TAMPA, Fla. — In December 1940, Owen Smith’s mother wrote the superintendent of the then-Florida Industrial School for Boys about the welfare of her 14-year-old son, who had been sent there months earlier for being with a friend in a stolen car.
Frances Smith received a letter from superintendent Millard Davidson, saying no one knew where Owen was. A month later, the family was summoned to the Florida Panhandle school and led to an unmarked grave. Owen was in it, they were told — he had escaped and was found dead under a house. Frances Smith never accepted the story. She waited for him to come home.
On Thursday, University of South Florida researchers said they had identified George Owen Smith as the first of 55 bodies they exhumed from the grounds of the renamed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, an institution with a troubled history where the facilities were often decrepit and guards were accused of brutality. The researchers were unable to determine how Owen died, and they will probably never know.
Owen was hastily buried in a 2-foot grave, lying on his side with his hands over his head, they said. He was unclothed other than a shroud. His family says he will soon be reburied next to his mother and father in the central Florida city of Auburndale.
‘‘This is what we worked for,’’ said his sister, Ovell Krell, now 86. ‘‘It was not an easy road.’’
Official records showed 31 burials at the Marianna school between its opening in 1900 and its 2011 closure for budget reasons, but researchers found the remains of 24 additional people between last September and December.
Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have for at least a decade accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it couldn’t substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed.