(*or how a FOIA request for three other missing persons inadvertently helped me realize that Ronald Tammen is probably dead)
It was on a sad day in 2015—April Fool’s Day, no less—when it had dawned on me that Ronald Tammen had probably died. That was the day that I learned that the FBI had tossed out Ron’s fingerprints—the inky, kid-sized variety that had been rolled across a card back in 1941 as well as the digitized versions that had been stored in the FBI’s computer system. That an organization so historically obsessed with fingerprints would rid itself of the last remnants of someone who had famously gone missing was, in my view, absurd, regardless of what their protocol dictated. The 2002 purging happened surreptitiously, with no notification of Tammen’s immediate family members, which at that point still included all four of Ron’s siblings. Because the FBI purges fingerprints when a person would be 110 years of age or seven years after his or her confirmed death, I concluded that the FBI had probably confirmed Tammen to be dead in 1995.
But there was another line of evidence that the FBI had determined Ronald Tammen to be dead, evidence that had been directly under my nose a whole lot earlier than April 1, 2015. It has to do with the FOIA process.
It works like this: If you were to send a FOIA request to the FBI today seeking documents that they have on any person other than yourself, you would need to provide one of three things: proof that the person is deceased, such as a death certificate or an obituary; proof that he or she was born at least 100 years ago, in which case the person is likely to be dead; or, if the person is still living, a signed consent form from him or her saying that it’s OK for you to receive the documents. If you don’t provide any of the above, it’s highly likely that you won’t be getting a thing from them. As you can surmise, this is tough to do if a person is listed as missing. Where would you get your hands on any of those pieces of backup evidence? Well, there appears to be an exception to this rule: If you were to ask them for Ronald Tammen’s files, they would accept your request, and then send you your documents months later. (But you don’t even have to do that, Good Man readers! You can access them here.)
When I submitted my FOIA request on Ronald Tammen in 2010, the significance of what wasn’t asked of me went unnoticed. It was, after all, my first FOIA request, and I had no means for comparison. However, in 2011, in an effort to learn how Tammen’s case was handled in comparison to other missing persons cases, I submitted FOIA requests on three other draft-age men who disappeared during the J. Edgar Hoover era. They were:
- Lyndal Ashby, who disappeared from Hartford, Kentucky, in 1960 at the age of 22;
- William Arnold, who disappeared from Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1967 at the age of 24; and
- Raymond Harris, who disappeared from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1971, at the age of 20.
For Mr. Arnold and Mr. Harris, the section chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section informed me that my request was exempt from disclosure because I hadn’t sent proof of death or authorization of the third party, or “a clear demonstration that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the personal privacy interest and that significant public benefit would result from the disclosure of the requested records.” Regarding the latter loophole, believe me, I tried, but they weren’t moved by my reason for disclosure. For Mr. Ashby, on the other hand, they accepted the request, and months later, I received eight pages on his case.
It wasn’t clear to me why Ronald Tammen and Lyndal Ashby were treated differently than William Arnold and Raymond Harris, and I said so during the appeal process. Using the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives as a go-between, I asked the FBI liaison to explain to me why I needed to send proof of Arnold’s and Harris’ death, when I didn’t send proof of Tammen’s or Ashby’s death?
What happened next was pretty telling.
First, through the OGIS representative, the FBI liaison communicated the following:
The FBI released information pertaining to Mr. Tammen because over the years the FBI had contact with his family who indicated that they believed Mr. Tammen to be deceased given some suspicious facts, namely, that after his disappearance a fish was found in his college bed.
Talk about a fishy excuse. What communication between the FBI and the Tammen family was he referring to? For years, Ron’s parents were quoted in news accounts saying that they were hopeful that Ron was still alive. They also dutifully signed and returned a form letter every couple years asking the FBI to continue looking for Ron. Mr. Tammen did so until 1970, the last year in which the FBI had sent him the letter. (Mrs. Tammen had passed away in 1964.) Also, the fish in the bed was a prank—I knew it, the FBI knew it, and I figured the Tammens had known it too, since the story about the fish had first appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, their hometown paper, in 1956. His explanation was bogus, and I jumped all over it.
I said that I thought it was interesting that he knew about the fish in the bed, since nothing in the FOIA documents that they’d sent me had mentioned the fish. I wanted to know what document he was reading. Of course, I knew that there was information online about the fish, though I thought it would have been odd if he’d go to those lengths to learn about the Tammen case. Here’s how our phone conversation went on February 15, 2012:
The FBI liaison told me that his reference to the fish was just a poor attempt at humor and that he’d been referring to the scene in The Godfather. (I knew the one he meant—where a dead fish is placed on James Caan’s lap to communicate that a character named Luca Brasi was dead and “sleeps with the fishes.”) He then said he reviewed all of the FBI’s files and there was nothing about the fish in the files.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I remember asking him, “Are you aware that there really was a fish in the bed? I mean, it was nothing—just a harmless prank—but there really was one?” At that point, I was expecting him to come clean and say that he’d read about the fish online. But that’s not what he said. Instead, he said that he had no idea. It was just a poor attempt at humor.
I sued the FBI, which is another story for another day. I’ll go ahead and post my complaint, however, since it’s public information. If you’re interested, have at it.
My answer about Lyndal Ashby came much later, as I was conducting online research for a chapter of my book. I discovered that Ashby had eventually been found, and his name was engraved on a headstone in his memory in Walton’s Creek Cemetery, in his birthplace of Centertown, Kentucky. According to an obituary attributed to his family and posted on ProjectJason.org, a website for missing persons, in June 2013:
Family members in Kentucky have recently learned that Lyndal B. Ashby, formerly of Centertown, died in Oakland, California on April 11, 1990. This information was obtained after his brother conducted a lengthy missing persons investigation, and confirmed by DNA tests conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had been estranged from family since 1960 and died under an assumed identity. His body was cremated and the ashes strewn on the ocean three miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. (See full obituary here.)
So Lyndal Ashby had died in 1990—a little more than six weeks before his 52nd birthday. Now, in hindsight, I imagine that’s why the FBI was able to send his documents to me in the first place. But that’s puzzling too, since the case wasn’t officially resolved until 2013, and I had submitted my FOIA request two years prior. Did the FBI already have a pretty good idea that Ashby was dead by then?
In the end, it was the two actions on the part of the FBI—purging Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 and sending me his FOIA documents in 2010 without requesting backup information—that led me to conclude that they had confirmed Ronald Tammen was dead too. But if they did know that he was dead, how did they know? And moreover, when did he die, how did he die, and where were his remains? Since nothing in Ron’s FOIA documents would address those questions, I decided that the only way to get an answer was to ask them point blank—yes or no—had they confirmed Ronald Tammen to be dead? And that’s what I did.