When forensic analysts and Pennsylvania state police gathered at the site of a nearly 90-year-old grave to dig out the body of teenager Thomas Curry, the anthropologists believed they would find clues as to why the boy died.
Instead, they were left with more questions.
The scientists didn’t find the boy’s body, but instead discovered layers of wood. The wood seemed to provide weight as if to hold the body or prevent it from moving.
“Wood. Layers of pieces of wood,” anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, told CNN after her team finished its work. “It was completely filled with wooden planks.”
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Curry was a pupil at the now-notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a Florida juvenile detention facility in Marianna, Florida, that is now known for its legacy of abuse and murder.
The school closed after 2009 when the St. Petersburg Times uncovered the stories of abuse, reports Philly.com.
The report led the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the allegations.
Hundreds of men who were once residents at the school came forward to tell their stories. The men told of beatings, torture, disappearances and “boy hunts,” in which armed guards chased the school’s charges through the woods.
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The men told of a makeshift cemetery behind the school in which some graves were marked with crosses made from iron pipe.
But when Kimmerle, who is a professor at a Florida university, got involved in the investigation, she found at least 55 graves in the wooded cemetery -- nearly double the number the state’s records acknowledged.
In her efforts to identify the remains buried there, she followed the trail of Curry’s body which was believed to have been sent back to Pennsylvania to be buried with family members after the teen died 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 detectives 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 study.
Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Tom McAndrew said the discovery of planks in the casket 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 agreed that it was.
“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. With that, she plans on returning 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 cemetery.