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On their deathbeds – her father’s in the 1960s and her mother’s in the 1980s – Ovell Krell’s parents made her promise that she would never stop looking for her brother.
“Are you going to find Owen and bring him back?” she remembers her father asking.
“I’ll try until the day I die, Dad,” she replied.
After more than seven decades, the 85-year-old has reunited with Owen. She hopes to soon have him buried in the cemetery in Auburndale, Florida, where her parents are buried.
His mother, after all, told him, “Put him with me and daddy.”
George Owen Smith was sent at age 14 to the Florida Industrial School for Boys in 1940 for auto theft. Krell never saw him again, and his family learned he died of pneumonia after running away from school and hiding under a house in town.
The school, located in Marianna, about 65 miles west of Tallahassee, is now known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. When it closed in 2011 for budgetary reasons, it capped a chilling legacy of 111 years of brutality.
Aware of the school’s history, Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida, led a team in 2012 that unearthed remains on the old campus. That bodies lay there was no secret – 31 rusty white crosses marked the resting places of victims who died from dormitory fires, flu, pneumonia and other causes – but the Kimmerle’s team found 55 bodies on the 1,400-acre property.
Owen’s body, the team discovered last month, was the first to be pulled from the ground. The university announced the discovery on Thursday.
“We hope this is the first of many identifications to come,” Kimmerle said.
After sending DNA samples to the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center, Kimmerle received a call on July 25, telling him that one of the samples was a positive match for Krell, who, like other family members, had provided reference samples to the researchers.
Kimmerle, who was chief forensic anthropologist at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and who has worked excavating mass graves all over the world, including in Nigeria and Peru, was thrilled.
“Two years ago, (Krell) inspired us to get involved and do this work. To find her brother and find him first, we were all in a bit of a shock,” she said.
She traveled to Lakeland with officers from the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department to tell Krell in person — out of respect, but also because she didn’t want Krell to be alone when she heard the news.
“It was a total and complete surprise. This shocked me totally numb for a moment. I couldn’t say a word. I just watched it,” Krell said. “For me it’s a miracle because when I think of all the boys and all the graves – I know they sent 55 remains to be tested, and I’m the only one where they found a match?”
Unfortunately, researchers still don’t know how Owen died. It’s unclear whether the medical examiner will be able to determine a cause of death, Kimmerle said, and Florida District 14 Medical Examiner Michael Hunter did not return a call seeking comment.
Krell said she couldn’t muster enough kind words for Kimmerle and her team — “In cold and hot weather, they kept digging” — but Krell’s persistence shouldn’t be ignored.
relentless search for the truth
Years ago, Krell worried that her brother’s story might go to the grave with her, so she thought to herself, “I have to write this all down while it’s in my head.”
She wrote down what she knew and sent it to the governor, the media, the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, anyone she thought could help find out what happened to Owen.
The St. Petersburg Times produced a 2009 special report, “For Their Own Good,” and the FDLE opened an investigation in 2008 at the request of the government of the day. Charlie Christ.
Although former students provided detailed accounts of vicious beatings, sexual abuse and disappearances (Kimmerle’s team found records indicating that 22 boys who died at school were not counted ), guards and administrators who are still alive have denied the beatings.
The FDLE concluded that there was insufficient evidence of physical or sexual abuse or that anyone had died as a result of a criminal act.
“I had really started to give up hope that they would ever find him,” Krell said.
At 12, Krell thought the stories about his brother were bullshit. Even his arrest seemed suspicious. Theft Auto? Owen was 14 and had never been behind the wheel of a car. Automatic transmissions were not as common in those days. You had to know how to operate a clutch and change gears.
Although from a loving but poor family, Owen ran away more than once. He always wanted to play in the “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville. His passion was the guitar, but “he could walk into any music store and play any instrument” without taking a single lesson, Krell said.
Krell suspects he was en route to Tennessee when he was arrested in Tavares, Florida, with a 19-year-old man.
“Owen had a wanderlust because he had so much to give in his body, and he just wanted to go out there and give it away,” she said. “He had a God-given talent that came out of the pores of his skin. …I never understood why God let him be born with that talent and let him be taken away like that.
“I had what happened to me”
Owen ran away a few weeks after arriving at Florida Industrial School for Boys. He was quickly apprehended and wrote to his family to tell his family.
Krell recalls a chilling phrase in the letter: “I came to me.”
“Those are the most ominous words,” she said. “After this letter, we never heard from him again.”
His mother wrote to the school, asking where he was. He was told he would run away again.
“So far we have been unable to obtain any information on his whereabouts. We will be happy to contact you as soon as we can locate George, and in the meantime we would appreciate it if you let us know immediately if you receive word of or relating to him,” Superintendent Millard Davidson wrote in Jan. 1941.
Her mum wrote to the school and said she would be going to Marianna, five hours away today, ‘and she wouldn’t leave until she found out what happened’ , recalls Krell.
“Four months he disappeared before my mother threatened to start investigating, and the day before he arrived they very mysteriously found his body under a house, totally and completely unrecognizable decomposed.”
School officials told the family they found Owen under a house in Marianna, where he caught pneumonia and died. Nonsense, thought a younger Krell.
“What 14-year-old boy would lay under there, get pneumonia, and not come out?”
And why would Owen stay in Marianna after escaping from school? Wouldn’t he want to get as far away as possible?
Also, his brother was terrified of the dark. Krell wasn’t – “I’ve never been afraid of the devil himself” – and his brother knew it, so when the two returned from the errands or the theater at nightfall, Owen shook hands with his little sister, two years his minor, to calm his own fears.
“They told us he crawled under a dark house to die. … It’s a stupid story to tell,” she said. “It was all just a bunch of lies.”
A blessing to draw?
One of the students at the school would later tell Krell that he was with Owen when he ran away from school a second time. The two were caught, the former student told him, and Owen broke into a run, three men shooting at him as he rushed across an open field.
“If they shot him and killed him that night, I would consider that a blessing because now I know what they did to him if they brought him back to that school alive,” he said. she declared.
Although the state investigation found there was insufficient evidence of abuse, dozens of men, many of whom are now elderly, came forward with their stories. A support group for former students, dubbed The White House Boys, takes its nickname from the structure where the boys say they were taken to be beaten with a leather strap attached to a wooden handle.
The White House Boys say they were whipped until their underwear was pushed into their buttocks. Some were beaten unconscious. Crying or screaming would earn you extra lashes, they say.
“The more I learned, the more I knew that his death did not occur under this house. It just didn’t happen,” Krell said.
The mystery surrounding Owen’s death – and the fact that his family never received his body; school officials said he was buried on campus – stripping the family of any closure.
Krell’s mother sometimes stayed up until midnight, listening to Owen whistle as he walked down the road. Decades after his death, when Krell and his mother saw a country music singer named George Owens on TV, they thought, “Is it possible?
They investigated. This was not the case.
“Was he really dead or was he wandering outside, afraid to come home? Krell couldn’t help but think, “Someday there will be a knock on the door. He never came.
“Everyone should be ashamed”
Owens’ death may have guided Krell towards a career in law enforcement. She spent 23 years as a police officer in Lakeland, and she often spent her free time in the detective office and the forensic department studying things like decay times in different weather conditions.
She had the chance to go to forensic medicine. She was even invited to the FBI school, a six-week program. She never sued him because she had to care for her quadriplegic husband and three children, but her time in law enforcement reinforced one thing: Owen didn’t die under a house.
She parses no words as she discusses the “piss-poor” state investigation that never brought an investigator to her doorstep and flew in the face of a paper trail of a century of barbaric discipline ( a 1903 report said the boys were locked in the legs, while a 1911 report said the boys were “brutally punished” with a leather strap, according to the St. Petersburg Times Special Report).
“The town of Marianna, they should be ashamed. Everyone should be ashamed, the whole state of Florida,” Krell said.
While she’s thrilled to give Owen a proper burial after 74 years, it’s bittersweet. The week after Owen was identified, she lost her brother, Carlton, 70, after a long battle with illness.
Krell will look on the bright side, she said.
“Maybe it’s better. Now we can rest them both and we can relax,” she said.
Despite the loss of Carlton, she is still motivated by making her parents’ dying wish come true, and she believes in her heart that they will smile at her when Owen is placed in the ground between them.
“I wanted so badly to do what I promised my parents,” she said. “I can’t help but believe it in my soul: I believe my mother and my father are going to find out. … They have always been proud.
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