More smoking evidence that Ron Tammen was alive in 2002

Short post tonight, but I can’t keep it in. For most of today, I’ve been doing a deep dive into FBI protocol to help me revise my FOIA request seeking all fingerprint expungement requests between 1999 and June 2002 due to the Privacy Act. As many of you know, June 2002 was when Ron Tammen’s fingerprints had been expunged due to the Privacy Act or a court order. However, in my recent FOIA request on that subject, the FBI claimed that, based on the information I’d provided to them, they were “Unable to identify records responsive to your request.“ For my revised request, I want to point to specific FBI protocols in their own words so their FOIA folks won’t be able to pretend that I didn’t give them enough information.

One of the websites that I visited today was www.governmentattic.org, which is an invaluable website that believes in government transparency. They’ve posted all sorts of random documents from all areas of the federal government that they’ve obtained by submitting their own FOIA requests. There, I was thrilled to find an FBI FOIA and Privacy Act reference manual that covers the time period of January 8, 1987 through March 31, 1998.

Near the end of the manual are memos that deal with agency protocol when handling FOIA and Privacy Act requests. Memo 14, which deals with the correction or expungement of information in FBI files, was issued on March 31, 1998, just four years before Ron’s fingerprints were expunged. It’s pretty short, so I’ll let you read it at your leisure. (Note that the initials PLS stand for paralegal specialist.)

Here are the two key takeaways from this memo:

  1. Among other things, I plan to seek “all correspondence between the Bureau and the requester” for the period of January 1, 1999 through June 30, 2002. There’ll be tons of redactions, no doubt, but we still could get a sense of how many people requested that their fingerprints be expunged during that period due to the Privacy Act.
  2. Best of all, is the first sentence of the last paragraph: “The only person who can make a request for amendment/correction is the subject of the record.”

You guys, we’ve been saying all along that if Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act, then he was alive in 2002, since he’s the only person who can make that request.

It’s just super nice to hear the FBI say so too.

Happy New Year, everyone!

On this date in 1958, FBI Headquarters wrote an ‘airtel’ to the Cincinnati Field Office that might have something to do with Ron Tammen…why?

(And also: what happened to it?)

Greetings! Today, I’d like to further discuss the memo that was written on May 9, 1973, by the special agent in charge (SAC) of the Cincinnati Field Office to the acting director of the FBI, who was then William Ruckelshaus. As you probably know by now, the memo concerns the anonymous phone call they’d received claiming that Ron Tammen was working at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, Ohio.

“Oh, geez, that thing again?” some of you may be thinking.

Yeah, that. Sorry, but I still have unresolved issues.

[Click here if you have unresolved issues too and would like to read it again.]

In the last write-up, we discussed how shaky that lead was to begin with. The guy who’d called had refused to provide his name and then he told the FBI rep that a coworker of his might be Ron based on his physical description and “other reasons which he cared not to discuss.” He then “terminated the telephone call,” which sounds as if he hung up in the rep’s ear—a noisy click followed by the long, low waaaaaah of a dial tone. (Hanging up on someone was more dramatic back then.) Apparently, that’s all that was needed for an agent to be assigned to check things out that same day.

Here’s the question that keeps rolling around in my brain: If the FBI didn’t investigate missing person cases, as they claim not to do, why would they have assigned someone to fingerprint the guy at Welco just because some unnamed caller thought he fit Ron’s description? According to an unredacted version of the 1973 memo, the Welco man was an electronic technician from Virginia who’d served his country honorably from 1951 until 1960—a period that covers the time right before Ron entered Miami and extends until seven years after he’d disappeared.

I’d think that the FBI agent would have done his background research on the Welco guy before he made his trip to Blue Ash. The FBI has records on all sorts of people. If a person has a criminal record, they can access it, and they can also access a person’s military service records. Did they do any initial research or did they just pull a surprise pop-in and obtain his bio information there? According to the May 1973 memo, many of the biographical details were provided by the company’s vice president after pulling his employee’s personnel file. Pop-in, it is!

Out of respect for his family, I won’t be sharing the name of the Welco guy who was fingerprinted. His name sounds a little like Ron’s name, which is probably why the anonymous caller thought of him when he read the 20th anniversary article on Tammen’s disappearance and decided to alert the FBI. (I mean, who does that?) And despite whatever physical characteristics the Welco guy had that might have resembled Ron’s, one characteristic stands out that isn’t the least bit similar. It’s also an attribute that is far less likely to change after a person reaches adulthood: his height. The Welco guy was 6 feet 2 ½ inches tall. Ron was roughly 5 feet 9 inches tall. Nevertheless, the special agent fingerprinted the strapping electronic technician from Virginia and a couple weeks later, the Cincinnati Field Office was told that the fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s prints. Not the same guy, said they. (The Identification Division also did some curious things after arriving at their conclusion, which I discuss in the post The Ident Files.)

So there’s that. But the 1973 memo has introduced another small mystery in the Ron Tammen story, and that mystery has to do with the first sentence. It says: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.” The CI stands for Cincinnati Field Office, and an “airtel” was one of the ways in which the FBI communicated internally, especially, I imagine, with its field offices. Think of it as a glorified memo. Most importantly, I wonder if the 12/19/58 airtel is the reason that a special agent was sent to Welco versus ignoring the call altogether, which would have been my inclination had I been on phone duty.

In light of that possibility, the airtel strikes me as important. Unfortunately, there are no 12/19/58 airtels anywhere in the documents I’ve received from the FBI. Back in 2011, I quoted that sentence as a reason for my appeal, when I felt the FBI was withholding documents on Ron. (I still feel that way, by the by.) Even though I won the appeal, I never received a 12/19/58 airtel. I only received documents having to do with DNA testing after Butler County, Ohio, and Walker County, Georgia, reopened their respective cold cases in 2008 to see if a dead body found in the summer of 1953 in Georgia might be Ron.

Although I can’t tell you what the nonexistent memo says, I can deduce a few things about it:

It likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.

Whenever I’ve discussed Ron’s case with retired FBI folks, the issue of Ron’s avoiding the draft has become their go-to hypothesis as to why the FBI would have investigated his case at all. They can’t imagine why the FBI would spend person-hours, car mileage, or long-distance charges on Ron’s missing person case. 

But I’m not convinced. First, we’ve learned that the FBI was indeed visiting people in their homes and dorm rooms shortly after Ron went missing, before his draft status had changed, and also that the FBI had been sitting in on faculty conferences at Miami by May 1953. Second, one FBI retiree told me that he or she didn’t think they had the staffing to seriously investigate Selective Service cases. They might have posted a record with the National Crime Information Center, so that, if the person was arrested, the FBI would let law enforcement know that there was a Selective Service violation against him as well. But this person doesn’t remember the FBI actively searching for someone who didn’t report for induction.

So I don’t think that Ron’s Selective Service violation—case #25-381754— was the reason that the FBI investigated Ron’s disappearance, or at least not the sole reason. I also don’t think it’s the topic of the 12/19/58 airtel. Here’s why:

When FBI Headquarters responded on 5/22/73 saying that the Welco guy’s fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s, someone added a note at the bottom, which included this information:

Was a subj of SSA violation in 1953. Canceled in 1955 (USA Cleveland closed case).

Allow me to interpret by writing out all of the words: It says that Ron was the subject of a Selective Service Act violation in 1953, however, his case was canceled, or closed, in 1955 by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland. 

I don’t know how weird it is for a U.S. Attorney, who is part of the Department of Justice (DOJ), to request that an SSA case be closed. That’s probably a question for another day. (Actually, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request seeking all SSA cases that were closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland in 1955 to find out how weird it was.) 

For now, let’s concentrate on the timeframe. For whatever reason, in 1955, Ron’s case had been closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, which is part of the DOJ, which is the parent agency of the FBI. Because the airtel was written in 1958, three years later, the airtel likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service Act violation. 

The 12/19/58 airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati in January 2008.

In May 1973, the Cincinnati Field Office possessed the 12/19/58 airtel. We know this because they referred to it in their memo. And that makes perfect sense. If FBI Headquarters sends you an airtel, you file it somewhere in case you need it, and they needed it in 1973.

But in 2008, the airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati anymore. I think this because I obtained a set of the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after cold case detective Frank Smith had retired. It’s the set that Smith had obtained from the Cincinnati Field Office in January 2008. Just like my FOIA documents, Butler County’s set doesn’t include the 12/19/58 airtel either.

I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking: Perhaps the airtel reached its record retention date, and Cincinnati destroyed it according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records schedule. Thank you for raising this important point. You’ve obviously become experts on the topic of NARA and records retention schedules, thanks to the FBI’s early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints in 2002, 30 years ahead of their normal schedule. 

While it’s true that the 1958 airtel may have been destroyed, the FBI hasn’t admitted to destroying very much on Tammen, at least not to me. Through my lawsuit settlement, I was provided with an in-depth declaration of all the places in which the FBI had searched for documents on Tammen. And in that search, they told me the approximate dates when certain documents had been destroyed. 

Click on chart for a closer view
Click on chart for a closer view

For example, although FBI Headquarters destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file “on or about 2/1/1997,” they also reported that the Cincinnati Field Office destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file in 1964. Ostensibly, the 1958 airtel was not in that file, otherwise Cincinnati’s SAC would not have referenced it in 1973. So that supports our conclusion that the 12/19/58 airtel didn’t have anything to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.

Click on bulleted list for a closer view

The only other document that the FBI’s declaration claims was destroyed is Ron’s Classification 190 document, which had to do with either the Privacy Act or the Freedom of Information Act and which had originated in the Cincinnati Field Office. That document was destroyed “on or about 5/17/2008”—several months after Smith had reopened his investigation. But no matter what purpose the destroyed document had served when it was still with us on earth, it couldn’t have been the 12/19/58 airtel, since the latter document originated from FBI Headquarters, not Cincinnati. 

In their declaration, the FBI also says that one file on Ronald H. Tammen, file #252-IR-C5652, is missing and unable to be located (see top chart). Perhaps the 12/19/58 airtel is in that lost file? I have some thoughts on this question, but I can’t print them here just yet. Based on the file’s number, it has to do with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and/or its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP. It’s important that we not let our imaginations run wild regarding the missing file. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything pertaining to Ron that would be helpful. If there ever comes a time when I’m at liberty to discuss this topic, I will. But I also don’t think it has anything to do with the 12/19/58 airtel, particularly since the center wasn’t started until 1984.

The airtel may not have pertained to Ron specifically.

So where’s the 12/19/58 airtel and what might it have said? You got me. But it occurs to me that the reason neither Frank Smith nor I received the airtel in our FOIA documents could be because it wasn’t stored along with the Tammen documents. Maybe the airtel dealt with a separate topic. For example, perhaps it was an instructional document for how to handle anonymous phone calls.

For this reason, I’ve filed a FOIA request seeking “ALL FBI BUREAU AIRTELS dated 12/19/1958 that were addressed to the Cincinnati Field Office.” I’ll keep you posted.

I’m going to end things here for now. If I should hear back from any of my public records requests over the next week or two, you may hear from me again. Otherwise, I wish you all peaceful and healthy holidays (emphasis on the healthy), including a Belated Healthy Hanukkah, a Healthy Christmas, a Healthy Kwanzaa, and a Healthy New Year, not to mention a Healthy Boxing Day, Winter Solstice, and (of course) Festivus!

Herbie on Christmas morning a couple years ago. (Seriously, he posed under the tree, as if on cue.)

The Cincy files, part 2: some quasi-relevant reading material in honor of today’s game

Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

At 4 p.m. ET today, a certain football team will be playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game—a team that’s currently ranked number four in the nation and could very well become this year’s national champion. And so…I thought it might be fun once again to focus our attention on the town of Cincinnati, Ohio.

For those of you who aren’t into football, I feel you. I have my own issues with the sport. Like: we’re asking college students who are still in their teens and early 20s—children, really—to inflict pain on one another every Saturday of every fall, why? Also: does it seem to you that the placement of the football by the ref is ridiculously arbitrary especially at those times when only inches are needed for a first down? And: what exactly is clipping, and can anyone truly recognize it if it happens?

This post is written specifically for the people who aren’t 100 percent into football or the Cincinnati Bearcats per se but who want to feel a part of things. The rest of you are welcome too, of course you are, but we’re not going to be talking about football anymore. I used up most of my football knowledge writing that last paragraph. Perhaps it would be best if you get ready for your watch party and come back tomorrow when you’re better able to concentrate. We’ll be here.

Today, for all the others, I give to you…a primer on the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office. 

[Audio provided by Zapsplat.com.]

To help refresh your memories, it was in this field office that a document on Ron Tammen had originated, but was summarily destroyed “on or about May 17, 2008,” just a few short months after Butler County cold case detective Frank Smith had reopened the case. The document was located in the Classification 190 files, which means it had something to do with the Privacy Act or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which should ring a bell. As you know, the FBI had expunged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002—30 years ahead of schedule—due to a Privacy Act conflict or a court order (probably the former). What’s more: Butler County is under the Cincinnati office’s jurisdiction and the Cincinnati office was aware that Smith had reopened the investigation. Pretty weird timing to destroy a potentially relevant document, amIright?

Those were, in my view, some major findings which resulted in some additional questions that I’ve been attempting to have answered. For some, I’ve been successful. Others I’m still working on. Here’s where we stand so far, starting with an overview of the FBI’s field office system. As you read this post, please bear in mind that I have no red meat for you today. We’re serving up lentils and leafy greens, folks. Still important in the long haul—maybe more important—but not totally satisfying.

What’s an FBI field office and why do they exist?

As you know, crimes are committed all over the country, including the really bad ones that the FBI deals with. It would be hard for the FBI to do its job of fighting said crimes if all of its agents were located in D.C. For this reason, the FBI has constructed field offices across the country and in Puerto Rico—56 in all. The head of each field office is referred to as the special agent in charge, or the SAC; the second in command is the assistant special agent in charge, or ASAC; and the special agents (SAs) and administrative staff fill out the roster.

The state of Ohio has two field offices. The Cleveland Field Office covers the 40 counties in northern Ohio while the Cincinnati Field Office includes the lower 48 counties. Both field offices have been involved in Ron Tammen’s case. When Ron disappeared, his mother Marjorie had contacted the Cleveland Field Office because the Tammens lived in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights. Therefore, the Cleveland Field Office was the office of origin for Ron’s missing person case. In 1973, an anonymous caller had telephoned the Cincinnati Field Office to say that they thought Ron Tammen was working at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, OH, and an SA from Cincinnati investigated. We’ll discuss more on that visit a little later.

Where is the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office?

The FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office is a 4-minute drive from the Kenwood Towne Center, an upscale shopping mall on the outskirts of the city, near I-71. The current building was completed in 2012 by a design, engineering, and construction team represented by the Molasky Group of CompaniesBayer Becker, and Skanska.

Be advised that the Cincinnati Field Office is undoubtedly a highly secure facility. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone drop by without an invite.

Which counties is the Cincinnati Field Office responsible for?

As mentioned earlier, the Cincinnati Field Office oversees the 48 counties in central and southern Ohio, but this is where things get a little tricky again. As you know, crime happens all over the place—including  Ohio’s lower 48 counties. If someone robs a bank in Piqua—in Miami County—it wouldn’t be very convenient for an agent in Cincinnati to drop whatever they’re doing to investigate, particularly when they have bigger cities in Ohio to worry about, like Columbus and Dayton. 

Currently, the Cincinnati Field Office will send its agents to investigate bank robberies and other high crimes in six of its counties: Brown, Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Hamilton, and Warren, with Butler County encompassing the towns of Oxford and Hamilton, and Hamilton County including Cincinnati. (Yeah, I know…the whole “Hamilton” thing gets confusing.) The remaining 42 counties in Cincinnati’s domain are divvied up by resident agencies, which are smaller FBI offices situated around the state. The Cincinnati Field Office’s five resident agencies are in Athens, Cambridge, Columbus, Dayton, and Portsmouth. As I’m sure you can imagine, Columbus is the largest resident agency of the bunch—so big, in fact, that it rivals the size of the Cincinnati Field Office. Nevertheless, Cincinnati remains FBI headquarters for southern Ohio, which is why it’s often referred to as Headquarters City by its employees.

I seem to recall that there were more resident agencies in southern Ohio at one time. Or am I mistaken?

Great point! You are not mistaken.

Where were the other resident agencies located?

Based on news accounts, there was an additional resident agency in Middletown during the mid-to-late 1990s, possibly earlier, until at least 2014, which was the timeframe in which Frank Smith would have been inquiring about the Ronald Tammen case. The Middletown office reported directly to the FBI’s Resident Agency in Dayton.

Long before that, in 1971, the Cincinnati Field Office oversaw resident agencies in Athens, Chillicothe, Columbus, Dayton, Hamilton, Portsmouth, Springfield, Steubenville, and Zanesville. Four of these still exist, and the new one in Cambridge was added, though, again, I’m not sure when. But the resident agencies in Chillicothe, Hamilton, Springfield, Steubenville, and Zanesville, are gone. These offices would have been really small…staffed by 1-10 people and residing in borrowed space in a federal building, often a post office. 

Why aren’t those resident agencies there anymore?

I’m not sure why the Middletown office was closed—probably cost-cutting measures, but that’s just a guess.

As for the offices that existed in 1971, this is a fun story. Have you heard about the break-in that took place on March 8, 1971, in the FBI’s resident agency in Media, PA, outside Philadelphia? Several antiwar activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the resident agency there and stole over 1,000 classified documents. Through that extremely daring act, they exposed the FBI’s illegal domestic surveillance activities, nicknamed COINTELPRO, to the world. (A 2014 film on the topic, titled 1971, is really good, though I don’t think it’s currently being streamed anywhere. If you can find a streaming service that’s offering it, please let us know in the comments.)

J. Edgar Hoover was furious when the break-in happened. By April 1971, he was publicly threatening to close roughly 100 of the 500 smaller resident agency offices as a means of improving security. Although the FBI was tight-lipped about which ones were being shut down at the time (they didn’t want ruffians taking advantage of the turn of events), I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the offices in Hamilton and elsewhere were part of the collateral damage.

When the anonymous caller telephoned the Cincinnati Field Office in 1973 about the guy at Welco Industries, why did they send someone from the Cincinnati Field Office? Couldn’t they have sent someone from a smaller resident agency?

I was wondering about this too. It has to do with the timing of the call. The smaller resident agencies had been closed by July 1971. The anonymous call was made in April 1973, so there were fewer resident agencies by then. Perhaps Cincinnati handled it because Blue Ash is in Hamilton County and they were closest. 

But here’s the rub: an anonymous source called the FBI and provided a few miniscule details about why he or she thought the person in Blue Ash might be Ron and then hung up the phone. Here’s what the report said: “The caller based his opinion upon physical description and ‘other reasons which he cared not to discuss.’ At this point the caller terminated the telephone call.” 

Seriously? The FBI claims that they don’t investigate missing persons cases unless there are signs of force or if a person was kidnapped or something. Missing persons are rock bottom on the FBI’s list of priorities. Why did they send anyone at all, let alone someone from Headquarters City on the same day the call was made?

What about in 2008? Did Frank Smith go through the Middletown or Dayton Resident Agency versus the Cincinnati Field Office?

Great question. Through news accounts and the DOJ document I linked to previously, we know that Middletown was in operation from the 1990s through at least 2014, and another news article from 2000 said that the Dayton Resident Agency oversaw 12 counties, which included Butler County. Theoretically, Frank Smith would have gone through the Dayton Resident Agency.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to communicate with Frank regarding these questions. The best I can do is refer to old transcripts. Here’s the most specific exchange I found:

JW: So when you did your FOIA, did you go through Cincinnati, or did you go through [Washington, D.C.] Headquarters? 

FS: We actually had an agent who was a dear friend of mine and we actually asked him if he could get a copy, and that’s how we came up with our files.

So, although in my gut I believe that Frank was talking specifically about an agent in Cincinnati, he doesn’t specify on the transcript. (Clever!) But honestly, it doesn’t matter if he was talking about someone in Cincinnati or Dayton or even Middletown. All of the FBI offices that were connected to the Cincinnati Field Office were automated in 2008 and all had access to the same documents.

Do we know whether Ron’s document was a FOIA request or an expungement request?

I’m afraid I haven’t been able to pin that down yet. You may recall that I’d submitted a FOIA request for all the documents that surrounded Ron’s in the Classification 190 “0” file. Since Ron’s serial number was 967, I requested documents 900 through 999. What I received didn’t tell us a lot other than the document titles. The rest of the information was redacted. However, I did notice several documents in which Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) provided guidance on how the Cincinnati Field Office should manage such files. I’ve since filed a FOIA request for the full, unredacted versions of those documents—they’re just administrative documents, so no one’s privacy is at stake—and am still awaiting a response. Once I understand the protocol better, I can submit more FOIA requests.

As for the possibility that Ron’s document was simply a FOIA request submitted by an interested third party like myself, I contacted a source who has always been one of the more avid followers of the Tammen story. He never submitted a FOIA request. One of his students—a Miami journalism major who’d written on Tammen for the Miami Student during her time there—had submitted a FOIA request on Tammen, but she’d submitted hers after I submitted mine in 2010. At this point I know of no one other than Frank Smith who submitted a FOIA request in or before 2008. Also, I’d argue that most FOIA requests go through FBI Headquarters in D.C., and not through a specific field office.

Where did Ron’s Classification 190 document originate from?

The document feasibly could have originated from any of the 48 counties represented by the Cincinnati Field Office or its resident agencies. I find this a little weird, though. I’ve never considered Ron living his dream in one of Ohio’s lower 48. I prefer to think of Ron living in Paris or Morocco or someplace cool like that. I’m afraid that’s still an open question for now.

How is a document added to the Classification 190-0 file?

To the best of my knowledge, in order for a document to be added to the Classification 190-0 file in Cincinnati, it would have been reported within the Cincinnati division—Columbus, Dayton, or anywhere else. Something was reported that didn’t rise to a criminal investigation, otherwise a separate file would have been created. 

An agent may have received information and thought, “this doesn’t amount to anything yet, but maybe something will turn up.” They wrote it up in a memo, and they routed it to the supervisor, who would then decide that it should go into the 0 file. It would be indexed—in this case under the name “Ronald Tammen”—which is why it turned up in the automated search.

Can a different FBI office expunge a document that originated with the Cincinnati Field Office?

Because the same documents pop up for every FBI office who searches for Ronald Tammen—whether they’re in Dayton, Cincinnati, or D.C.—it’s feasible that it wasn’t the Cincinnati Field Office who expunged Tammen’s record, but someone else. I’m looking into this question as well.

How can we learn more?

I definitely think there’s more to be learned. Yesterday, on a whim, I wrote to my friends at the Cincinnati Field Office. I understand that the Classification 190 files are managed by the chief division counsel, and so I’ve requested a sit-down with that person to describe their protocol. I assured this person that I would not be asking about Ron’s document—I know it’s long gone. I just would like to understand more about the day-to-day operations regarding the Classification 190 files. So far, I haven’t heard back, but I’ll keep you posted.

As I said—mostly quinoa and kale today. 

Go Bearcats!

**************

BONUS QUESTION:

How are cases assigned in FBI field offices?

Special agents are assigned to a squad, and each squad covers a certain type of crime. One squad may cover civil rights cases, another might cover white-collar crime, another covers organized crime, and so on. It’s like how a news reporter covers a certain beat, be it crime, politics, education, etc.

If a call comes into an FBI field office, it’s assigned to whatever desk covers that violation. The desk supervisor will have a certain number of agents on his or her squad, and he or she will decide who’s going to get the case. As for missing persons, there’s no squad for that.

Things may not have been exactly the same in 1973, but I’ll bet they were similar. So it’s puzzling to me why a desk supervisor back then would think it worthwhile to take one of his/her agents off their normal beat to follow up on an anonymous hang-up call from Blue Ash, Ohio.

Putting a dent in the Ident files: more evidence that the FBI knew what happened to Ron Tammen in 1973

Turns out, I guess I’ve been needing to spend a little more time with Ron’s “Ident” files. I’m referring to Ron’s missing person documents that I’d obtained through my 2010 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, someone with the initials MSL had handwritten on many of them that they were removed from the FBI’s Identification Division—called Ident for short—on June 5, 1973. Those same documents also carry a stamp saying that they were routed to the Records Branch. Inexplicably, the sender checked “Main File” as opposed to “79-1,” the classification for missing persons.

Weird, right? The Identification Division was responsible for overseeing missing persons cases. Why would someone from Identification send Ron’s missing person documents somewhere else? As far as Tammen’s family and the rest of the world knew, he was still missing. Yet the FBI was acting like—dare I say it?—he didn’t seem to be missing anymore.

As many of you know, I’d consulted with people who used to work in the Identification Division, which later became Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), to see if they could explain why. Unfortunately, no one could offer an explanation. Neither could my contact from Records Management. I’m not disparaging these individuals. They did their best with the information that was provided to them. There just wasn’t that much information to provide.

I tried seeking more documents. Because MSL appeared to be a subordinate of Fletcher Thompson’s, the head of the Identification Division in 1973, I submitted a FOIA request seeking every piece of correspondence that Thompson had written for the period of May to June 1973, regardless of the subject. My hope was to snag some missive in which Thompson ordered Mary Sue Lipschwitz—or whoever MSL turned out to be—to handle the Tammen situation STAT. Alas, the FBI’s response to me was that it was impossible for them to conduct a search of their indices based on my request. Fine. Be that way. I let it drop for the time being.

I also tried to learn more about the Ident Missing Person File Room, which had been stamped on several of Ron’s documents along with the handwritten room number 1126. None of my sources had ever heard of it. I’d come to believe that it had something to do with the Special File Rooms that J. Edgar Hoover had established for documents that he considered to be of utmost secrecy. I submitted a FOIA request seeking all documents relating to the establishment and protocol of the FBI’s Special File Rooms in general and the Missing Person File Room specifically. I received a couple hundred pages on the former, but nothing on the latter. I appealed. Again, nothing. The FBI claims that they have zero documents—not a one—that refers to a Missing Person File Room. They’d sent me some documents that had ostensibly inhabited that room at one time, but, yeah, OK, whatever they say. I mean…there must be at least one document that refers to the Missing Person File Room, since someone used taxpayer money to have those illicit words inscribed on a rubber stamp. (For fun, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request for the Identification Division’s office supply expenditures from, say, 1960 to 1970 to see if anything turns up.)

Today, the Missing Person File Room remains a closely guarded secret. If you haven’t done this yet, try typing the phrase into Google between quotation marks. Two documents will pop up—both of them mine. Soon there will be a third document—this one. I’m considering getting the phrase trademarked. [Note to FBI: You’ll still be able to use the phrase, but you’ll have to cite me and use the registered trademark symbol when you do. It’s a small price to pay for all the hardship you’ve caused me these last 12 years.]

This past weekend, after creating a public records request score card for this blog site, I was reminded of how those two FOIA requests had played out. I started ruminating about what I could do next. If I can’t learn about the Missing Person File Room, which seems to be the situation at present, surely there must be more to be learned about the Ident files. 

Well, there was. And just as before, we have archival documents to thank. The publications I found are available free, online. They are the back issues of the FBI’s in-house publication titled the Law Enforcement Bulletin, and you can find issues from January 1933 on up. The articles were (and still are) expressly written for the men and women who work closely with the FBI in enforcing the nation’s laws. For our purposes, the best issues are from the 1940s and 50s, a time when less was less and more was more. Why tighten when you can expound? Why gloss over when you can explain things in granular detail? How else were Andy, Barney, and all the other officers from Small Town USA supposed to learn how proper policing should be done?

An article from May 1951 was especially useful. (It doesn’t show up in the archives list, but you can find it if you Google “May 1951 Law Enforcement Bulletin.” As to why they’ve left all of 1950 and ‘51 off their list? 🤷🏻‍♀️) The article had to do with the Posting Section, which is the section within Identification that was responsible for posting notices such as wanted notices, missing person notices, and the like. Here’s what the article says about Missing Person Notices. I’ve bolded the parts that are most pertinent to Ron.

*****

Missing Person Notices 

The Posting Section prepares and maintains file notices regarding individuals whose location is desired by relatives. Although the FBI has no jurisdiction to conduct active investigations in missing person cases, missing person notices are placed in file on behalf of interested relatives inquiring either directly or through local law-enforcement agencies. If a fingerprint record for the missing person can be identified through an FBI number or a registry number, a notice is posted in that record. If the information set forth in the inquiry is insufficient to identify positively a fingerprint record with the missing person, a notice will be posted in the fingerprint record of the individual whose description is considered possibly identical with the missing person. In cases where no record can be located which is either positively or possibly identical a missing persons notice is placed in the indices of the Card Index Section. This index card also contains the descriptive data furnished by the interested relative. 

Missing-person notices are maintained in the files of the FBI Identification Division until information is received which indicates the probable whereabouts of the missing person. At this point the next of kin is notified directly, or the information is furnished to the agency through which the inquiry was received. Missing-person notices are of course removed from the files when interested relatives or agencies indicate that the notices are no longer desired. 

Whenever possible, a request for the posting of a missing-person notice should include information as to the date and place of the missing person’s birth. This information is most important in effecting a possible identification, where other specific descriptive data is lacking. 

If a person has been missing for a period of more than 7 years, no notice is placed in the file unless some information of a more recent nature relating to the individual is located during the initial search of the Identification Division files. 

No notices are posted in cases arising out of marital difficulties except in hardship cases where minor children are involved. Notices are not posted concerning missing persons having a lengthy history of criminal activity, nor under circumstances indicating that the missing person was involved in criminal activity in connection with his disappearance. 

*****

Here’s what I’ve concluded on the basis of the above protocol when combined with all of the other information we’ve collected to date.

  • Identification files, which were also referred to as identification jackets or fingerprint jackets, didn’t hold only fingerprint cards and Additional Record Sheets. They could hold other items too, such as missing person notices, wanted notices, and other relevant documents.
  • Ron’s fingerprint jacket was #358 406 B. When a missing person document said that it should be placed in #358 406 B, the handler was being instructed to put it in his fingerprint jacket.
  • Missing person notices were held indefinitely until the person was found. This is consistent with language on Ron’s missing person documents that said “Retain permanently [emphasis added] in Ident jacket #358 406 B.”
  • Once a missing person was found, the next of kin or the agency that submitted the missing person notice would be notified. Or at least they should have been notified. 

With this new take, I took a deeper dive into Ron’s missing person documents. I focused on the handwritten and stamped notations that provided instructions regarding where the individual documents were to be housed. I constructed a chart of each document up through May 1973, when the FBI’s Cincinnati field office had sought to compare Ron’s fingerprints with an employee from Welco Industries. After HQ had responded with their assessment—it wasn’t Ron—all further activity ceased on jacket #358 406 B.*** (Ron’s remaining documents came after 2008, when the case had been reopened by the Butler County (OH) and Walker County (GA) sheriff’s offices. We don’t care about those right now.)

Before we examine my chart, let’s review the FBI’s various numbers that had to do with Ron: 

#358 406 B
Again (and sorry for the redundancy), this is the FBI number that was assigned to Ron’s fingerprints. From what I can determine, this number would have been on the tab of his fingerprint jacket, as demonstrated from the photo in the October 1948 issue of the Law Enforcement Bulletin on how police departments should set up their files.


79-31966-1 (the last number varies)
As mentioned earlier, 79 is the classification number for missing persons. The 31966 was Ron’s case number, and the last number is the number of pages in Ron’s file, e.g., 1, 1x, 2, 2x, and 3. My source in Records Management explained that the Xs were a way to insert pages while keeping them in the proper order.

25-381754
This was Ron’s file regarding a possible Selective Service violation (aka draft dodging). According to the notation at the bottom of the October 11, 1967, letter to Mr. Tammen from J. Edgar Hoover, the case was opened in 1953 and canceled in 1955. It’s my understanding that this file would not have been held in the Identification Division.

As for the color coding:

The green bars have to do with the Ident files—those that refer to retaining them permanently in the Ident jacket #358406B (solid) and those that refer to removing them from Ident (striped). The blue bars/square have to do with language pertaining to the Missing Person File Room.

Here’s my chart:

Comparison chart based on Ron’s missing person documents; click on chart for a closer view

Based on this exercise, it appears as though Ron’s missing person documents weren’t treated exactly the same way. Some documents were housed in the Ident files—which I’ve ascertained was his fingerprint jacket—while others were housed in the Ident Missing Person File Room, room 1126 of an unnamed building.

Here’s why I think so:

  • On the document originally dated May 25, 1953, MSL had jotted down that a photo was put in room 1126 on 6-5-73, which was the same date that many of Ron’s missing person papers were removed from Ident. We also see that his photo had been added to his missing person notice on 6-2-53. Did MSL take the photo from his fingerprint jacket and move it into room 1126 on 6-5-73?
  • Most of Ron’s documents are stamped “Retain permanently in Ident jacket #358406B.” In June 1973, those same documents were marked “Removed from Ident files” and “Referred to Records Branch,” specifying “Main file” instead of 79, otherwise known as missing persons.
  • The other category encompasses the documents that had the stamp “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room.” Only four documents had that stamp on them. Three of those documents were generated by someone from HQ, including J. Edgar himself. The exception is the 1959 form letter. 
  • Ron’s file doesn’t appear to have been very large—only several pages, according to my source in Records Management. Perhaps those pages were kept one place while his other pages were kept somewhere else?
  • It appears that documents in Ron’s fingerprint jacket were removed from the Identification Division before the documents were removed from the Missing Person File Room (as indicated by the crossed-out words). I think this because of the photo that was added to room 1126 on the same day that his Ident files were removed.
  • By the time the Cincinnati memos were filed in May 1973, the Identification Division was no longer putting them into Ron’s fingerprint jacket. The document dated 5-9-73 was routed straight to the Records Branch’s Main File, nearly a month before the other documents were removed from Ident. Conversely, the document from HQ dated 5-22-73 was routed to the Missing Person File Room.

What could all of this mean? Shortly after the Cincinnati field office had sent the Welco employee’s fingerprints to be compared to Ron’s, Ron’s missing person documents were removed from his fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division and sent to the Records Branch. Documents that were in the Missing Person File Room were removed later, although we don’t know precisely when that happened. 

This tells me that, in the period in which HQ was comparing the Welco employee’s prints to Ron’s, the folks in Identification had discovered something about Ron’s case and felt the need to update his file, as indicated by the words at the bottom of the 5-22-73 memorandum: “MPN [missing person notice] placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.”

As always, there are discrepancies. A couple documents have both the “Ident files” and Missing Person File Room verbiage, which may indicate that they were filed in both locations. Also, the 5-22-73 memorandum says this about FBI #358 406 B: “This record consists of one personal identification fgpt card taken in 1941.” 

How could all those missing person documents have been retained permanently in jacket #358 406 B but the record only consisted of one fingerprint card? I had originally taken this to mean that there was one item in Ron’s fingerprint jacket—his fingerprint card. But I also knew that there must been some wiggle room in that description—after all, his fingerprint jacket would have contained an Additional Record Sheet too. 

I believe the operative word is “record.” The word record was frequently used to describe a person’s fingerprint card or cards. (As an example, look at the verbiage from the May 1951 Law Enforcement Bulletin.) I believe the memo’s author was speaking about Ron’s fingerprint record in the strictest sense. Otherwise, I’d think that they would have used the word jacket instead.

Despite the discrepancies, I think we can surmise that something had been special about Ron’s case, necessitating the use of two locations within the same division for his documents. One was known to many and the other was known to a chosen few. 

It also tells me that the FBI knew what had happened to Ron by 1973, and probably much earlier. And yet, in a break with protocol, no one had thought to pick up a phone to tell his family. 

What are your thoughts? Have I overlooked something? Does anything else stand out?

***Clarification: when I say that all further activity ceased for jacket #358 406 B after June 1973, I’m only talking about Ron’s missing person documents. I’m not talking about his fingerprints, which, as we all know, were purged in 2002, 30 years ahead of schedule.

Halloween 2021 and the muzzling of…me

Photo by Lucia Foster on Unsplash

As most of you know, I’m a fan of Joe Cella’s. After everyone else had moved on with their lives regarding Ron Tammen’s disappearance, after they’d all shrugged their collective shoulders and resigned themselves to the notion that they’d never truly know what had happened to Tammen, Cella refused to join them. He continued working the case, steadfast and alone, until the August day in 1980 that he abruptly passed away at the young age of 59. Thirty years later, when I began my book project, I consulted Cella’s news articles for guidance. I’d hoped to pick up the story where he’d left off. I aspired to follow in his footsteps.

I’ve now come to believe that I’ve achieved my dream. Not only am I following in Joe’s footsteps, but I’m facing the same old obstructions, smokescreens, and pushback that Joe had encountered in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

What’s more, when it comes to the Tammen case, I’ve discovered that if a person employs more than the minimal amount of stick-to-itiveness in their investigation, it won’t be long before they breach the space-time continuum and go hurtling back to the days of Joe. 

Here are some examples: 

When I read Joe’s assertion in the Hamilton Journal-News that school officials hadn’t been cooperative, I thought “Same.”

When I saw in the Dayton Daily News that he felt that the university tried to cover up the case, I thought “Omg, SAME.”

And when I learned that, in 1973, the university had stepped in at the last minute to prevent Joe from presenting his latest evidence on Tammen to the campus community, I thought “OK, this is getting really weird.”

Because, you guys? They’re doing it to me too.

A few weeks ago, I discovered that the Miami University Alumni Association (MUAA) had written about Tammen’s disappearance on their blog known as Slant Talk. The post had been published online a year ago on October 30, 2020. For some reason, I’d missed it back then—2020 is such a blur. But early this month, I was searching a Tammen-related topic and up it popped. 

Here’s the post: Ron Tammen? Where are you?

I was bemused by their lack of new information. You and I have learned way more about the Tammen case than their write-up has indicated. All they had to do was Google “Ron Tammen” and they should have been able to find my blog. If they’d reached out to me—an alum who has dedicated a sizable chunk of her life to researching the Tammen case—I would have given them a nice quote. They didn’t even write about Butler County’s well-publicized reopened investigation in 2008. 

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Jenny, you didn’t make any new friends in Oxford with all your talk about Carl Knox’s former secretary and her relatively recent interview about the university’s Tammen investigation. Did you really think that they’d want to point anyone to your blog after all that?

But that’s the most interesting part. In October 2020, I hadn’t yet rediscovered the interview summary that someone had placed in the Ghosts and Legends folder in University Archives. The only post in which I’d written about a possible university cover-up had to do with Gilson Wright’s avoidance of the word “psychology” whenever he described the book that lay open on Ron’s desk.

That was such a long time ago. Could that have been the reason that they chose not to highlight my work, or was there another reason for the virtual snub?

At the bottom of their blog post is a comment made by a former friend of Ron’s from Fisher Hall. I recognized his name because I’d spoken with him early in my research. I’d also spoken with his roommate. He describes his memories searching for Ron as well as students’ mysterious encounters in the Formal Gardens after Ron had disappeared. It’s a moving sentiment.

The comment box is still open, so I decided to write a comment of my own. With as many followers as I’m sure MUAA has, I thought it would be a good way to talk about my project and steer people who have an interest in the Tammen story to my website.

Here’s what I wrote.

“Hi! I’m a 1980 Miami grad who has been researching the Tammen disappearance for nearly 12 years for a book project. I’ve been blogging about it too. I’ve discovered a lot of new information. Like…did you know that the FBI had Ron Tammen’s fingerprints when he disappeared and they expunged them in 2002, 30 years earlier than normal? You can read a lot more info here: https://ronaldtammen.com. Stop by!”

The comment made by Ron’s Fisher Hall friend was posted on November 1, 2020, two days after the blog was posted. My comment, which I’d submitted on October 8, 2021, is still awaiting moderation.

Two weeks later, I wrote to MUAA to see if perhaps there was something about my comment that they weren’t happy with. I wanted to let them know that I’d be open to submitting a new comment that fell within their guidelines. Here’s my email:

Dear MUAA,

I’m a 1980 graduate and recurring donor to Miami University. Recently, I noticed that, in October 2020, your blog “Slant Talk” had discussed the disappearance of Ronald Tammen from Fisher Hall (https://miamialumniblog.com/2020/10/30/ron-tammen-where-are-you/).  I’ve been researching Tammen’s disappearance for nearly 12 years for a book project, and have turned up some interesting findings. I submitted a comment to Slant Talk encouraging people to come to my website to read more about that topic, but after two weeks, my comment is still awaiting moderation. Is there a problem with my comment that I should adjust? It would be wonderful if MUAA would acknowledge the work of one of its own in helping solve this mystery.

Their bounce-back email said that they receive a lot of email traffic, and they would try to respond as soon as they were able. If I needed a more immediate answer, however, they provided a number to call.

Six days later, I’d still heard nothing, so I decided to call the number today. I identified myself and asked if they’d be approving my comment. I was informed that they would not. When I asked why not, the MUAA staffer told me that they had a policy not to direct their readers to other websites. When I asked if I could resubmit my comment without the URL, she responded (and I paraphrase here), “Was that on Ronald Tammen?” “Yes,” I said. She then told me that they’d already written a couple times on Ron Tammen and had no interest in writing anything more. “Interesting,” I think I said, and I told her to keep an eye out for my blog because I’d be discussing their blog post. 

“Thank you,” said she. “You bet,” said I.

The internet can be a daunting place for people like me. Compared to an organization like Miami University, I’m small and insignificant. So when MUAA posts a generic piece on Ron Tammen, it’ll trounce my stuff every time. They have way more followers plus an IT team who is busy maximizing their SEO through meta tags and alt texts and all the other stuff I’m supposed to do but I’m not very knowledgeable about. 

Credit: The IT Crowd, via GIPHY

It’s OK though. When A Good Man Is Hard to Find winds up on page one of a Google search (we’re #2!) or DuckDuckGo search (we’re #1!) on “Ronald Tammen,” you can bet that it landed there based on the content (85 posts and counting!). The search engines are confident that if you click on one of my links, you’re going to learn something about Tammen. 

Does Miami University want people to ignore my blog? All signs point to yes, though I don’t get it. No one alive today on or off campus had anything to do with Tammen’s disappearance. Why doesn’t the university want to help find the solution? 

If they really wanted to know the answer to the question “Ron Tammen? Where are you?” they have a funny way of showing it.

Halloween 1973 and the muzzling of Joe Cella

On Friday, October 26, 1973, a calendar item appeared in the Miami Student announcing a talk to be delivered Halloween night. The speaker, Joe Cella, would be presenting at 8 p.m. in the Heritage Room of Miami’s former student center, now known as the Shriver Center. His presentation had been titled “The Ronald Tammen Disappearance.” There was no need for additional verbiage explaining who Ronald Tammen was or why anyone should care—everyone already knew.

Cella was the Hamilton Journal-News reporter who’d devoted decades to investigating Ron’s disappearance from Miami University in 1953. He’d intended to solve the mystery. He dug and he dug, until, quite probably, he’d made a nuisance of himself on Miami’s campus, at least in the minds of the administrators. If it hadn’t been for Joe Cella, some of the most significant clues of the case would have remained in faded notes and eroding memory banks. 

In 1973, Cella had been on a roll. Earlier that year, he’d broken the story about Garret J. Boone, a family physician and Butler County coroner who’d said that Ron had walked into his office in Hamilton on November 19, 1952. (The article erroneously says the office was on Third Street, when it was actually located at 134 North Second Street. You can step inside that very building the next time you’re in or around Hamilton. Doc Boone’s old office is now a bar that features artisanal beer and live music.)

The reason for Ron’s visit was to request that his blood type be tested. Boone said he’d never received such an odd request in his 35 years of practice, and he’d asked Tammen why he needed to have his blood typed. Tammen responded, “I might have to give some blood one of these days.” Doc Boone was able to provide documentation to Cella—a medical record that included Ron’s name, address, and the date of Ron’s visit. 

Cella’s fresh lead was published on April 23, 1973, for the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which had likely captured the attention of students serving on Miami University’s Program Board. Someone reached out to Cella to see if he’d be willing to give a talk on campus, and Joe said “sure.” Of course, they picked Halloween for the date of his talk. That’s when students always turned their thoughts to Tammen. 

I mean DAYUMMM, you guys. Who among us wouldn’t have paid hundreds to hear that talk? I would have given my eye teeth, my “J” teeth, my “K” teeth, and my “LMNOP” teeth to get a chance to hear Joe Cella riffing verbatim on the Tammen case. The Heritage Room would have been packed to the rafters that night. Joe would have been fielding student questions way past his allotted time. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Something happened in the short time interval between Friday’s printed announcement and the following Tuesday that brought Joe’s talk to a grinding halt. In the next issue of the Miami Student—October 30th—this notice was published:

Cella cancelled

Joe Cella’s presentation on the “Ronald Tammen Disappearance” which was scheduled for October 31 has been cancelled. Cella, a news staff worker on the Hamilton Journal, has not received clearance from federal authorities to release material which he has acquired concerning the case. Cella has promised to present his material as part of a Program Board event pending receipt of such clearance.

“Hmmm,” thought I, when I first read the blurb.

Let me tell you a little something about practitioners of journalism, especially journalism of the investigative variety: we don’t wait around for permission to reveal something we’ve managed to dig up. We’ll protect our sources till death if need be, and we’ll protect people’s personal information too. Also, journalists who have somehow accessed classified information that could impact our national security have often elected to withhold that information for, you know, national security’s sake. But material on Ron Tammen? That seems like fair game to me.

So who put the kibosh on Cella’s talk? I doubt that it was the students who served on the Program Board. In 1973, Watergate was front-page news and the Vietnam War still had two more years before all U.S. troops had exited Saigon. Students were wary of feds in general—plus, what student wouldn’t want to hear the inside scoop on Tammen?

What about Cella? From what I’ve learned about him over the years, I’m sure there’s no way that he would have accepted a speaking gig and then, at the last minute, said that he needed to get an “all clear” from some federal agency before he could go public with the juicy tidbit he’d managed to get his hands on. Look at it this way: Can you imagine me calling the FBI and saying, “Hey, I’ve obtained a document stating that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act or a court order. OK if I print that on my blog? If you could send me your blessing ASAP, I’d be so grateful.” Yeah, right. If you’ll recall, I posted that discovery within 24 hours of my learning it.

Also, how would Cella have obtained whatever he obtained? It’s difficult to say, since we don’t know what he had, but someone representing a federal agency had probably given it to him. And once that happens, boom. It becomes public information. No additional permission necessary.

That leaves us with Miami University administrators. Did Miami officials cancel Cella’s talk, and if so, why would they give two hoots about what Joe would be presenting that night and whether he’d obtained prior permission from “federal authorities”?

Before I address that question, let’s refer back to Cella’s article from April 23, 1973. Not only did we learn about Doc Boone’s visit from Tammen in November 1952 but we learned something else in that article: that Doc Boone had attempted to tell Miami officials about Tammen’s visit back in 1953 but he’d been summarily rebuffed.

“I offered this information (the medical file card contents) to local authorities at the time, but it was always discounted,” the article quoted him as saying. Also, “I discussed it in the past a number of times with two or three persons associated with Miami University, but they didn’t want to discuss the case.” And this: “I feel I definitely got the brush-off.” And then: “As I said before, I offered the information but they didn’t care to listen or pursue it. So I just put the card away and forgot about it.” And finally: “Maybe this information could have been valuable then. I was upset because I was given the run-around by the school.”

Terms like brush-off and run-around aren’t the sorts of things a university likes to read about itself, and the article had indeed been noticed on Miami’s campus. Affixed to the back of the article in University Archives is a note with the letterhead of the Office of Public Information, which was under the direction of Robert T. Howard. Howard had succeeded Gilson Wright in leading Miami’s News Bureau in 1956, and in 1960, he was promoted to director of the Office of Public Information. 

The quasi-mocking note says:

Paul –

Who’s left for him to scold but thee and me?

Howard

Based on the letterhead, I believe the note was written by Robert T. Howard. I’ve tried to determine who Paul is, and I’ll offer up my guess here: I think Robert Howard was writing to Paul Schumacher, the director of Miami University’s Health Service. There weren’t that many Pauls in high posts at Miami in 1973-74, and it seems that it would be on topic for Howard to write to the head of the health service over a fuming physician and his evidence of an off-site doctor’s visit by Tammen.

Several months later, that little flare-up would have still been fresh in the university’s mind, particularly in the mind of the person whose primary responsibility was to show the university in the best possible light, Bob Howard. As Howard was reading the October 26th issue of the Miami Student, sipping his coffee and pondering the fall weekend ahead, he probably had a mini-meltdown when he read who’d be coming to campus on Halloween night. As head of Miami’s Public Information Office, Howard oversaw media relations for the university. Managing Joe Cella would have certainly been within his job description. 

Perhaps Howard was still stinging from Cella’s article about Doc Boone and decided that he wouldn’t be welcome on campus. If so, he might have called Joe to find out what he’d be talking about and made up the excuse that he’d need to obtain federal approval first, just to introduce a roadblock. Maybe. 

Or could the request for clearance from federal authorities have reflected a degree of familiarity with Tammen’s case? Maybe Howard, who’d been working in communications for the university in various capacities since 1947, knew about the federal government’s involvement in Tammen’s disappearance. If so, he would have also known that the university wouldn’t want to anger the sorts of people who I believe were pulling the strings. Perhaps Howard told Cella to seek clearance to make sure the university didn’t stray from whatever marching orders they might have been given back in 1953. If the feds say it’s OK, then it’s OK with us too, Howard might have told Cella.

I have no idea what materials Joe Cella had in his possession from the federal government concerning Tammen. Cella’s sons weren’t able to shed light on that question and his Tammen file is long gone. Likewise, when I asked them if they could recall the Halloween of 1973 when their father’s university talk had been abruptly canceled, it didn’t ring any bells with them. I also contacted former student representatives of Miami’s 1973-74 Program Board and asked if they could recall the incident. Only one person responded and that person had no recollection of the Tammen program that had been canceled.

In 1977, Cella was interviewed by a reporter for the Dayton Daily News about his search for Tammen. He didn’t mention the government materials he’d had in his possession in 1973. Instead, the article says: “Cella said that federal agencies have refused to cooperate with him or Tammen’s family.” In addition, it said that he’d attempted to obtain Tammen’s records from the Social Security Administration but was refused.

This past week, I was in Oxford again, conducting more Tammen research, and I was standing in Miami’s Athletic Hall of Fame inside Millett Hall. There, among the photos of swimmers, wrestlers, football players, basketball players, and the like was a photo of Robert T. Howard, who’d been inducted in 1989 for his role in directing sports information.

So…who do you think canceled Joe’s Halloween talk in 1973?

As for the year 2021, Happy Halloween to all who celebrate! 🎃

The tinderbox and the match: the honest truth about the St. Louis fire of 1973

This is a black and white image of the National Personnel Records Center building on fire. White and black smoke is pouring out of the top floor windows as water is being sprayed at opposite ends of the building.
The 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO; Source: FBI

Today, we’re going to take a break from my Ronald Tammen updates to discuss a topic that many of us have run into when seeking a person’s military records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO. Perhaps you’re one of the unlucky persons who has tried to locate a family member’s records and received a letter that opens with these discouraging words:

“Thank you for contacting the National Personnel Records Center. The complete Official Military Personnel File for the veteran named above is not in our files. If the record were here on July 12, 1973, it would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire on that date and may have been destroyed. The fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel who separated from the service between 1912 and 1959, and records of Air Force personnel with surnames Hubbard through Z who separated between 1947 through 1963.”

More than 22 million files were lost in the fire. Fortunately, staffers in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which oversees the records housed in the NPRC, have been able to reconstruct details of the affected veterans’ time spent while they were serving our country, though those details are likely incomplete. NARA employees are good at what they do, but they’re not magicians.

I’ve always wondered about that fire, which sounded suspicious to me. How did it even start?

Last month, I was submitting a request for Richard Tammen’s (Ron’s younger brother’s) military records—which, alas, I’m afraid may be among those that were destroyed—when I also decided to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI regarding their investigation into the St. Louis fire. Nine hundred digital pages later, the smoke has finally lifted. It took some work—the FBI never makes things easy, and you won’t believe the lengths they went to this time in order to keep the facts hidden. (Spoiler alert: I’m seeing strong signs of a cover-up that reeks of something far worse.) But after sifting through the documents and comparing what seemed to be the most relevant clues, a heartbreakingly human story has emerged. From what I can tell, this story has never been told publicly before. Other people have FOIA’d these same documents—I’m not the first person to do that. But you, Good Man readers—you, the most scholarly bunch of history-slash-mystery buffs I know, will be the first to learn the truth as best as I can tell.

First, let’s have a quick rundown on the fire. It broke out in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 12, 1973—around 12:15. At that time, most of the building’s occupants were custodians and maintenance workers who’d started their shifts at 4 p.m. the previous day and who would be officially off duty at 12:30 a.m. As the workers were winding things up for the night, returning trash carts and tools to the first floor of the building and signing out at the guards’ stations on the first and second floors, they started to smell the smoke. It was primarily traveling downward by way of the elevator shafts from one of the upper floors, though, at the beginning, they couldn’t be sure which one. Some people ventured to higher floors to scope things out, but the walls of smoke quickly drove them back.

As workers exited the building, some to their cars and others to the fenced-in area surrounding the building, their vantage points improved. Glowing flames were visible through the windows at the south end of the sixth floor—the uppermost floor of the building. Someone called the fire department and minutes later, the first firetruck arrived at the scene. Over the next five days, 42 fire departments would help battle the blaze.

Remarkably, the fire had grown so intense so quickly that firefighters couldn’t put it out until the sixth floor was in ashes and the concrete roof had collapsed upon it.

What’s more, no one would be able to officially pinpoint the fire’s cause, at least not from the physical evidence. Neither the fire marshal nor the FBI laboratory staff who flew in from D.C. to investigate would be able to safely explore the sixth floor before the roof caved in. The FBI’s ongoing talking point was that there were no signs of arson, but how could they know without having been on the sixth floor? Any possible signs of arson would have been buried under concrete rubble.

But make no mistake: arson was always the suspected cause. Building representatives and the FBI would occasionally speculate about faulty wiring or spontaneous combustion when speaking with news reporters, but the question in the front of their minds was always: who set this fire and why? Because for some reason, people were always lighting fires in that building. In the two years prior, a dozen or so fires had been discovered in rest room trash cans, custodial closets, and other areas. Some were reported to authorities. Other fires discovered in the nick of time were extinguished and quietly forgotten.

Also, the building, which was ballyhooed as being fireproof, was a proverbial tinderbox. Paper documents numbering in the tens of millions were tightly packed in cardboard boxes on metal shelves. As a cost-saving measure, someone from the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversaw the facility and the staff who maintained it, had made the decision to install sprinklers and fire alarms only on the first and part of the second floors. The upper floors, where the majority of the files were stored, went without. Another money-saving decision was to turn off air conditioners at 5 p.m. every night throughout most of the building, including the file areas. Custodians steered clear of the files as much as possible, though occasionally, someone would go there for a quick smoke , even though smoking was forbidden in those areas. They would brave the unbearable for some privacy and a nicotine buzz.

In addition to housing the military records, the NPRC served as an annex of sorts to the St. Louis field office of the FBI. Agents stationed on the second floor of the building could easily conduct background checks for persons who’d served in the various branches of the military. 

Even though FBI investigators couldn’t look through the physical evidence on the sixth floor, they still had access to the next best thing: people. On July 12, they began to interview as many workers as possible who might be able to share information about the fire’s origin, especially anyone who was working in the building the previous night. If they were working on or near the sixth floor, that was all the better. “Did you see anything or anyone unusual?” would have been one of their go-to questions.

One custodian who was interviewed twice—first on July 12, and later on the 16th—had told investigators that he’d been working on the sixth floor for part of his shift but then went downstairs at around 10:30-10:45 p.m. During his second interview, this additional detail was written in the summary: “There was a crew of possibly three people who were buffing the floors on the sixth floor after he left.”

A custodian who’d been waxing the floors that night (likely on the sixth floor, although that detail has been redacted), was interviewed on July 13. We’ll discuss his comments in a few minutes.

On Tuesday, July 17, another night custodian, Terry Gene Davis, was interviewed. Davis was a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran, formerly with the U.S. Coast Guard. He’d also attended Meramec Junior College for a time. He’d been working as a custodian at NPRC since June of the previous year.

Davis didn’t work on the sixth floor—he was mainly stationed on floors four and five. However, he was one of only a few people who’d gone upstairs after the fire had started to see if he could find the source. On his own initiative, he took the stairwell all the way to the sixth floor to have a look around.

Davis walked to the southern part of the building and reported that the “west one-third of the building on the sixth floor in the file section was not on fire and was relatively clear of smoke.” It was when he started walking eastward, however, that “he ran into a solid wall of heavy dense, grayish-black smoke.” 

Click on image for closer view
Click on image for a closer view

More than 80 individuals were interviewed in the ensuing days, offering up whatever details they could think of that might be of help. Nevertheless, it didn’t appear as if the FBI was getting any closer to finding the source of the fire.

That all changed on October 12, when a male custodian signed a confession stating that he’d been smoking a cigarette near the files on the sixth floor at roughly 11 p.m. on July 11. He couldn’t recall his exact location, but said that it was at the south end of the building, toward the western side. The person, whose name is redacted, recalled discarding the match on the floor, and then snuffing out the cigarette in a screw hole in one of the metal shelves. 

“It has been on my mind and I have been worried about the fire because I did not intend for it to happen,” he said. 

Then he addressed a point that the special agents who were grilling him had undoubtedly asked about. Five employees had first-hand knowledge of him stating that he’d set the fire on purpose.

“I told some people that I threw matches in the files but I was only running off at the mouth,” he said. “I lit one match for my cigarette and I shook it out and threw it down. I don’t know where it landed but I think it landed on the floor.”

He signed the statement, and then two special agents added their signatures as well as the smoker’s identifying information.

Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view

With this new development, U.S. Attorney Donald Stohr instructed the FBI to interview the five coworkers concerning the sixth-floor smoker’s remarks. They said that they recalled him saying things about starting the fire, but they didn’t take him too seriously. The smoker on the sixth floor was known as an attention-seeker, they said. But as the months wore on, his claims grew bolder. He was saying that the fire was intentional—that he’d pulled out a box of files and lit it with his matches. A couple people warned him to be cool and to stop talking. They actually started to believe him. He was also beginning to show signs of worry, wondering what they would do to the person who set the fire. The fire was beginning to consume him. 

“It was obvious that he felt things more deeply than he let on,” one of them said.

Their statements are included here:

Stohr also asked that the FBI check with the smoker’s school and doctor for possible background info. We don’t get to see much of anything that they said, but I’ll include those heavily redacted summaries anyway:

School records of the sixth-floor smoker; click on image for a closer view
Doctor’s records of the sixth-floor smoker; click on image for a closer view

They also checked with the local police, who had nothing on him:

Police records (or lack thereof) of the sixth-floor smoker; click on image for a closer view

Stohr didn’t think that they had enough evidence to prosecute the sixth-floor smoker. A remorseful confession plus hearsay repeated by five coworkers didn’t sound like a slam-dunk to him. He said that they had two choices: turn matters over to the GSA, the smoker’s employer, and let them deal with him as they saw fit. Or, they could present their evidence to the Federal Grand Jury in the Eastern District of Missouri to see if they had enough to initiate criminal proceedings. Stohr and others elected to do the latter and they argued their case on October 31, 1973. That same day, the Grand Jury returned a “no true bill,” which means that they didn’t feel that the U.S. Attorney had enough evidence to prosecute the case. The case was closed.

The next day, Terry Gene Davis shot himself in the head and died. Or at least that’s the official date that’s on the books. He hadn’t reported to work since October 30, and his body wasn’t discovered until November 5, when a concerned coworker who lived next door checked on him. The coroner said that, based on the state of decomposition of his body and the most recent sightings, he died on November 1. 

Here’s the note that Terry Gene left behind, which has been lightly censored by someone at the FBI. I have no idea what the three asterisks mean, but I’m pretty sure I know what the two blank lines represent, and I agree with him on that point 100 percent.

“There just isn’t any point to any of this. Nobody gives a damn and never has. Blame it on dope. Blame it on parents. But people *** are the cause of all the _______   _______ in the world. All I ever needed was to know somebody gave a damn about anything to do with me.

“Where is truth? Where is love? Where is anything that is real? Thank you KADI. Thank you KSHE. Thank you humanity.”

The FBI summary noted that KADI and KSHE were local rock stations and that “Davis’ main ambition in the world was to become a star rock and roll performer.” It also said that he had been given an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard due to “psychiatric difficulties involving depression and anxiety.” Recently, he’d been having troubles with his parents and his girlfriend had just left him. He’d also had a minor car crash and had been arrested for riding his motorcycle through a prohibited area.

Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view

The article that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 9 showed no mercy: “Drug User Kills Self; ‘Nobody Gave a Damn,’” it said.

I’d like to request a do-over. I have no idea who Terry Gene Davis was. His name is way too common for me to feel confident about my search results on genealogy websites. Did he go by Terry? Gene? TG? Or did friends and family call him by both names, like a Jim Bob or a Tommy Lee? Here’s what we know: he was born on July 29, 1950, and he died November 1, 1973. He was just getting his sea legs, doing what budding adults do. He attended a junior college. He joined the service. He valued love, truth, humanity, and rock and roll. Even though I didn’t know him, I think I can also safely say this: If Terry Gene Davis had anything to do with the NPRC fire, I’m quite sure that he was freaking out in the days before he died. 

We’ve all managed to eff things up on the job at least once or twice in our lives, am I right? Oh my God, I’ve done some cockamamie things in my youth while I was on the clock. Have I accidentally burned down the entire floor of a federal building? Well, no. I’ll admit, that was pretty huge. But I also think that it could have been worse. The loss was less monumental than first realized and although there were injuries among firefighters, no one died in the fire. Also, as mentioned earlier, NARA has been able to reconstruct many of the destroyed records.

I’m going to go ahead and say it: I think Terry Gene Davis was the smoker on the sixth floor. And if Terry Gene did it, I think he regretted it terribly. On the night it happened, who walked up to the sixth floor to the very place where the fire was thought to have originated? Terry Gene. That sounds like something I might have done if I wanted to make sure I hadn’t caused the fire, just to put my mind at ease.

I know, I know. The identifying info under the smoker’s confession doesn’t match Terry Gene at all—not his height, not his weight, not even his race. (Apologies for the obsolete and offensive term used by the 1973 FBI.) His confession also says that the smoker cleaned the escalators on all six floors and worked as a custodian at NPRC for three years. In October 1973, Terry Gene had only been there a year and four months.

Terry Gene’s description:

Click on image for a closer view

Sixth-floor smoker’s description:

Click on image for a closer view

But is it possible—hear me out—is it remotely feasible that the FBI altered the identifying details of the sixth-floor smoker to throw everyone off? 

As you know, I’m usually a big believer in archival documents. I often look to them as touchstones of truth we can all rely upon. Could it be that at least one or more members of the St. Louis FBI felt differently? Could someone have viewed the smoker’s signed confession as an opportunity to manufacture a new reality? Tweak a few details, and bada bing, bada boom…you have an edited version that’s more pleasing to the powers that be, for whatever reason.

Coincidentally, the special agent in charge of the St. Louis field office had some history with that very thing. His name was Robert G. Kunkel, and he’d recently been publicly demoted by Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray in 1972 for writing a false report to Gray about the D.C. field office that Kunkel oversaw. The report had to do with the actions of Kunkel’s special agents at an antiwar protest, and he doctored the report to present a more favorable account of what had transpired. In a Washington Post article, sources had said that they felt “that Kunkel’s report had been motivated by a long-standing ‘don’t embarrass the bureau’ syndrome.” By the time of the fire, Gray was gone, and Clarence Kelly was the new FBI director. Did Kunkel or his special agents feel more empowered under Kelly, a fellow Missourian, to reinstate past editorial protocols? 

Here’s why I believe Terry Gene Davis was the sixth-floor smoker:

  • A floor waxer mentioned a white male Vietnam veteran in his early 20s
    As I mentioned earlier, on July 13, the FBI had interviewed a custodian who’d been waxing floors the night of the fire, likely on the sixth floor, though the floor number is redacted. During that interview, the custodian had passed along various names and background info, most of which were redacted. The exception was when he described one—possibly two—white male Vietnam veterans in their early 20s. 

    Another custodian had said that the sixth-floor custodians were waxing floors around 10:30-10:45 p.m. If so, then the floor waxer could have seen the sixth-floor smoker at 11 p.m., and the smoker may have been one of the Vietnam vets that he’d mentioned to the FBI.
  • The sixth-floor smoker’s school and medical records were requested by US Attorney Stohr
    Stohr had requested school and medical records for the sixth-floor smoker. Although the words are redacted, we can see that his school record is a couple inches in length, which is likely to include more than his K-12 years. In the smoker’s confession, he said that before he started working for NPRC, he “attended” BLANK, which was redacted. So it seems as though the person attended some type of college after high school. Terry Gene had attended Meramec Junior College.

    As for medical records, I don’t think Stohr would have been interested in hearing from the sixth-floor smoker’s GP. Stohr was considering a possible arson case, so it makes more sense that the doctor who Stohr wanted to consult would have had direct knowledge of the smoker’s mental health. We know that Terry Gene experienced depression and anxiety in Vietnam, so much so that he received an honorable discharge on that basis. I’m no expert, but it sounds as if Terry Gene may have been suffering from PTSD, which has afflicted many Vietnam veterans. If Terry Gene was being treated by a Veterans Affairs–appointed psychiatrist, which is a reasonable hypothesis, and if he was the sixth-floor smoker, Stohr would have wanted to hear his psychiatrist’s opinion.
  • The sixth-floor smoker’s whereabouts and comments after the fire started match those of Terry Gene
    One of the five coworkers (coworker 4) recalled that the sixth-floor smoker had been on the sixth floor after the fire started and that he’d noticed no flames toward the west end. (See page 7 of the coworkers’ statements: paragraph 3, last sentence.)

    Based on Terry Gene’s 7/17/73 interview, he was on the sixth floor after the fire started. He also said the following: “He walked over to the south side of the building where the windows are located and said that the west one-third of the building on the sixth floor in the file section was not on fire and was relatively clear of smoke.” 
  • Terry Gene Davis killed himself one day after the Grand Jury ruling
    In the FBI report of Terry Gene’s suicide, we’re told about all the things that had been going badly in his life—his relationship with his parents, his girlfriend’s decision to leave him, his car accident, his arrest. If Terry Gene was responsible for the NPRC fire, then all of the above could have been the result of the stress he was under because of the fire. Stress can heat up our emotions. It can break up our relationships. It can make us prone to bad decisions. 

    The coroner said Terry Gene had died on November 1, a detail I can’t dispute. However, if Terry Gene was the sixth-floor smoker, is it possible that he hadn’t been made aware of the Grand Jury’s decision? No one mentioned calling him on October 31st, for whatever reason—they simply said that he hadn’t been to work since October 30. If Terry Gene was the sixth-floor smoker, then perhaps he didn’t even know that he wouldn’t be facing prosecution by the federal government, which probably would have been a huge relief to him. 
  • A handwritten note on the FBI report of Davis’ suicide refers to the “no bill” ruling that was returned by the U.S. Fed. Grand Jury for the sixth-floor smoker
    At the bottom of the FBI report on Terry Gene’s suicide, dated 11/6/73, someone has jotted the following note. As best as I can determine, it says [with question marks added where I’m unsure]: 

    ASAC Devic
    Advised 9:15 11/16[?]/73
    What[?] Co Report
    Submitted 11/5/73
    Reflecting no bill at U.S. Fed. Grand Jury

    The words “ASAC Devic” refer to the assistant special agent in charge of the St. Louis field officeThe next two lines are more cryptic. Perhaps that’s the date and time that someone had been advised of Terry Gene’s suicide, though it’s too difficult to say. The bottom two lines are easier to decipher. I believe they refer to the 11/5/73 FBI report that notified the US Attorney and the GSA about the “no bill” ruling for the sixth-floor smoker. Whoever wrote the note felt that the Grand Jury ruling on the sixth-floor smoker somehow pertained to Terry Gene Davis, who’d committed suicide one day after the Grand Jury’s ruling.
Handwritten notation refers to the “no bill” ruling by the Grand Jury for the sixth-floor smoker on the memo about Terry Gene Davis’ suicide; click on image for a closer view
  • The 11/6/73 memo on Terry Gene’s suicide says that Terry Gene furnished “strongest information implicating” the sixth-floor smoker 
    In the FBI’s response to my FOIA request, they supplied me with two versions of the same memo announcing Terry Gene’s suicide. The memo pertained to a report submitted by one of the special agents dated 10/17/73. That report included the sixth-floor smoker’s signed confession and the statements of the five coworkers who’d heard the smoker talk about starting the fire.
Click on image for a closer view

In one version of the memo (excerpt directly above), the first sentence reads “For information of Bureau, TERRY GENE DAVIS, who in interview set forth in referenced report furnished strongest information implicating REDACTED in captioned fire, discovered dead 8:30 PM, 11/5/73.” The words “strongest information implicating” are visible in that version but they’re redacted in the other version, which is shown with the handwritten notation under the preceding bullet. Bar none, the strongest information implicating the sixth-floor smoker was the signed confession, which tells me that, if the author of the memo is being truthful, Terry Gene furnished the signed confession.

The referenced report also included the statements of the five coworkers. Could one of those individuals have been Terry Gene? No, not based on the identifying characteristics that are provided. Not one person in the report has the same identifying characteristics as those supposedly belonging to Terry Gene Davis, as presented after his 7/17 interview. In other words, if Terry Gene’s information was so incredibly strong in implicating the sixth-floor smoker, where was he in the report?

Coworker 1

Coworker 2

Coworker 3

Coworker 4

Coworker 5

In July 1974, Ted Gest, of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote an article on the probable cause of the fire, quoting US Attorney Stohr. The article said that the fire was due to an employee’s careless smoking in a nonsmoking area. I’m including Stohr’s quotes below because they’re especially interesting when they’re applied to the deceased Terry Gene Davis:

  • “Stohr said his office had concluded that the suspected smoker ‘is not prosecutable criminally.’” 
  • “Stohr said the suspect no longer worked for the government.” 
  • “Because he was ‘employed under a program for handicapped persons,’ no public identification will be made, Stohr said.”
  • “Stohr said of the suspected cigarette smoker that ‘there would appear to be very little merit in endeavoring to recover any damages in a civil proceeding because of (his) personal circumstances.’”

You may be wondering why the FBI and U.S. Attorney Stohr didn’t come clean about the person who caused the fire, be it Terry Gene Davis or someone else. Was the secrecy to protect the person responsible? I doubt it.

Here’s my guess regarding the reason: Typed on a sheet behind the sixth-floor smoker’s confession is a short, heavily redacted paragraph in which one of the FBI’s special agents who worked in the NPRC says that he loaned a cigarette to REDACTED on the night of the fire. 

Click on image for a closer view

A follow-up memo said that it happened at around 11 p.m. the night of the fire and that the cigarette-lending special agent also provided a light to the suspect. Unfortunately, the memo goes on to say that they aren’t able to get the special agent and the suspect in the same room for an ID since one of them was on administrative leave.

Click on image for a closer view

If an FBI special agent was the source of the cigarette that burned through 22 million veterans’ personnel records, that’d be bad. If Terry Gene Davis was the sixth-floor smoker and the FBI covered it up to hide their possible culpability, that’d be worse. And if, as part of their cover-up, they decided to say that the sixth-floor smoker was Black when he was white, that’s morally repugnant and racist as hell.

Terry Gene was right. “Where is anything that is real?”

**************************

If you’re interested in obtaining a family member’s military records, go to this website and follow the instructions. Even if the record was destroyed in the fire, NARA personnel have been incredibly helpful in piecing together at least some pertinent information. They did it for me.

**************************

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 800-273-8255.

Help is available 24/7.

Zeroing in on Ron’s ‘zero’ file

Cincinnati Field Office, image credit: FBI.gov

On or about May 17, 2008, someone in the Cincinnati field office of the FBI discarded a document on Ron Tammen. The document was located in their Classification 190 files, right up front, in the file labeled “0”—known as the zero file. Classification 190 files have to do with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Privacy Act. As for the 0 files, here’s what the National Archives and Records Administration has said about them: used for administrative and logistical matters but mostly were used for citizen correspondence related to a classification, routine request for information, and general reference materials.

As you may recall, I was a little bemused when I learned that Ron’s 0 record had been destroyed in May 2008, since I also knew that Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective, had reopened the case roughly five months earlier, in January. Butler County is in the Cincinnati field office’s jurisdiction. Why would the FBI have destroyed Ron’s record when they knew the case had been reopened? And did they ever pass along whatever was in the 0 file to Det. Smith? And if the document had to do with the Privacy Act, could it be that Ron Tammen himself had requested that his fingerprints be expunged? That seems…oh, I dunno…significant.

As I mentioned in The Cincy file, I wanted to know more. As you can see in the above graphic, Ron’s now nonexistent document was identified with the ending label “Serial 967,” which means that his was document number 967 within the 0 file, behind number 966 and ahead of 968. I wanted to see who Ron’s neighbors were in the file, so I submitted a FOIA request for all documents numbered between 900 and 999. For example, if the surrounding documents were all fingerprint expungement requests, then I’d be willing to bet that Ron’s now obliterated document was a fingerprint expungement request as well. Today I received 39 documents, which you can review here.

There’s not a lot of information to be gleaned from these documents. Only the titles are provided, which offer at least a glimpse into the 0 file’s contents. Some of the documents are administrative. Some have to do with expungement requests from various people whose names—and all other pertinent information—have been redacted. Some have to do with requests for documents, most likely from people who wanted to review whatever documents that the FBI has on them. And then there’s the beloved redacted category. Here’s a breakdown by subject and the number of documents having to do with each. (Note that I was conservative in my groupings.)

SUBJECTNUMBER OF DOCS
[Redacted]4
Inmates rights1
Copy of inmates rights1
Application to DEA (*Drug Enforcement Administration, I believe)1
Expungement5
Court orders re expungement should go to BCII (*Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, I believe)1
Proof of death1
Request all documents5
Imperfected request, notary needed1
Entry ordering expungement1
Extry (*?) ordering expungement1
ELSUR (Electronic Surveillance) [redacted]1
CJIS instructions re expungement1
Proper submission of expungement1
Order sealing conviction1
Returning order sealing conviction1
Disposition of case1
Return disposition sheet—referred to DEA1
Third-party request require privacy waiver or proof of death2
Enclosing copy of certified judgment order expunging record1
Returning enclosures1
Inquiry re [redacted] Ident record1
Return judgment entry with Ohio instructions from CJIS1
CJIS and need for fingerprints1
Copy of Attorney General order 556-731
ELSUR check for [redacted] inmate1
Corrections on rapsheet1

It is what it is—generally, a hodgepodge of requests from a bunch of random people plus some administrative guidance from Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) on expungement and other noteworthy topics. I’m actually a little baffled by the 0 file’s lack of specificity. They couldn’t create separate files for expungement requests versus FOIA requests versus administrative guidelines under Classification 190? They had to toss them all into the same gigantic file?

But let’s not give up just yet. I’ve also come to learn a few additional facts about the Cincinnati file:

  • Just because the document number has a “CI” in front of it doesn’t mean that it originated in the Cincinnati office per se. The FBI’s Cincinnati field office encompasses 48 counties in southern Ohio. (Cleveland’s field office has jurisdiction over the remaining 40 counties in northern Ohio.) The Cincinnati field office also comprises resident agencies, which are located in other cities, such as Dayton and Columbus. Ron’s document could have originated in any one of Cincinnati’s resident agencies—we can’t be sure of which one. However, we can be sure that it originated in southern Ohio.
  • The Classification 190 files are overseen by the chief division counsel—a lawyer. This person reports directly to the special agent in charge, or the SAC. The SAC heads up the entire Cincinnati field office. 
  • The destruction of files is overseen by the administrative officer, and he or she does so on the basis of the document retention schedules we’ve discussed in past blog posts, generally years later. This person also reports directly to the SAC.
  • Ever since the FBI automated its files, agents can enter a name and pop up a number of files in which that name appears, regardless of the file’s origin. When the agent working with Det. Frank Smith was conducting his or her search on Tammen in January 2008, all of the relevant files appeared on screen, including Tammen’s Classification 190 record.
  • Detective Smith’s file on the Tammen case was given to me by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after Smith retired. His file contains all of the same FBI documents that I received from FBI Headquarters, with the exception that some portions of his documents had been unredacted (alas, nothing useful concerning Tammen, unfortunately). From what I can tell, he did not receive the 190-CI-0, Serial 967 document on Tammen.

One question I’ve had was whether the 190-CI-0, Serial 967 document was simply Det. Smith’s FOIA request to the Cincinnati office for Tammen’s documents. According to the FBI’s printout (above) of Tammen documents, which I’d obtained from my lawsuit, we don’t know the original date of the document that was destroyed in May 2008. Perhaps the FBI special agent whom Det. Smith was working with had created a record concerning Smith’s request  and he or she didn’t feel the need to send that to Smith as well. But I’ve discounted that theory, since the record was destroyed only five months later, far earlier than normal retention schedules would permit. 

Here’s where my head is at the moment: Document number 190-CI-0, Serial 967 could have been a boring old FOIA request from anyone seeking FBI documents on Ronald Tammen. Perhaps the agent working with Smith saw it and decided it was useless information for Smith’s purposes. (I can’t imagine who the FOIA requester would have been, though. I didn’t submit my FOIA request until 2010 and I think I preceded most others in the Tammen-obsessed public. For anyone reading this who may have submitted a FOIA request on Tammen to the Cincinnati FBI before 2008, please let me know.) Regardless, I’d think that the agent still would have passed the document to Smith. Who knows, the inquirer might have been relevant to Smith’s search. It’s tough to say without a date of origin.

It’s also feasible that Ron Tammen submitted a request to the FBI’s Cincinnati field office (or its resident agencies) to expunge his fingerprints, or, alternatively, that he submitted an information request to the FBI and that’s how he discovered that they’d had his prints. Either way, someone within the FBI may have felt the need to destroy that request in May 2008, five months after they found out that Butler County had decided to reopen his cold case.

Rest assured that Cincinnati hasn’t heard the last of me.

The second man, part 2: a Friday-night document drop

Good evening, dear AGMIHTF readers. Tonight I’ll be dropping three historic documents for your perusal. Please be advised: the forthcoming document drop will not be answering any major questions. Rather, these documents are more corroborating in nature. But, hey, corroboration is a good thing too, right? In fact, imho, there’s nothing quite like a little corroboration to get the weekend off to a half-decent start.

Tonight’s documents have to do with Richard Delp. As I explained two blog posts ago (and for those of you who are keeping score at home, that was post #79. Can you believe we’re now at #81?!), Richard Delp was an assistant professor in psychology who, for whatever reason, was listed in the number two spot of three professors in Carl Knox’s notes concerning Ron Tammen’s disappearance. 

Here’s a quick refresher from that post:

In October 1952, Richard Delp had been called onto the carpet by an unidentified supervisor, most likely department chair Everett Patten, to discuss his lack of a Ph.D., a crucial thing for someone in his position to have. He was given until the end of the 1953-54 academic year to finish his thesis, otherwise, his job would be in jeopardy. 

In a follow-up report of the conversation, the supervisor described admonishing Delp thusly: “I pointed out to him that he was now in his third year as an assistant professor, that the probation period was from two to four years, and that if he didn’t have his Doctor’s degree by the end of 1953-54, the question of his retention might arise.”

For those of you who are still keeping score at home, the end of academic year 1953-54 would be sometime in late May or early June of 1954, depending on whether or not you’re counting finals week in your calculations. Therefore, Delp had been given roughly 20 months in which to double down on getting his doctorate degree. Twenty months sounds totally doable, but it’s not realistic. Since Delp had such a taxing teaching schedule, and since he was pursuing his degree at Ohio State, he did most of his graduate work in the summers. Essentially, he had one summer—the summer of 1953—to get everything done.

He didn’t.

Most people would guess that Delp’s job in psychology would have come to an abrupt end, but that’s not what happened. A one-page administrative sheet documenting his salary and promotions while in the psychology department said that, in 1954, not only didn’t he receive a pink slip, but he received tenure. 

This concludes the refresher.

In academia, tenure is a prestigious perk that assures a professor that, unless they do something egregious, their job will always be safe. It’s a big deal. In order for Richard Delp to receive tenure, his nomination would have to be approved by the president of the university—who was Dr. John Millett—and the Board of Trustees, which met every year at the end of the spring semester. But at that level, the list is pretty much rubberstamped. The more in-depth conversations would have taken place earlier in the year with the provost, Dr. Clarence Kreger; the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. W.E. Alderman; and of course, the chair of the psychology department, Dr. Everett Patten.

So I wondered: were university administrators a little more lenient back then? I don’t know much about Dean Alderman, but I’ve read about how Kreger operated, and he was legendarily tough as nails. It wasn’t a secret that he intimidated people—a lot—Everett Patten being one of those people. How could Patten have convinced Kreger that Delp should be rewarded with tenure when his job performance in 1954 was so lackluster and he still didn’t have his Ph.D.? Was the one-sheeter accurate? I mean, look at it. It’s a mimeographed form with notations hand-scrawled in ink or pencil lead. It hardly looks like an official document. However, I’d seen records on professors in other departments, and they had the same penned-in forms. It seemed to be factual, but I wanted to be sure.

I went back to the university. The Board of Trustees meetings are posted on Miami’s Digital Collections, so I located the one that seemed to be the most promising contender for granting Delp’s tenure: June 4, 1954. However, when I read the minutes, I discovered that the handouts containing the names of the employees who were being voted on weren’t included online. I submitted a public records request to Miami’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC), asking if they still had them, and if so, could I have a copy.

Yesterday, the OGC sent me a scanned copy of the handout.

Document #1: Board of Trustees handouts – June 4, 1954

Two things jumped out at me: Not only did Richard Delp indeed receive tenure on June 4, 1954 (see page 7), but he’d been on leave during the spring semester of that year as well (see page 1).

So it all boils down to this:

  • In October 1952, Richard Delp is warned that he has until the end of the 1953-54 academic year—by June 1954—to get his Ph.D., and he promises to ask his thesis adviser and others at Ohio State how he can do that. 
  • Except for the year he took off from Miami to work full-time on his doctorate degree, Delp was mainly commuting to Ohio State during the summers to work on his Ph.D.
  • The only summer between October 1952 and June 1954 was the summer of 1953. But Delp didn’t register for graduate work at Ohio State that summer.
  • Also, he took time off from teaching during the spring of 1954, though we don’t know why. Perhaps he was writing his thesis, but, if so, he never defended it. He never registered for graduate work at Ohio State after summer 1951.
  • June 4, 1954, Richard Delp is approved for tenure by Miami’s Board of Trustees.
Richard Delp’s transcripts from Ohio State University. He never attended after summer 1951.

I may be wrong, but I think something happened between October 1952 (when Richard Delp was warned to get his Ph.D.) and June 1953 (when he should have been enrolled in graduate work at Ohio State) to make Richard Delp think that his position was safe with the Department of Psychology.

Documents 2&3: Men’s Disciplinary Board nomination

The other two documents I’m dropping tonight were written in August 1956, when Richard Delp was invited to sit on the Men’s Disciplinary Board, a board by which male students who veered outside the university’s rules were dealt with accordingly. Delp felt conflicted about sitting on the board, and he wrote to Kreger to explain why. Mainly, it was because Delp had been informally counseling students and he felt that assuming the two roles—informal counselor and disciplinary board member—would be problematic.

Dr. Kreger was not pleased. The next day, he wrote Delp, telling him that he wasn’t aware that Delp was acting in that role, and adding: “If you have assumed a personal counseling function which is taking a sufficient amount of your time to interfere with intellectual growth and scholarly productivity, I think we ought to know about it.” In a postscript, he reminded Delp that any extra time should be devoted to working on his Ph.D. instead. Kreger invited Delp in for a meeting, though I don’t know if it took place. I do know that Delp served as a member of the Men’s Disciplinary Board for academic year 1956-57 and possibly the following year as well.

My point is this: Clarence Kreger was definitely not a softie and the fact that Delp still didn’t have his Ph.D. in 1956 did not escape his notice. I just wish I knew what convinced Kreger and all the others to nominate Delp for tenure in 1954.

Again, I’m just putting the question out there. If you have thoughts/comments/questions, please feel free to DM me or write rontammenproject@gmail.com. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Did Richard blackmail Ron?, part 2

Photo by satria setiawan on Unsplash

Last November, we discussed Ron Tammen’s bank account—his earnings, expenses, savings, and outstanding debts at the time he disappeared. Even though university administrators had told the press at the time that Ron wasn’t in financial trouble, you and I couldn’t help but notice how hard he was working at a variety of jobs, and taking out loans to boot, yet he was still having difficulty keeping his head above water. 

Meanwhile, Ron’s younger and less agreeable brother Richard didn’t seem at all strapped for cash during 1952-53. How could Richard seemingly coast through his freshman year of college, subsisting only on the money he’d earned caddying in the summer? As a sophomore, Ron had caddied PLUS worked for the city of Maple Heights during the summer PLUS he had a scholarship, PLUS he had two regular jobs at Miami—playing with the Campus Owls and counseling freshman residents of Fisher Hall—PLUS he was always looking into other ways to earn money, such as donating his blood and whatever else. By April 1953, Ron should have had a hefty sum accrued in his checking account, but he didn’t. He only had $87 and some change, and he still owed the university $110 for board plus he needed to pay back a $100 loan.

All of this begged the question: Was Ron Tammen supporting his brother Richard?

Which begged another question: Was Richard blackmailing Ron?

On this Labor Day weekend, a time when we celebrate America’s workers, I thought it would be fitting to discuss Richard’s Social Security earnings statement. That’s right, readers, thanks to the assistance of some very helpful people, I now have Richard’s Social Security earnings statement for 1952-1954, the years he attended Miami as a freshman and sophomore. 

Before we delve, I’d like to discuss what a Social Security earnings statement is and what it isn’t.

But first, this caveat: OH MY GOSH, you guys, this is so not my area of expertise. I’m sitting here on a gorgeous Saturday reading the Social Security website just trying to understand this topic well enough to explain it adequately. If you happen to specialize in this area and I get anything wrong, please don’t hesitate to let me know, albeit gently. I didn’t pursue a career in tax law for a reason.

OK, let’s do this.

The Social Security earnings statement is a document that the Social Security Administration (SSA) produces detailing how much money you earned in a given year or years. They used to mail it to you but now you can create it on demand online. The earnings statement represents the amount of money that your employer has reported having paid you so that certain taxes can be withheld. Today, employers report annually, but in Richard’s and Ron’s day, it was reported quarterly. Come January of each year, we receive a W-2 with all of that info spelled out so we can use it to file our taxes. The SSA also uses the information to figure out our retirement income when that happy day arrives.

Still awake? Brilliant. The Social Security earnings statement may not include everything you earned for a particular year, however. Sometimes money will trade hands off the books, and the onus is on you to keep track of your earnings and file your taxes accordingly. Take caddying, for example. I’m sure both Ron and Richard were paid in cash by whomever they accompanied on the golf course on a given day. Also, Ron’s music gigs—I’m guessing the musicians were also paid in cash with no taxes withheld. But Ron’s jobs with the city of Maple Heights and Miami University would have definitely been included on his Social Security earnings statement. In Mr. Tammen’s letter to Ron in September 1952, he passed along tax information from Ron’s last check stubs from the city. 

Other potential sources of income that would not show up on the earnings statement would be:

Scholarship income

As I explained in an earlier post, Ron had a scholarship through the Cleveland District Golf Association. However, to the best of my knowledge, Richard didn’t have one. His academic standing wasn’t as good as Ron’s and a news article didn’t list him as a scholarship recipient for the year 1952-53. 

Loans

Richard wasn’t eligible for a university loan as a freshman. However, if anyone else loaned him money—such as Willis Wertz, the architecture professor who co-signed a loan for Ron—I don’t know. My guess is that Richard wouldn’t have been a good candidate due to his poor grades and his lack of a steady income by which to reimburse the loan.

Keeping all of this in mind, I will now report Richard’s earnings for the years 1952-54.

1952: $0

1953: $0

1954: $322.41

Like I said, we know Richard was caddying over the summers, which didn’t show up here. And we don’t know if he had obtained a loan. (I doubt it.) But we also can conclude that Richard wasn’t working for the university during this time, whether it be washing dishes, waiting tables, or anything else students might be employed to do. That income would have been documented here. Likewise, a job with an employer off campus where he would have received a paycheck would have been documented in his earnings statement. From what I can tell, other than caddying, Richard wasn’t employed in 1952 or 1953.

The year after Ron disappeared, 1953-54, was abysmal for Richard. The first semester, he was placed on probation after he was caught cheating. Two grades were changed to Fs to accompany two Ds and a B. The second semester was almost as bad, where he earned a B, two Cs and an F. His transcript states that he was “Dropped for Scholarship.” Richard had flunked out.

Richard Tammen’s transcript from 1952-53 and 1953-54; click on image for a closer view

That summer, Richard got a job with the G.W. Cobb Company, in Cleveland, which makes storage tanks and liquid handling systems. That’s where he earned the $322.41, which was good money for someone his age, translating to $3,272.08 in today’s dollars for about 3 months of work. (He was employed during a portion of the second and third quarters.) In September of 1954, he enlisted in the Army, where he would stay until September 1956. 

In April 1956, Richard reapplied to Miami, asking to be readmitted to the Department of Architecture after his pending discharge from the Army. Miami said OK, providing that “he must make an average of 2.0 at the end of each semester henceforth; failure to do so to entail permanent suspension.” Richard managed to live by their rules, and he received his bachelor of architecture in August 1959 and his master of city design in June 1960. [Well, he *mostly* lived by the rules. See my correction in the comments below.]

So let’s get back to the big question: was Richard blackmailing Ron?

I think it’s a safe assumption that Richard wasn’t employed throughout his freshman year at Miami. Either he was earning enough money through caddying in the summer and during breaks or someone may have been helping him out—maybe Ron. 

However, when Ron was a freshman in 1951-52, he didn’t appear to be working on or off campus either. Also, there’s no evidence of Ron needing to obtain loans during that first year. However, Ron did have his scholarship during his freshman year in addition to his caddying and city work in the summers and breaks. It’s possible that Ron’s and Richard’s income sources were enough to get them through their respective freshman years at Miami. For this reason, I don’t think we can jump to the conclusion that Richard was blackmailing Ron during Richard’s freshman year. It’s possible, and I’ll admit that I leapt there when I first saw Richard’s earnings statement, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.

What does seem pretty clear is that, during his second year at Miami, Ron’s expenses outweighed those of a typical college student back then. His sophomore year was substantially more costly for him than his freshman year had been, despite the fact that he was always working and didn’t go out much. His money seemed to be going out as fast as it was coming in. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m even more convinced that someone was demanding money from Ron. I just still can’t be sure who it was or why.

********************

What do you think? Am I overlooking something?

Also, in looking at my Social Security earnings statement, I see that I made $528 in my first-ever job, which was a waitress and grill cook at a local lunch counter. One of the skills I mastered there was bacon, where I learned to cook it extra crispy. An actual quote that I’ll never forget someone saying was, “We like to come here for Jenny’s bacon,” which I found hilarious but kind of cool.

And you? What was your first job as we celebrate Labor Day? Got any stories?