Part2 presents a new documentary special: “Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier.”
The two-hour movie follows Forensic Anthropologist Erin Kimmerle & reporter Ben Montgomery as they unravel the troubling history — institutionalized abuse, unmarked graves, and possible murders — behind a Florida reform school.
Here, the director/producer Heidi Burke gives us a glimpse into the making of this special.
“Deadly Secrets” is like a mini “Spotlight.” How did you first learn about this project?
HEIDI BURKE: A few of us Part2 folk had read about the cemetery story as it was unfolding – when Dr. Erin Kimmerle reported that there were more graves then expected. This story seemed like a great fit for Part2 and so I reached out to see if Dr. Kimmerle might be interested in working with us. After lots of back and forth about our work and how we would approach this story, Dr. Kimmerle agreed to sign on with us! When our development team started exploring possible networks, LMN immediately responded to this dramatic story. They signed on for a two-hour special and asked that we capture the story as it naturally unfolded, which was exciting.
Why did young boys get sent to the Dozier reform school?
HB: For over 100 years, the state of Florida sent boys that needed to be “reformed” to Dozier. They ranged in age from 5 to 18. Some were sent for major offenses such as theft, larceny or trespassing, but many others were shipped there for simply skipping school, smoking or “incorrigibility.” What blows my mind is that these kids had no right to an attorney and often their parents were not notified until after the kids were at the school. And even though orphans were not supposed to be committed to Dozier, many of them were. Sadly, it was a place for unwanted, poor and wayward boys.
A survivor says going to Dozier is like stepping into “a beautiful hell.” Were there ever concerns that filming this documentary, which involves a survivor revisiting school grounds, could trigger additional trauma?
HB: As a boy, survivor Robert Straley remembers arriving at Dozier and thinking that it looked like a college campus – with flowers and pretty red brick buildings. What he did not realize is that he would be beaten that very night. Thus, he coined the place “a beautiful hell.” I was definitely aware that going back to the school might be very traumatic for Robert and for survivor Woodrow Williams. I spoke at great length to them both about what it would be like and what they would feel comfortable seeing again and talking about. I wanted to make sure they were okay with all that might unfold as a result of their participation. Robert and Woodrow were extremely brave and determined to tell their stories, and they both had such remarkably vivid and moving memories.
What was the most challenging day of filming? Did you encounter any resistance when seeking access?
HB: The most challenging filming took place on the school grounds. We had just two days to capture the stories of two survivors coming back to the school as well as b-roll of the most stunning and haunting run-down school grounds and buildings—structures that spoke volumes and held dark memories of the past. The campus is over 1000 acres so it was a logistical challenge to cover the area and capture the most striking visuals, film several emotional and involved scenes with Dr. Kimmerle and two survivors—Robert and Woodrow—as well as shoot aerials via octocopter. It was a tall order and a seemingly impossible tight schedule. But, fortunately, we had two amazing DP’s for those days and a super strong team so we able to capture everything we hoped.
The Dozier school brought back painful memories from over half a decade ago. As a documentarian, how did you separate the facts from the speculations when interviewing witnesses & family members?
HB: We dug up all the records and testimonies that we could find and talked to as many survivors and family members as we could to cross reference stories and events. We also focused on the personal experiences of the individuals that we profiled so the story could be told by them. Of
course, memories falter over time and details can get lost but since most of these events were extremely traumatic, the families and survivors remembered them like they were yesterday. Cherry could recall moments from more than seventy years ago—such as the last time she saw her brother Earl, as well as the moment her father got the letter in the mail notifying them that Earl was dead. Richard Varnadoe remembers the day, more than eighty years ago, that the sheriff arrived at his house in a Model A Ford and took his two brothers, with little explanation, to Dozier. He was only six years old! Isn’t it is sad that we most often remember the worst moments in our lives? At least they now have new good memories of finally bringing those brothers home to rest.
How are the families today?
HB: The families are doing well after finally finding closure through the work of the University of South Florida (USF). They are all so appreciative of Dr. Kimmerle’s perseverance and the hard work of USF staff. As are the survivors! Robert Straley has called Dr. Kimmerle “Joan of Arc.” Many of the families cannot believe that after decades of silence, they finally have SOME answers and their loved ones back. Each family showed such incredible strength in sharing their stories with us and I was extremely moved by their vivid memories and palpable emotion. The day we filmed Richard and Glen Varnadoe going to see their family’s grave with Thomas’ name newly engraved in it, I actually bawled behind the scenes!
In addition to “Deadly Secrets,” you’re also producing an upcoming episode of “This is Life with Lisa Ling” about heroin addiction – why are these dark & difficult stories so fascinating and important for you to tell?
HB: These are hard stories to watch but they are extremely important to face and share. Racism, injustices and addiction are happening everyday to people all over the country. In order to change people’s perceptions and open their minds on these issues, they need to understand the human side of them and how far-reaching the impact is. The people who open up their lives to us are incredibly brave and want to help others not make these mistakes. I am grateful for their courage in sharing their stories and honored to work on them, and I think, in the end, these stories have the possibility of helping others.
What’s your greatest hope for this documentary?
HB: I see this documentary as just one small part of a long complex and shared story that has been covered in many ways and will hopefully continue to be. I hope though that this film will serve as a clear and powerful reminder of these past injustices and help educate and ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. The families of Dozier and the survivors of the White House Boys deserve to be heard and I hope that one day they all find the justice they seek. Though it might be a very remote possibility, I would also love it if the documentary somehow led to another identification—to another family receiving answers. That would be amazing! A memorial and burial ground is being planned for the unidentified and unclaimed boys. I can’t wait for the day when these are a reality and we all can visit to remember the lost children of Dozier.
Questions by Francis Poon