Rich Phillips and Ed Lavandera at the Sealing of the White House Oct 23, 2008
Whatever is below those crosses is crying out'
By Rich Phillips
CNN Senior Producer
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.
Don Stratton says he and others were abused at the Florida School for Boys during the 1960s.
1 of 3 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 one of a group of men, now in their 60s, who are suing several state agencies in Florida, as well as two
former reform school workers, over the alleged abuse they endured as a teen. The suit was filed earlier 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
"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
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."