For Their Own Good
Jerry Cooper has always lived an insult away from assault. He has been cuffed in parking lots, chained inside jail cells, ordered to anger management classes. He is surprised he has yet to kill a man.
All that meanness started one night in 1960, he says, when he was a 16-year-old ward of the Florida School for Boys in Marianna. A one-armed man dragged him to a building called the White House and hit him 135 times with a leather strap.
Now that man claims it never happened. Even though more than 325 former inmates say they were beaten at the state-run school, the old guard, Troy Tidwell, says he never gave a boy more than a dozen state-sanctioned licks.
"Spankings," he called it.
One of them is lying. Cooper drove from Cape Coral to Tampa on Thursday to prove it isn't him.
• • •
"The purpose of this exam today is to test you on the truthfulness of your experience at the boys school," says Mike Alaiwat, a forensic psychophysiologist.
Jerry Cooper sits facing a blank wall at the base of a tall office building in Tampa. Alaiwat has attached medical devices to Cooper's torso, his arm, his fingertips. The devices measure breathing fluctuations, heart rate and the heat in Cooper's fingertips.
Cooper paid $400 for this test himself. He picked at random Alaiwat, who has nine years in the field.
Polygraph tests aren't typically admissible in court, but Cooper felt like he had to do something. It's been two months since he and other men were featured in a St. Petersburg Times special report, "For Their Own Good." The civil lawsuit the men filed against Tidwell and several state departments is lumbering along. An FDLE investigation into the Florida School for Boys, now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, hasn't turned up much. Criminal charges against the aging former guards appear unlikely. And Jerry Cooper can't sit still and just take it.
Alaiwat will ask Cooper a series of questions. Some pertain to the beating while others are innocuous. If Cooper lies, Alaiwat will know because Cooper's heart rate will increase, his breathing will fluctuate or his fingers will sweat.
Cooper has given Alaiwat three questions — the industry standard — in advance. He crafted the questions after watching Troy Tidwell deny beating boys in a deposition in late May, a video he could not watch twice. He has not slept much since he decided to do this four days ago. His wife waits in the lobby.
Question 1: "Did Troy Tidwell give you more than 30 lashes that night he thought you had information on a runner?"
Cooper remembers that night. He was 15. He'd been sent to the school after police caught him riding in a stolen car with an AWOL Marine. Things were okay for the first few weeks.
That night, he was sleeping in Roosevelt Cottage when two men woke him up.
What do you know about a runner? one man asked.
I don't know anything about a runner, Cooper replied.
He was dragged in his white nightgown to the White House, forced down on a bloody mattress and told to grab the bed rail. Someone shoved Cooper's nightgown between his legs.
Then he heard a strap cut the air.
"Yes," Cooper replies.
Question 2: "Did Mr. Tidwell and two other staff give you more than 100 lashes that night at the White House?"
That first lick lifted him off the spring mattress, and they kept coming.
Cooper played quarterback on the football team and put up with a mean stepfather. He knew how to deal with pain.
You're nothing but a g- - - - - - - - liar! the man said and he slapped Cooper's face. Cooper scrambled, trying to flee. The men forced him down. One punched him in the mouth. Another mashed his toe.
Another man took the strap. When he tired, another. The boy waiting in another room counted to 135.
"Yes," Cooper says.
Question 3: "Were you told to wrap towels around your body that night to keep blood off your mattress?"
Cooper woke up on the floorboard of a state car. His thighs and buttocks were swollen. His nightgown was splattered red. He had trouble walking.
His cottage father escorted him inside and told him to put Vaseline on his injuries and to wrap two towels around his waist and tie them in place with a sheet.
The next morning, he peeled the towels off and backed toward the mirror. His rear was black and crusted. He swore he'd never let anyone hurt him again.
"Yes," Cooper says.
• • •
When the test is over, Cooper is crying. His hands shake in front of his face.
"I'm sorry," he says. "This isn't me.
"Could you tell my wife to come in?"
Babbs Cooper knew this would be hard. She has lived with his anger for 28 years.
"I walk 10 steps behind him," she says.
She wasn't sure he should come. No one asked him to do this. She knew the lawyers were apprehensive.
And what if he failed?
She saw how mad her husband grew when he watched Tidwell deny beating the boys, even though so many of them told the same story.
How could the old man not show some mercy and tell the truth? she wondered.
She sees her husband in the corner and rushes to him. She holds his head as he sobs.
"I passed," he says. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," she says. "It's okay."
Alaiwat closes his computer.
"There was no deception indicated," he says. "It appears that Mr. Cooper is being truthful regarding his experience with Mr. Tidwell and other staff in the White House at the Florida School for Boys."
Outside, Cooper lights a cigarette. The man who still bears the scars from his beating says he feels great. He says he'd like to challenge Troy Tidwell to take a polygraph test.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.