OKEECHOBEE — “When legislators shake your hand, hug you and are crying it reinforces all the things I’ve said over the years. It validated me as a Ranger, as a soldier and that I told the truth.”
Retired U.S. Army Captain Bryant Middleton made that statement moments after the Florida House of Representatives’ judicial committee voted unanimously Thursday, April 6, to apologize to all the men who were sent to the Dozier School for Boys in both Marianna and Okeechobee.
And, that same committee voted unanimously to preserve the building on the Marianna campus known as the White House, where boys were savagely beaten, and to section that area off as a state park.
But, more importantly, that committee also voted unanimously to form a team to hunt down former employees of those schools who were involved in the beatings and sexual molestations of the young boys.
The legislators also agreed to erect monuments in both Marianna and Tallahassee.
“Not only did we get an apology, they’re going to hunt down the people who worked there,” said Capt. Middleton. “They gave us everything we asked for and all of them voted ‘yes’ without a single dissension.”
Tuesday, April 4, a Florida Senate committee also unanimously approved a resolution to issue an apology to all of the men who were sent to the reform schools in Marianna and Okeechobee.
Capt. Middleton, a Vietnam veteran, went on to say Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran made him a promise: “This isn’t over yet. We’re going to get Troy Tidwell – no matter what!”
The captain then added: “They’re going to get Tidwell, leave the White House in place, and form a team to go after those people? I don’t know, but I think we won!”
Tidwell is the one-armed man in Marianna who doled out some of the most brutal beatings at the Marianna school. He is still alive and is living somewhere in Marianna.
The White House was a white concrete building on the Marianna campus where boys were taken. They were made to lie face down on a cot, bite into a soiled pillow and were then beaten with a leather strap until their skin was ripped open. Some men who have come forward with their horrid tales said sometimes the men would bet on who could draw the blood from the young boys first.
Some of those same men have said none of the men could hit harder than Tidwell.
Capt. Middleton was also brutalized. He said he was not only beaten for such things as eating blackberries off a fence and talking about running away, but he was also sexually molested by a staff psychologist at the school.
Besides the reported beatings and sexual molestations committed at the two schools, children’s bodies have been found buried under trees, brush and an old road at Marianna.
University of South Florida (USF) anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her team have found up to 55 graves outside the marked cemetery on the Marianna campus. Last year, Dr. Kimmerle presented a report to the Florida Cabinet showing most of the deaths were caused by illness. However, other deaths were caused by shootings, drownings and beatings.
The school in Marianna was officially closed in 2011. The school in Okeechobee is still in operation, but not as a state-operated facility. The local school is operated by a private company, G4S.
Looking back, Capt. Middleton, who was sent to the school as a young boy because he was deemed incorrigible, said it’s been a long and uphill battle to bring the truth to light.
“Ten years. Ten years of my life and we finally got the state of Florida to relent,” he said.
He went on to recall he and three other White House Boys traveled to Tallahassee where they met with then-Attorney General Bill McCollum and demanded an investigation into the Dozier School for Boys. Next, they went to then-Governor Charlie Crist who agreed and signed a proclamation that very day.
“Now, these two committees are agreeing to this and saying ‘yes, it did happen,’” said an exuberant Capt. Middleton on Thursday afternoon. “We walked out of there this morning floating on air. We were 10 feet off the ground!”
After the ground-breaking resolutions, Capt. Middleton noted it might be time for a little rest and relaxation.
“I could stand a lengthy vacation,” he said. “I might go back to Vietnam. I’ve wanted to take her (his wife) there for years so she could see where I was stationed and where the fire bases were.”
And, he continued, he wanted her to sample some of the Vietnamese cuisine.
When asked if he’d like to take part in looking for former employees of the schools he took several seconds to think before answering.
“You know, I really hadn’t thought about it,” he replied. “But, yeah, I’d love to kick in few doors. I’ll be the first man through the door — no sweat. Rangers lead the way!”
Yes, they do. Capt. Middleton has already proven that.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News