For Their Own Good
Carol Smelley keeps her memories of Michael in a worn scrapbook on the end table, by the Holy Bible and the TV Guide. Inside, Michael Clifton Smelley is forever fresh-faced and smiling, wearing blue jeans and a white button-up, holding a basketball in front of a patch of North Florida pines. Ms. Smelley, 82, has surrounded the faded photograph with girlish stickers: My Special Angel. Sweet Baby. Missing You. "She don't talk about him much," says her son Robert. "Because she starts crying when she does." Michael died in March 1966. The cause, according to his death certificate: Carcinoma of spine and lungs. But it's what happened just before he died that has kept Ms. Smelley up nights for 43 years now, and what has moved her again to join a fight against the state of Florida. Her son, she says, was beaten by guards at the state-run Florida School for Boys.
The school is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the St. Petersburg Times. More than 400 men who were juvenile inmates at the school in the 1940s, '50s and '60s have joined a class-action lawsuit against the state, saying they were dragged to a small, putrid building they called the White House, forced down on a cot and beaten bloody by the school staff with a weighted leather strap. The men have told the Times that the beatings were so brutal they had to wash fabric from their underpants out of their lacerations. Some men still bear the scars.
In the 1960s, Purl G. Adams, a Crestview lawyer, took on the Smelley's case pro bono and petitioned lawmakers in Tallahassee to look into the abuse at the school, according to Ms. Smelley.
"They didn't believe him," she says now. "They wouldn't listen."
So the old woman again faces a government she says has blood on its hands. Ms. Smelley is sharing her story publicly for the first time.
• • •
Michael Smelley was slower and sweeter than other boys. He didn't talk right, and he couldn't always keep up, but he brought home every stray mutt he came across on the dirt roads here in the rural Florida panhandle.
"He was born with a dead cell in his brain," says his mother. "He was a good boy. Slow in learning, but good just the same."
Terry and Carol Smelley were working-class. Terry drove tug boats out of New Orleans and cut wood when he could and stocked the shelves of a grocery store for a dozen years. Carol stayed at home to raise the children.
When Michael was 13, he and his older brother Butch got into trouble for skipping school. The judge ordered them to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Ms. Smelley says. They were there a few months when the school sent Michael home in an ambulance. He couldn't walk. Couldn't feel his legs.
She took him to the hospital in Pensacola where doctors found a tumor on his spine. He underwent surgery in 1962 to remove the tumor and soon regained his ability to walk.
But a judge ordered Michael and Butch and two other boys back to the school after another run-in with the law. The boys had broken into the Five and Dime in Crestview and stolen a stack of comic books, M&Ms and a suitcase to lug the loot home.
"Michael was crying and begging me not to let them send him down there," says Ms. Smelley.
The pleas did no good. Michael, Butch and two Crestview brothers — Donnie and Joe Schoffner — were sent to Marianna together. Soon after they arrived, they hatched a plan to escape.
Donnie Schoffner, 63, is the only one of the four still alive.
"Soon as we got there, we made a deal," he says. "We was going to wait until 10 o'clock, then one of us was going to flash the porch lights on the cottage. We did it, and all four of us just ran."
There were no fences around the 1,400-acre campus, so the boys slipped into the swamp without notice. The plan was to catch a freight train west, through DeFuniak Springs to Crestview. They ran for what felt like hours, sloughing through black water and tripping over cypress stumps. Before long they heard dogs bawling in the darkness behind them.
"Mike got tired of running," Schoffner says. "They got him first."
Schoffner was last. He started over a barbed-wire fence when the headlights hit him.
"Don't try to run," he remembers a man saying, "or I'll shoot."
He said the man was calm, and he remembers these words hanging in the cab on the way back to the campus:
"You gonna have it whipped like you ain't never had it before."
By the time they brought him back to the White House, the others were gone. Schoffner got 45 licks. He did not cry. He stood in the showers and let the water wash his underpants out of his wounds.
The next morning at school, something was different about Michael.
"He was staggering around," Schoffner says. "He wasn't right. . . . He got worse and worse. You could tell he was in pain. His whole physical well-being was just gone."
He said Michael soon couldn't walk. He was moved into the infirmary, and the staff began to cater to him. Schoffner was called to the head office. He can't remember who sat across the desk, but the message was clear: If you don't want this to happen to you, keep your mouth shut.
He never saw Michael Smelley again.
• • •
Ms. Smelley kept the medical records and legal notes for years, until a storm tore the roof off her old trailer and ruined boxes of documents.
But Michael's medical records are still on file in the hospital in Gainesville. The Times obtained them with Ms. Smelley's permission. The doctor's notes say Michael was admitted to the Health Center at the University of Florida in July 1965 (he was 16 at the time) "with a 4-5 day history of paraparesis (weakness in lower extremities) culminating in paraplegia."
The notes say Michael had been paraplegic before the first operation in 1962, but had "recovered full function of his legs in about one week."
"The interim history has been unremarkable except for the patient's conflict with the law and subsequent assignment to the penal institution," the report says. "The patient states that 2-3 weeks prior to admission he began to experience generalized weakness in the lower extremities which culminated in a frank weakness four days prior to admission. He was seen several times in the prison infirmary and subsequently referred here for further evaluation." The notes say nothing about Michael having been beaten.
Surgeons performed an emergency decompression and sent him back to Florida State Prison. According to the notes, he was able to walk using a walker, but never fully recovered. By December, he was back in the hospital for another surgery. Doctors removed a portion of the tumor. Notes by nurses in the next few days suggest the 16-year-old was in pain.
"Complaining of muscle pain."
"Had episode of coughing. Raising white frothy mucus."
"Complaining of ribs hurting."
The notes say he was discharged on Dec. 8 on a stretcher, accompanied by a guard. He was returned to the state prison at Raiford, then sent home to his mother. She bathed him and changed him and held his hand as he cried.
• • •
Michael Smelley died March 15, 1966, a week before his 17th birthday, two years before the state banned corporal punishment. His parents buried him in a donated casket, in a grave with no headstone, behind the Baptist church in Crestview. But covering the boy with dirt didn't bring any closure. Every time Mrs. Smelley visited his grave, she wanted to dig down and bring him back home.
"I wanted to go down there and kill them men," says Ms. Smelley now. "I had nightmares about it."
The Smelleys found an attorney to work on the case for free.
"I thought we had a good case," Ms. Smelley says, "but they just didn't believe that they whipped the boys like that."
The attorney, Purl G. Adams Sr., is long dead. One of Adams' former legal secretaries, reached by phone, said she remembers the name Michael Smelley, but no details.
Adams was not the first to take complaints about abuse at the school to Tallahassee.
In 1941, the mother of a boy named James Young gave 5 acres to a Bradenton lawyer to petition the state to release her son from custody. The mother had visited her son at the school in Marianna and the boy told his mother he had been beaten bloody in the White House. She made him pull his pants down.
She was outraged.
Gov. Spessard Holland summoned Young to Tallahassee.
James Young is 82 and blind now, but he remembers the trip. He was 14, and he sat between Arthur G. Dozier, for whom the school is now named, and Mullard Davidson, the school's superintendent.
"They drilled me the whole way up there," Young says. "They said, 'You weren't abused. You were spanked.' "
Young was questioned by the governor's Cabinet. He did what he had to do.
The next day the newspapers carried this news:
Governor Holland and other members of the state cabinet, all former school teachers, approved the disciplinary paddling of boys in the State Industrial School at Marianna. It was their answer, supported by the expressions of confidence in Superintendent Mullard Davidson, to the charge by Mrs. C.S. Thompson of Wauchula that her son, James D. Young, was whipped with a three-inch board. Davidson said Mrs. Thompson's claim of brutal treatment of her son and other boys was "utterly false."
"It really broke my mother's heart," Young says now. "She didn't intend to have this thing happen.
"These kids there wasn't bad kids."
• • •
At the Times' request, Dr. Frank D. Vrionis, director of complex spine surgery at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, reviewed Michael Smelley's medical records.
He said it's clear the cancer on Michael's spine and in his lungs killed him. Whether his death, or paraplegia, was accelerated by a beating is difficult to know.
"The timing was suspicious," he said. "It could have been so severe that it might have aggravated it, but it's almost impossible to prove."
He said violence consistent with the stories of men who were beaten in the White House could break a very fragile spine.
"It would have happened anyway," Vrionis says of Michael's death. "Whether this violence sped things up, it's possible it did. That was quite a bit of force."
One person is certain. Donnie Schoffner was there that night.
"They contributed," Schoffner says. "They beat a slow boy until he couldn't walk. Then he died."
One of the school staffers has been deposed by the attorneys bringing the class-action lawsuit. Troy Tidwell, 85, said that boys were "spanked" and that he never gave a boy more than 10 or 12 licks in his 40 years at the school, and that the 400 men making the claims must be lying. Another, Lennox Williams, told the Times he wouldn't be surprised if there was abuse at the school, but he had no direct knowledge of it.
Carol Smelley knows better.
When she's not in the hospital, Mrs. Smelley lives in a mobile home heated by a wood-burning stove. The walls are covered by Mr. Smelley's magic marker drawings and the roof hasn't been fully repaired from the hurricane.
When she opens the scrap book, it hurts all over again.
"I just never have gotten over his death," she says. "I've been bitter. All these years. . . . I just can't seem to forget about that boy."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.