Lawsuit alleges sexual and physical abuse at Florida reform school
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Don Stratton says he's just a good ol' boy. He's simple and plainspoken. But he has a painful past he can't leave behind. When he talks about it, the old emotions surface.
Stratton attended a Florida reform school as a teenager in the early 1960s. Nearly half a century later, he's telling a chilling tale of alleged beatings, sexual abuse and violent death at the hands of reform school workers.
He said he believes the bodies of slain boys are buried in unnamed graves on the grounds of the former reform school in Marianna, Florida.
"These men are animals and need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Stratton told CNN in an interview at his attorney's office in Tampa.
Stratton wore a black cowboy hat with a Harley Davidson logo. Despite his tough exterior, he fought back tears as he recounted how he was physically and sexually assaulted.
Stratton is among a group of men, now in their 60s, who are suing state agencies in Florida as well as two former reform school workers over alleged abuse they received as teenagers. The suit was filed this month.
"At 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, you'd hear a boy crying," Stratton told CNN. "And then the door would open and you'd see these guys come in and come up to somebody they liked, and they'd just tell you, 'Come on with me, you're mine for tonight. You're my boy for tonight.' And they would take you and do what they wanted to do with you."
"They would take a leather strap, six inches wide and three feet long," he added, swinging his arm in a downward motion. "It's like a shotgun going off. And they beat you until you're bloody."
Stratton's attorneys said they've interviewed 80 former students who say they were abused. Stratton and the other alleged abuse victims who spoke with CNN all said the beatings took place in a small white cement building they called "the white house."
Gov. Charlie Crist has ordered an investigation into the alleged abuse. He has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to uncover records, interview students and find former administrators. The agency also was asked to determine who, if anyone, is buried beneath the 31 rusting white crosses on the school grounds.
"Whatever is below those crosses is crying out -- and it's screaming for us to bring justice," Stratton said.
The truth of what happened at the Florida School for Boys may ultimately be lost to time. But investigators said they're making progress.
"There are challenges due to the length of time that has passed," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Heather Smith. "We are confident that we can conduct a thorough and methodical investigation and establish, as much as we can, what happened here and what lies beneath in those grave sites."
Smith said it was much too early in the investigation to say whether there would be an exhumation.
Investigators said that, so far, the search for records from 50 years ago has been productive. They also have met with many of the men who have come forward.
When they meet with Stratton, they will hear his claim that he witnessed the violent death of one boy who exposed himself to reform school workers on a dare. The boy was taken to "the white house."
Stratton said that later, while he was working in the kitchen, he saw a brown 1949 Ford pull up. "They opened the back door and they carried him out and threw him in the back of the car," said Stratton, fighting tears.
"They took him out there and buried him in the woods," he said. "I know they buried him somewhere, 'cause he never showed up again."
Investigators will also hear Stratton's claim that he and many of the other boys were sexually assaulted. His story is so graphic that it cannot be repeated. He tearfully apologized to CNN.
"I don't pull no punches, but it's hard doing this on camera. See what I'm saying? This is tough, fellas," he said. "We're all men here, know what I mean? I'm not ashamed of it, but I was 13 years old and I had no choice ... and it haunts me today."
CNN has tried to find many of the men who are alleged to have committed the beatings and sexual assaults. Some have died.
The lawsuit names former worker Troy Tidwell, a one-armed man who still lives near the reform school grounds in Marianna. It alleges he participated in physical assaults and failed to report the abuse.
Tidwell refused to meet with CNN in December to respond to the allegations, but he recently told the Miami Herald that the boys were "spanked" but not injured.
''Kids that were chronic cases, getting in trouble all the time, running away and what have you, they used that as a last resort,'' Tidwell told the Herald. "We would take them to a little building near the dining room and spank the boys there when we felt it was necessary."
Tidwell, in his 80s, has hired a law firm to represent him in the lawsuit. In court filings, his lawyers are trying to get the suit thrown out. His attorney did not return CNN's calls for comment.
"You've got to realize what these guys did," Stratton said. "They mentally abused us, and they beat us. Is that something you should say: 'I'm sorry fellas. You're an old man now, live out the rest of your life in a rocking chair.' Well, no way."
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