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.
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 Companies, Bayer 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.
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.