Had I known he was alive seven years ago at the start of my project, I would have contacted him then, when he was a mere 90 years of age. Thankfully, he was still reasonably strong and feisty. When we first spoke, our phone connection was breaking up—it was a rainy Monday morning and I was in a small town. He told me to write him a letter, which I promptly did. In it, I let him know that I’d be coming to his apartment “this coming Saturday” at 11 a.m. for an interview. Unless he had a problem with that time and date, I’d look forward to meeting him then.
After a few days, I still hadn’t received word from him, so I continued with my plans in the hope that he wouldn’t let me down. In my line of work, it probably isn’t considered wise to drive more than three hours to an interview that was set up by way of a letter sent through the U.S. mail. There should have been follow-up phone calls and emails to confirm dates, places, and contingency plans in the event of traffic or weather. But I was quite sure that this person didn’t own a computer and he didn’t seem to do well with phones either. When he responded to my first letter—the one in which I’d asked him if he might be interested in talking to me about the Ronald Tammen disappearance—he didn’t bother to leave a message because of what it might cost him.
On Friday, I tried calling him to confirm that he’d received my second letter about our Saturday meeting, however there was no answer, and his voicemail box was full. I grew uneasy, but knew that I still needed to chance it. That afternoon, I made the long drive and checked into a hotel that, as pure luck would have it, was only a mile and a half from his apartment. The next morning, I awoke early and contemplated what I would do if he wasn’t there. I resolved that I’d wait for at least an hour, and if he still didn’t arrive, I’d leave a note and would make the trip again if need be. I felt that it would be worth it based on something he’d said to me during our initial phone conversation. At the moment that he uttered the words “Gilson Wright was the reporter who’d written most of the news articles on the case,” I knew that his brain cells were still working. I walked to my car and headed across the river.
His apartment was in a once majestic-looking building with ornate stone carvings that were reminiscent of craftsmanship from the turn of the 20th century. I parked my car across the street and walked to a gate where two people were shooting the breeze and soaking in some sun—one an old man in a wheelchair and the other a younger man in his 30s. I said that I was there to see Ralph Smith (not his real name) and asked if they had any suggestions on how I should enter the building. The older man said, “I’m Ralph Smith!” Whoopee!, I thought, and I followed him in.
Ralph and I talked for two hours. I won’t tell you the details of our conversation, not yet, but I’ll at least tell you the answer to the question on most readers’ minds: no, he doesn’t know what happened to Ronald Tammen. After so many years, he subscribes to a theory that I walked away from years ago. He thinks it had something to do with the fish in Ron’s bed, and he wasn’t willing to abandon that belief even after I told him all about Dick Titus and his practical joke. But he did offer up one small detail that I consider to be a bona fide lead, though it’ll be nearly impossible to chase down. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.
When I ran out of questions, I thanked him several times, and promised to write him again and to send him some of the evidence I’ve discovered. He accompanied me to the gate, shook my hand, and told me how much he’d enjoyed our visit. I thought those parting words would be our last, however, upon reaching my car, as I was rifling through my duffle bag for more comfortable shoes for the drive home, I looked up to see that he’d crossed the street and had rolled his wheelchair directly in front of my car.
“I wanted to check out your license plate,” he told me. “I play the lottery, and I’m going to play your numbers.”
“Good luck!” I said.
Driving home, I had that giddy feeling I sometimes get when I talk to someone who was there when it all happened. Only this time, it was better. This time, I had actually spoken face-to-face with someone who had served in the Oxford PD under Oscar Decker, the former chief of police who led the investigation into Tammen’s disappearance. Sure, Ralph may play the numbers from time to time, but, this time, I felt as if I was the one who’d won the Lotto.