Shortly after Ronald Tammen went missing, the FBI began their own investigation into his disappearance. Because the FBI is part of the federal government, it’s subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which means that an ordinary U.S. citizen can ask them to provide documents on a topic within their jurisdiction, though some exemptions apply. (Actually, non-citizens can submit FOIA requests too.) In April 2010, I submitted a FOIA request seeking everything they had on the Tammen case and, just before Christmas of that same year, the FBI sent me 22 pages.
Here you go. (Click on link to view documents.)
These pages provide much to mull over, and, meaning no disrespect to the G-men and administrative staff who were just doing their jobs back then, they’re a tad sloppy and chaotic. When I shared them with someone who used to work for the FBI and asked him what he thought, he said that it appeared as if a lot was missing. Mind you, this person didn’t have a scintilla of background knowledge on the Tammen case. He based his observation on the fact that the FBI is a memo-happy place (my words, not his), where a phone call or visit generally warrants a new report. In an unsolved missing person’s case from 1953, one would expect more than 22 pages. In addition, several people with whom I’d spoken had told me that either they or their parents were interviewed by the FBI after Tammen disappeared, yet those visits weren’t mentioned anywhere in the documents I’d received.
After a few more related FOIA requests that yielded nothing, I appealed, arguing that there must be more documents based on the missing interviews and a couple other pieces of evidence I’d gathered. Months later, I was sent nine additional pages pertaining to the Georgia “dead body” case of 2008.
As you can imagine, taking on the FBI can be a challenge, and I won’t be able to cover my history with them in a blog post or two. I need to save some of that drama for the book. However, one of the more surprising discoveries can be found on page 3 of the first batch of documents they sent me. To cut to the chase: when Ronald Tammen’s mother telephoned the Cleveland FBI office on April 30, 1953, to report her son missing, the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. already had his fingerprints on file.
From the year 1941.
When Ron Tammen was seven or eight years old.
That seemed odd to my FBI contact and me. He considered it uncommon to fingerprint a child back then because people generally weren’t concerned about the sorts of crimes that we worry about today. I wondered if the other Tammen kids might have been fingerprinted too, and asked Marcia, John, and Robert if they could recall their parents having them fingerprinted as children. They each told me “no.” Although John had no memory of Ron being fingerprinted, and Marcia and Robert weren’t born at the time, Marcia said that she did recall being told that Ron had been fingerprinted in school. I subsequently found a 1960 anniversary article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that stated, “…fingerprints taken when Ronald was in the second grade at Fairview Park Elementary School are on file in the FBI in Washington.” No reason was given as to why a child would be fingerprinted during the second grade, but the FBI document states that it was for personal identification. Maybe some prescient teacher had the students fingerprinted as a class project. The children could learn about how law enforcement operated while doing their civic duty. Oh, and if (God forbid) one of them should happen to go missing someday, well, they’d be ahead of the game.
That’s precisely how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would have viewed things too. Hoover felt that everyone in the country should be fingerprinted, not just the criminals, civil service applicants, and members of the military. He encouraged all citizens to voluntarily have their fingerprints sent in so that the information could be used to aid in missing persons investigations, or to help the bureau identify an amnesia victim or an unidentified body. So with the FBI already in possession of Ron’s fingerprints in 1953, wouldn’t that have given them a leg up in their investigation into his disappearance? Apparently not.
But here’s the wildest part: If a member of law enforcement were to contact the FBI today seeking a copy of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints—in the event someone encountered a person who resembled him or someone turned up dead who might have been Ron Tammen—an FBI representative would have to tell that official that no fingerprints exist.
They had them, and you can see the notations for yourself on pages 6 (dated Nov. 16, 1959) and 7 (Oct. 30, 1961) of the first batch of FBI documents. They look sort of like this (the best I can approximate using this software):
19M 17W r12
L 3 W
But they no longer have them. Detective Frank Smith tried to get them in 2008 when he was handling cold cases for the Butler County Sheriff’s Department, and was turned away empty-handed. (By the way, if we have any fingerprint specialists among us who can shed some light on what these notations mean, please feel free to comment.)
To put it plainly, the fingerprints of Ronald Tammen, the central player in one of the most famous missing persons cases in the state of Ohio, were already on file with the FBI the year that he disappeared. Furthermore, although Tammen has never been found, and we are still within the timeframe in which he could feasibly turn up alive, someone from the FBI looked at those prints and decided that, for whatever reason, they didn’t need them cluttering up their files anymore. Someone decided they should be purged. Was it a mistake (and by “mistake,” I mean an act of mind-boggling negligence), or did they know something that the rest of us haven’t yet learned? That’s just one of the questions I’ve spent the past seven-plus years attempting to have answered.