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.

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

  1. I hope this isn’t too off topic, but this kind of goes back two posts to the issue of Cella’s speaking engagement being canceled.

    I’d starred typing out a reply, questioning the whole suggestion by Robert Howard that Cella didn’t have FBI clearance.

    I was going to comment that I found it odd that University people who were on the periphery would mention the FBI at all. I’ve learned through years of researching disappearances from the 1970s and 1980s that the FBI did not/does not actively investigate missing persons cases unless specific criteria apply, such as a kidnapping across state lines, or an abduction from federal property.

    Halfway through my post, I had hit the back button, thinking maybe that wasn’t the case in the 1950’s. But the article you posted today states very plainly that the FBI does not investigate missing persons cases.

    So why would anyone, other than possibly Switzer or others who may have had knowledge of Ron’s whereabouts, have mentioned FBI clearance? Why not police clearance?

    I do agree with you that Cella wouldn’t have said that.

    Not sure this leads anywhere but it jumped out at me as strange.

    I always drop what I’m doing to read your posts as soon as they appear, thank you so much for all you do, amazing is an understatement.

    1. This is an awesome point. Thank you for bringing it up! I agree with you that the university had some inside knowledge in order to make that demand of Cella. Also, it’s interesting how, despite the fact that the FBI didn’t investigate MP cases, they were paying sometimes lengthy visits to various people (eg, Dick Titus, Chuck Findlay, and Mr. and Mrs. Tammen), and I’m not convinced it was because of the Selective Service case. Thank you so much, and thanks for your kind and supportive words about my blog!

  2. Can we talk a little more about who MSL might have been?

    That was a question that I’d spent some time trying to figure out a year or so ago. I’d submitted a FOIA request for the FBI to send a 1973 staff phone directory and they promptly turned me down on the basis of (b)(6) and (b)(7)(c) exemptions, both of which have to do with privacy concerns. I then asked the good folks of MuckRock (muckrock.com) if they had any suggestions, and they did. They sent me a couple 1975 FBI directories that had been released as part of a different FOIA request. I’m including a link to those telephone directories here: https://ronaldtammen.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/1975-FBI-Staff-telephone-directories.pdf.

    Note that Fletcher Thompson had retired earlier in 1975 and his name is not listed. Also, I’m not finding anyone in Identification with the initials MSL. (If you spot anyone who I may have missed, please let me know.)

    I filed a follow-up request through MuckRock for a June 1973 directory (or thereabouts) on the basis that equivalent materials had previously been released. The FBI responded that they had no responsive documents. I appealed saying that they’ve sent conflicting responses: that first they’d said they had something but they couldn’t send it due to privacy concerns, and later they said that they had nothing. I submitted my appeal in January 2021 and I’m currently awaiting a ruling on my appeal. (I’ll also add this synopsis to the score card, but I wanted to let you know here.)

    Btw, there’s another possible way for us to find out who MSL was. When Hoover died, several of his closest associates (e.g., Clyde Tolson, Alex Rosen, Helen Gandy, etc.) retired shortly thereafter. Did MSL retire at the same time as Fletcher Thompson? I’ll try to find some issues of the FBI’s employee magazine FBI Investigator from early 1975 and check the retirement listings.

    In the meantime, if you’d like to follow my request through the MuckRock site, it’s here: https://www.muckrock.com/foi/united-states-of-america-10/1973-fbi-employee-telephone-directory-identification-division-104417/

  3. //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.//

    Yeah, they can be that way. But ask the FBI to identify the specific employee with and/or using the initials MSL in the Identification Section in 1973 and see what happens. They’d have a hard time denying the evidentiary document prompting your request.

    1. I can give it a shot. I won’t be able to ask the FOIA folks that question–I can only ask them for documents. It would probably have to be the press office and, well…let’s just say that they’re not that into me. But I can give it a try. For the record, I’ve asked my FBI contacts as well as Fletcher Thompson’s adult children if they could hazard a guess and no one had any idea.

  4. Another evidence based request: Ask for all files removed from the Identification Section and placed in the Main Files for oh, a quarter, a year, some timeframe surrounding Ron’s records. If they claim nothing else, then ipso facto this was a special case.

    I’m still working through this post. It’s rather dense.

    1. Submitted a FOIA request just now for all Identification records that were relocated to the Main File of the Records Branch in 1973. We’ll see what happens. Thanks again for the suggestion.

  5. Just thinking conspiratorially, not my strong suit, but okay. I assume you know about ordering an “angel shot”, which is a code women use to signal a bartender for help. Google it if you don’t. Anyway, what if, I mean, what IF, MSL is an FBI code, and nobody with those initials ever worked there? Well, they wouldn’t show up in a directory, nobody would have heard of them, they couldn’t be disciplined for malfeasance and they’d never have to answer for violating FBI policy. A couple people would know the deal, but everyone else would be genuinely confused. Maybe that’s too far out there(why not just destroy the records?), but this case is driving me there.

    1. I hadn’t heard of the angel shot, but that’s very cool. You know….I was thinking along these lines as well. I was wondering if maybe they wrote their initials backwards, so MSL might actually be LSM. Or, as you suggest, it could be totally random.

      So…I’m wondering…FOIA was passed in 1966 and took effect in 1967, six years before Ron’s MP docs were removed from Ident. That means that by 1973, the FBI was well aware that their records could potentially be accessed by journalists and other interested parties. Also, Hoover was still alive when FOIA came to be and I’m certain that he wasn’t a fan. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he’d instituted aliases to keep identities hidden from public inquirers, especially for the secret stuff? The CIA uses aliases all the time—why not the FBI? 🤔 I’ll keep trying to get my hands on a 1973 directory, but this is definitely food for thought.

  6. Are you certain that MSL are name initials? I’m sure you’ve looked at enough FMI documents that you would know if a person’s initials are always present when the documents are altered, moved or destroyed. But I was just wondering if MSL might be a description of why the document was moved, or where it was moved to.

    1. I guess I m not sure of anything anymore and am definitely open to other interpretations. 🙂 I think one thing that makes me still think it’s someone’s initials is that on one of the docs (I don’t have them in front of me and am just about to head out the door) the letters MSL are written on a line next to the name Thompson, as if the person was signing the doc for Thompson. (Good heavens….what if MSL *is* Thompson?!) But yes, to answer your question, the jury is still out regarding the meaning of MSL and it may not be a person at all.

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