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‘I won’t get over it’: Dozier survivor recounts sexual abuse, torture at infamous ‘concentration camp’ boys’ school

Now 68 and living in a tiny apartment in Florida, a survivor of the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys is recounting the horror and abuse all over again after 27 possible human graves were found on the school’s former property earlier this month.

“I consider myself lucky I didn’t get killed like a bunch of these kids did,” Terry Burns, who has lived with PTSD and nightmares for decades, told the Herald-Tribune.

Burns was a 13-year-old child when he was sent to the school. The campus sat in Marianna, Florida, on 159 acres, where hundreds of boys endured years of abuse and torture. Burns remembers the abuse as if it were yesterday, although it’s been 57 years since he first set foot on the “concentration camp,” as he calls it.

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Burns told the outlet that he routinely wakes up drenched in sweat and shaking after years of physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of staff members. He’s been through two marriages, dealt with extreme anger issues, and turned to alcohol over the years to deal with the pain.

“My second wife told me I didn’t know how to love,” Burns said. “How can you love if you’re mistreated as a kid like that?”

“We didn’t go there to get abused or to get killed. We thought we were being sent there to do better.”

Burns recalled spending a month in solitary confinement, where he slept nude on a concrete floor and ate three pieces of bread each day. He had a metal bucket for a toilet and was routinely beat. Despite the torture, he said he felt blessed to still be alive. Other boys weren’t as lucky.

Remains from a grave at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys await removal by a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida on September 2, 2013. Due to wet conditions, the remains were left encased in clay and the entire block of clay and dirt was ultimately removed. Anthropologists from the University of South Florida removed the first remains from the cemetery at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla on Sept. 2, 2013.

“You knew the other boys,” Burns explained. “You’d see them go to bed and when you woke up maybe one of them was gone. If you asked about him they’d tell you he had to go home. Now everyone knew you didn’t just go home. That took an act of Congress.”

Burns told ABC Action News that there are likely hundreds of other boys’ remains on the property, still unaccounted for.

“We’ve always said there’s more dead boys on there. If they would scan that whole ground of that school, I guarantee they will find another 200 to 300 dead boys buried on them grounds.”

New Human Graves Possibly Found

As CrimeOnline previously reported, as workers tore trees down and prepared to clean up pollution a fuel storage site in Florida earlier this year, they made a grisly discovery in what may be human graves, located on the very spot one where the infamous reform school for boys once sat.

The workers, who were making plans to evaluate underground tanks close to the former Dozier School for Boys, made the discovery of 27 possible graves while performing ground-penetrating radar tests in the area. According to a report written by the workers, “anomalies consistent with possible graves” were found.

“Unmarked graves, by conscious design, are made to be hiding places,” children’s advocate, Jack Levine, said. “What stays hidden almost forgives the crime.”

If the unmarked graves turn out to contain human remains, the confirmed death toll at the reform school will increase to 82, although experts and former students think there are many more hidden graves.

A Jan. 25, 1941 letter from the St. Luke’s Episcoapl Church Rector Ven. V.G. Lowery, in Marianna, Fla., sent to George Owen Smith’s mother is shown Aug. 7, 2014 at the University of South Florida in Tampa. George Owen Smith, is the first victim positively identified from one of the 55 unmarked graves the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., University researchers will exhume Smith’s remains and return them to his family. Smith was 14 when he was sent to the school in 1940, and was never seen alive by his family again. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

“This randomness might be expected in a clandestine or informal cemetery, where graves were excavated haphazardly and left unmarked,” the workers’ report read, according to Tampa Bay Times.

The finding comes after after forensic anthropologists discovered numerous burials on the school property years ago, burials that the state was previously not aware of.

In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement indicated that 31 people were buried in one of the school’s cemeteries. Then, University of South Florida forensic anthropologists then found another 24 graves.

After determining the burial sites contained the remains of 55 people, officials announced most of the deceased were young boys who died while in state custody. The boys’ remains have since been shipped to their families, while others were sent to an assigned cemetery in Tallahassee.

Dozier students [Photo: State Archives of Florida]

Abuse and Torture

The doors of the school opened in 1900, and although it claimed to help boys grow into better men, it has a long history of torture and abuse.

In 1903, a state report read that the children sent to the school were treated as “common criminals” and locked in “in irons.” The kids were known as the “White House boys,” named after a small white house on campus where a lot of the beatings happened.

“You didn’t know when it was coming,” Jerry Cooper, who was sent to the school at age 16, told NPR. “These were not spankings. These were beatings, brutal beatings.”

Although Cooper was sent to the school after hitchhiking and stealing a car, many of the young boys were there simply because they had no other place to live. They were orphans. They didn’t commit crimes. Other boys, according to Cooper, landed at Dozier after smoking cigarettes at their previous schools, or for being “incorrigible.”

Regardless of how or why the boys ended up at the school, hardly any of them were spared abuse.

Cooper said school staff once woke him up at 2 a.m. and took him to “the White House,” where he was tied down and beaten with a leather strap.

Volunteer Brett Harding, University of South Florida associate professor Chistian Wells, and assistant professor Erin Kimmerle look at a body bag containing remains removed from an unmarked grave at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys on September 2, 2013. South Florida research Anthropologists from the University of South Florida removed the first remains from the cemetery at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla on Sept. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Edmund D. Fountain, Pool)

“The first blow lifted me a foot and a half off that bed. And every time that strap would come down, you could hear the shuffle on the concrete because their shoes would slide. And you could hear the shoosh, shoosh, bam,” Cooper said.

Another former student, Roger Kiser, said he witnessed a young boy, dead, being pulled out of a large dryer.

“I know of one that I personally saw die in the bathtub that had been beaten half to death. I thought he’d been mauled by the dogs because I thought he had ran. I never did find out the true story on that. There was the boy I saw who was dead who came out of the dryer. They put him in one of those large dryers.”

Meanwhile, according to ABC Action News, another former student insists that there are still more bodies out there, likely buried in unmarked graves.“We’ve been trying to tell the state of Florida that there’s more bodies out there for a long time,” Bryant Middleton said. “I’m in possession of a list of 130 some odd boys who died at the school or disappeared and whose last known resting place we can’t find.”

Former student Bill Hays, who attended the school from 1958 to 1959, said he was so scared at the school that he begged Jesus for death.

“I was so scared, I begged Jesus to take me out of this world.  I think everybody finds Jesus in that place.”

The story continues to develop. Check back with CrimeOnline as additional details become available.

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[Feature Photo: AP/The Tampa Bay Times, Edmund D. Fountain, Pool]