physically and emotionally, by a small group of men," said Gary Rice, 63, who was sent to Okeechobee in 1966 for running away from a children's home. He remembers hearing the guard's keys jangle as he was beaten in the "Adjustment Unit" building. "If they didn't hit your a** at 150 miles per hour, they didn't hit you. These were wickedly cruel men."

Rice was placed in solitary confinement for weeks following a beating, with a New Testament as his only companion. His mother was not allowed to visit him when she arrived on campus, and then there was the most traumatizing night in lockdown.

"I'd been in there quite a while when they brought this black kid in," Rice said. "When they brought him into the light, I thought, 'My God, he's so tiny.' He looked like he was 9 or 10 years old. He was just a baby.

"They took this kid into a room by himself and they beat this kid and they beat this kid and they beat this kid. I was in tears. I counted 90 licks before the kid passed out. But they kept going. About 105, he woke up and started screaming again. I lost count around 140. I never saw him again on campus. I think they killed him. How could a kid that little take that kind of a beating?"  Race may have played a factor in many of the worst incidents.  Until the 1970s almost all of the guards and staff were white, and many of the children and teens sent to the school were black; not necessarily indicative of anything unusual, except that in those days Florida did not have a stellar record on civil rights, especially within the juvenile justice system.

The Tampa Bay Times interviewed a dozen former wards of Okeechobee, and their stories were eerily similar. The tales sounded worse each time another man told his story from long ago, almost like prisoners of war except this was their own government enforcers.

"From where my cottage was, we could watch the man with the strap, could see his silhouette," said Mike Sapp of Fort Pierce. "Sometimes you could hear the kids screaming. It was terrifying, man."

"A friend of mine said he could hear it from the hallway of the school. He lost count after 80," said Johnny Marx, a pastor in Sarasota who was sent to Okeechobee in 1959. He eventually was able to slip his jeans on without ripping off scabs.

Roger Puntervold, 59, who now lives in Roanoke, Alabama, received 60 licks for trying to run away through thick swamp and wait-a-minute vines, and spent two months in solitary confinement, naked, as the sores on his backside became infected. Years later, when he was an adult, he drove to Okeechobee with a .38 snub-nosed revolver and sat outside the front gate.

"I knew where they all lived," he said. "I can't tell you why I didn't go in the school, why I didn't go in and kill somebody. I remember being really mad, sitting there, thinking about those beatings."

The men are part of group called the White House Boys, more than 500 former wards of the schools at Marianna and Okeechobee who pressured state officials to acknowledge abuse they endured and apologize.

But an official apology may not emerge. An anthropology team from the University of South Florida discovered more than 55 bodies at one cemetery on the Marianna school grounds. That was double the number of bodies the state claimed were there. Also, they only dug in the Black cemetery. That's right, everything in the South was segregated back then—even burial sites—and it is unclear whether those researchers will be allowed to finish their digging and their exhumations and examinations.

I've told a bunch of people this story was going to take off, but I'm beginning to think that may not happen. In a state highly dependent on tourism dollars, there's not much likelihood of a thorough investigation, let alone accountability or punishment. The probe was strongly limited in scope, with unrealistic funding and time constraints designed to make this story go away quickly. (When Thursday Review editor Alan Clanton made an effort to visit the Marianna facility earlier this year, he found that there were no access points, no security guards or anyone else at the main gate, and no visible means of entering the former detention center—even though, in theory, the state was offering “transparency” and the facility was no longer being used to house inmates).  Funding issues may require that the digging project in Marianna end sometime in August of this year.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the Marianna accusations, but was unable to discover any prosecutable offenses. This is very disconcerting, considering the fact that there were voluminous amounts of information available, including state records and an incredibly-detailed book written by a survivor.  (See also our article Boot Hill's Buried Crimes; Thursday Review; February 3, 2014).

Rhoden, the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office point man on the probe, met in May with the men who had complaints. He scoured the Okeechobee News archives searching for stories concerning the school, along with interviewing elderly residents who worked there.

The detective, who has a Barney Fife poster on his office wall, believes the stories about beatings. "In my mind, that happened." He also noted that most, if not all, of the accused are dead, and the statute of limitations expired on all crimes besides murder and rape of a child under 12. "We're looking only at prosecutable offenses," he said. "I'm looking for bodies."

Half a century has ticked off the clock, with slim details, foggy memories and a campus that has changed considerably from when it was built. Several former wards recall seeing an unmarked cemetery behind the dairy barn, and they're positive several boys died at the school.

"One of the hardest things is you've got a lot of word of mouth," Rhoden said, suggesting folk lore is not enough. "It's hard to get somebody who says they actually saw it."

Johnson remembered hiding behind a bush and watching men carry a boy outside after a beating, loading him into a car and driving him behind a barn. The boy was not with them when they returned. The following day, Johnson and his buddy walked behind the barn and observed freshly-dug earth. Who was the boy, and how do you find the hole 50 years later? This is the primary problem Rhoden has run up against as he attempts to solve the case.

The wardens told the newspaper that four youths were killed trying to escape between 1959 and 1968. A boy named Cherry Black was found dead inside an above-ground septic tank weeks after he went missing. The students were told he ran away and drowned while hiding from guards. Two youths died in a car wreck while fleeing the school, and another was shot by a woman who lived near the facility when she caught him in her house.

"I believe they killed him," said Nate Dowling, 71, of Bradenton, who was there when the death occurred. "I'm quite sure they did."

Rhoden says he must have more than speculation and stories to build a case, which is extremely difficult considering that a half century has passed and he must concentrate only on the Okeechobee facility. He is presently awaiting more specific information before searching for burials on campus, which remains open and is being run by private contractor G4S.

Although Rhoden's investigation is incomplete and will almost certainly not result in prosecutions, the men involved are relieved and grateful that at least someone believes their story. Many blame the experience for years of mental anguish, drug addiction and ruined relationships.

Johnson suffered from anxiety and nightmares for many years, dreaming of a peg-legged man named Frank Zych coming for him at night, forcing him to dig a grave and then locking him in a septic tank. The visage constantly haunts him on the edge of his mind, all the ruined lives and a failed juvenile justice system. But after 50 years, he's finally able to start fighting back.

"It's like I can finally say, 'You ain't getting away with this,' " he said. "Now the truth is going to come out.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Boot Hill's Buried Crimes; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; February 3, 2014.