When forensic anthropologists and Pennsylvania state police gathered at the site of a nearly 90-year-old grave Tuesday to exhume the body of teenager Thomas Curry, they expected to find clues to explain the boy’s death. Instead, they were left with an even bigger mystery.
What they found when they opened a casket near the Pennsylvania grave was not Curry’s body, but layers of wood, presumably put in the casket to provide weight and make it seem as though it held a body.
“Wood. Layers of pieces of wood,” anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, told CNN after her team finished its work. “It was completely filled with wooden planks.”
Thomas Curry was a resident at the now-infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a Florida juvenile detention facility in Marianna, Florida, that has come to be known for its legacy of abuse and murder.
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Philly.com reports the school closed after 2009 when the St. Petersburg Times uncovered the stories of abuse. That series of articles led to investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Hundreds of men who had once lived at the school came forward to tell their stories.
The men recounted beatings, torture, disappearances and “boy hunts,” in which armed guards chased the school’s charges through the woods.
The men reportedly told of a makeshift cemetery behind the school in which some graves were marked with crosses fashioned from iron pipe.
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But when Kimmerle, who is a professor at a Florida university, got involved in the investigation she discovered that there were at least 55 graves in the wooded cemetery. That was nearly double the number the state’s records acknowledged.
In her efforts to identify the bodies buried there, she followed the trail of Curry’s body which was believed to have been shipped back to Pennsylvania to be buried with family members after the teen was killed under suspicious circumstances in 1925.
School records show that Curry escaped from the school 29 days after arriving. The ledger at the school says simply he was "killed on RR Bridge Chattahoochee, Florida.” Records in Pennsylvania indicate that he was killed by a train. Dozier officials never reported his death to the state.
When investigators found a death certificate for Curry that said he died of a crushed skull from an “unknown cause” they decided to exhume his body for examination.
Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Tom McAndrew said the discovery of planks in the casket certainly raised more questions than it answered.
“It was a little bit of a shock. It was certainly anticlimactic,” McAndrew said. “Something was shipped up from Florida, and it was buried, and someone believed it was Thomas Curry.”
When asked if he thought the planks were evidence of a cover-up he said he did.
“Absolutely,” he said, adding he wasn't surprised given the investigation so far has uncovered “decades and decades of efforts to deceive, coverups and not just by one but by many people” at the school.
Kimmerle has DNA samples from some of Curry’s distant relatives. Armed with that, she said she plans to return to Florida to see if she can match those samples to DNA taken from unidentified bodies that have already been removed from unmarked graves in the school’s grisly cemetery.