George Owen Smith, a 14-year-old caught with an older boy in a stolen car, was sent in 1940 to a reform school in the Florida Panhandle, never to be seen again by his family.
His remains became the first to be identified among 55 bodies dug up from unmarked graves last year on the campus of the Dozier School for Boys, the University of South Florida announced on Thursday.
The school, infamous for accounts of brutality told by former inmates, was closed by the state in 2011.
“It feels pretty good, really after 73 years. It’s a feeling of relief,” Ovell Krell, 85, Smith’s younger sister, told Reuters on receiving confirmation of his whereabouts.
Erin Kimmerle, the lead researcher and associate professor of anthropology at USF, said in a statement: “We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was.
“But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.”
USF researchers, brought in to excavate and identify the bodies, plan to conduct further tests on Smith’s remains, Kimmerle said.
In 2010, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation concluded that due to the passage of time, no evidence remained to support allegations of physical and sexual abuse at Dozier.
Searchers excavated the school cemetery to check out local legends and family tales of boys, mostly black, who died or disappeared without explanation from the school early in the last century.
Krell said her brother spent most of his free time at home singing or playing instruments, particularly the guitar. Krell said she thinks her brother joined his older friend in a stolen car to travel to Nashville to pursue a musical career.
“He was that good,” she said.
Smith’s mother, Frances, wrote to the reform school superintendent in December 1940 to ask about her son but was told he was missing, according to USF. One month later, the school informed Smith that her son escaped from the school and was found dead under a house.
When she arrived on campus to claim his body, Smith was shown an unmarked freshly covered grave, USF reported.
USF researchers found Smith’s body wrapped in a burial shroud in what they said appeared to be a hastily dug grave.
Watch this video report posted online by CBS Evening News: