By Bill Cotterell
MARIANNA, Florida (Reuters) - Florida officials said on Wednesday they will seek federal money for a forensic investigation into unmarked graves on the grounds of a shuttered state reform school for boys that has been the target of numerous allegations of abuse and mysterious deaths of children.
Dozens of unmarked graves have been uncovered at the Dozier School in the Florida Panhandle city of Marianna and investigators are trying to determine the circumstances surrounding the deaths, which experts say probably occurred between 1914 and 1952.
"We really don't know exactly how many, or who they are," said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida with a scroll-like map of spots where her ground-piercing radar spotted signs of human remains.
The Dozier School was legend among adolescents for about 100 years in Florida, as the state's major reform school, until it was closed in 2011.
Several years ago, former students told horror stories of sexual abuse and frequent beatings in a mausoleum-like building dubbed the "White House" where nine barren cubicles held boys accused of rules infractions.
Some died under unknown circumstances, according to relatives.
In December, researchers from the University of South Florida in Tampa said they found evidence of at least 50 graves on the school's property and more grave shafts in and around an area called "Boot Hill" across a major highway from the high, razor-wire-topped fences of the closed school.
Kimmerle's work also indicates there could be at least 50 bodies buried on the property.
"All the focus on exact numbers is not really the issue," she said. "Whether it's one or 20 or 40 or 60, we are talking about a child and families that are asking for information."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and other state officials are seeking a court order to allow the remains to be exhumed.
The U.S. Department of Justice has a program that could provide up to $3 million for forensic sifting of the burial areas, said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, who toured the site on Wednesday.
A $200,000 appropriation is pending in the state legislature.
Nelson said he wants to find out as much as possible and let relatives know the truth. He noted that "the statute of limitation on murder never runs out," but said there is little chance of prosecuting anyone.
State Attorney Glenn Hess said only one or two employees from the era are known to be alive, and it's unlikely a trial could prove how a boy died or who was responsible.
"The question is, can we establish probable cause that a crime has been committed, and who did it?" he said. "That's the hard part."
Families could ask their legislators to file "claims" bills for civil compensation, if identity could be established from remains and if negligence might be established on the part of the state.
(Editing by Brendan O'Brien, Kevin Gray and Lisa Shumaker)