"I don't believe in ghosts," Bullet says. "But that is one of the creepiest places you could find."
Bullet is an urban explorer: a twenty-something Miamian who sneaks into abandoned buildings and photographs their bones. This time around, however, he came a little too close to the real thing. He's talking about the Arthur G. Dozier School: officially known as the Florida School for Boys. Unofficially known as Florida's most haunted place, thanks to scores of recently disinterred kids' graves. But Bullet didn't know any of that when he and a buddy crept into the school three years ago.
"When we went, all we knew is that it was an old school," he says. "At the time I didn't think much of it. Then a year later it was in the news. All these accusations come up and I was like: Wow, I know that place."
Bullet is one of South Florida's growing number of urban explorers: young men and women who risk trespassing rap sheets to slink into decaying structures, from abandoned missile silos to crumbling prisons.
Unlike most urb-exers, Bullet -- not his real name -- has made a living out of the practice. He photographs his adventures and sells the stunning, often scary prints. (He was an honorable mention in this year's Mastermind awards. His photos can be found on his website, Abandoned Florida.)
Many of his missions are hair-raising, he says. But he had no idea what he was walking into with Dozier. A buddy of his in Tallahassee told him there was a cool, old, abandoned school in Marianna, about half an hour away from the Florida capital. So Bullet drove up to the panhandle and he and his friend slipped into the spooky school.
Like most Florida ruins, Dozier was dripping with water damage. In some places, the ceiling had collapsed to reveal the sky.
"The floor is all mud," he says. "There are bed frames everywhere. Old shoes. Jackets." Some of the rooms still bore traces of the students who had lived -- and in some cases died -- there: initials carved into walls or animal murals moldering away in the dark.
"There was one room which I thought was pretty weird," Bullet remembers. "It was a small room in the back. Inside were boxes and boxes full of documents. 'Who's in charge today. Any incidents today.' Stuff like that. It was pretty strange. We were looking through them and it had a lot of personal information. Names. Addresses. Relatives."
But Bullet had no idea how ghostly these traces were. Even when he was snapping photos of the school cemetery, with its plain white metal crosses marking unlabeled graves, he didn't realize the horrors that had occurred at Dozier.
It was only months later, when a team of researchers from the University of South Florida began excavating the cemetery, that Bullet realized he had traipsed through one of Florida's most haunted places. The dig would eventually unearth at least 55 bodies - far more than officially buried there - and renew decades-old allegations that kids had been tortured, raped, and killed at the infamous reform school.
Suddenly, the notes and drawings Bullet had seen inside Dozier seemed like more than photographs. They seemed like messages from beyond the grave.
Despite his haunted experience at Dozier, Bullet says the school wasn't the scariest place he's ventured. That title goes to an abandoned funeral home in Bessemer, Alabama, where he found an open casket with a decaying corpse inside.
"The coffin was leaking," he says. "My friend got too close to the body and almost threw up."
By that standard, Dozier was peaceful. But Bullet has no intention of returning.
"I'm pretty sure it's too risky now," he says. "I wouldn't try it."
Continue to the next page for more of Bullet's photos from Dozier.
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