Robert W. Straley, who turned the horror of childhood rape and torture into an unfinished quest for truth and reconciliation — as well as the reform of Florida's long-troubled juvenile justice system — has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 71.
Straley's life took a detour at age 13 when a Pinellas County judge ordered him incarcerated at what was then called the Florida State Reform School in Marianna. The beating he said he endured there, and what he described as a vicious sexual assault by guards, changed him forever. He called the association he co-founded the White House Boys in a nod to the squat, whitewashed, cinder-block building where boys were savagely beaten.
But the name also conjured another truth: Many of the youths incarcerated at what came to be called the Arthur Dozier School, or just "Dozier," were frozen in time there, compelled to live their lives perpetually in adolescence.
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"You can never go back to Marianna as a man in your mind," Straley told the Miami Herald last year. "You can only go back as the helpless child you were. You may think you are talking in a man's voice. But you are really talking in a little boy's voice."
For years after his imprisonment there, Straley said, "I would wake up in fright... After the humiliation, you felt cowardice. You didn't fight back. But how could you fight against them when they were grown men and you were 13 years old and 105 pounds? It just turns into anger, and, finally, rage."
Straley's demons caught up with him in 2008. He had been shopping for a battery charger at a Super Kmart when his head began to spin and the rage welled up inside him. It was then that Straley began a decade-long effort to expose what had been done to him — and perhaps hundreds of other boys. With another alumnus from the youth camp, Michael O'McCarthy, Straley formed the White House Boys.
Their story appeared in the Aug. 19, 2008, edition of the Miami Herald, setting in motion a series of events that ultimately would lead to the discovery of secret graves on the remote North Florida campus, and the notorious youth prison's closure.
Dozier was established by the Florida Legislature in 1897, and opened three years later. It was conceived as a progressive experiment in rehabilitation. The undertaking went horribly awry, almost from its inception, with early reports of children being held in chains or hogties. By the time Straley arrived in March of 1963, the cruelty had become routinized, and took the form of a long leather barber shop-style strap that was made partly of sheet metal.
Straley remembered what was done to him with that strap decades later. The weapon, he said, was kept under a fetid, filthy pillow that bore the residue of blood and bite marks from dozens of beatings. As a guard nicknamed "the one-armed man" — he'd lost his arm in a shotgun accident — snapped the strap, his feet made a whooshing sound as they pivoted on the concrete floor.
"We're going to make a man out of you," Straley said he was told. "Quit crying."
Each time the strap connected with flesh, the army cot the boys clung to would jerk and heave. And the blows, Straley said, were cumulative; the pain deepened with each new blow.
Straley also said he was one of several boys who were taken to what became known as "the rape room" to be assaulted by a handful of guards. He described the rape to the Herald last year, saying it was so physically painful that it caused him to pass out. The ordeal, he said, left him crushed and dysfunctional, unable to sustain a marriage or family.
"If I had them people in front of me, I'd have to ask them if they realize how many lives they destroyed," Straley told the Herald in 2008. "They beat you. they put the rage in you. When you inflict that much pain and brutality on a child, they're traumatized for life. Period."
In 2010, author Robin Gaby Fisher published a book, "The Boys of the Dark," about Straley and O'McCarthy's efforts to force Florida to acknowledge its shameful past in the Panhandle. She said O'McCarthy, a burly man who had served time in California's toughest prisons, wouldn't leave his hotel room when the three were in Marianna researching the book. O'McCarthy was petrified.
"Robert, on the other hand, insisted on being with me for every interview. We drove all over the town, looking for people to talk about Dozier and what they knew. Often he would just sit and listen quietly while I interviewed people. He told me it was cathartic for him, but that visit triggered the terrible nightmares about the place that he had had on and off for his entire life," Fisher said.
When Florida lawmakers voted last year to apologize to the men who cycled through Dozier, Fisher said, it had been a tremendous victory for Straley. He wrote her an email that day, April 6, 2017, saying the decision had left him and other alumni "in tears."
"It had taken a decade, but what many had told Robert would never happen, finally had," Fisher said. "I think he found great peace in that."
Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida anthropology professor who worked with Straley to locate the remains of Dozier boys, said, though, that Straley's mission remains largely unfulfilled. Straley and other Dozier veterans had lobbied to have the White House preserved as a museum and memorial, where the state openly acknowledged its role in the torture of children.
"For him," Kimmerle said, "preserving the White House and making it a learning space was important."
In recent years, Kimmerle said, Straley and she had lamented a series of troubling developments: townspeople in Marianna and politicians in Tallahassee seemed to want to re-inter the past along with the remains her team discovered in unmarked graves on the sprawling, 1,200-acre campus. State leaders, she said, made sure Straley and other advocates were aware that their input wasn't welcome in the development of a possible memorial.
"It was an easy way to write off history: that was a different time, and the way people behaved back then," Kimmerle said. Straley didn't believe it. He was convinced that the methods had changed — but not the underlying cruelty.
Kimmerle fears Straley will be among many White House activists — O'McCarthy died of a heart attack in 2010 — who will not live to see their suffering observed.
"He was such a fighter," Kimmerle said. "He fought his whole life. That was just his perspective."