**and the ways in which Ronald Tammen’s case was treated as an exception to the rule
The year that fingerprints first became part of J. Edgar Hoover’s tactical toolkit was 1924, the same year Hoover was named director of the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, and also the year in which the Identification Division was created. The technology itself has changed since then, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was occupying the White House, the Charleston was all the rage, and “23 skidoo” was something people would actually say to one another to appear street smart and hip. It was a very long time ago.
And yet, change didn’t come quickly for the folks in the Identification Division—or Ident as they were known to their fellow employees. For decades, the FBI was collecting fingerprints with the same tried-and-true method that they’d used since 1924—rolling black inky fingers onto white cardstock—and training thousands of employees the art of eyeballing one card against another to assess whether they came from the same set of fingers. They were using this methodology through 1941, when Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a second grader. They were still using it in 1973, when they fingerprinted the guy at Welco Industries to see if he might be Ron. And they kept on using it for more than a quarter century after that. Not until 1999, after the FBI had changed the division’s name to Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) and later moved the division to West Virginia, did fingerprinting finally go digital.
Millions of cards—Ron’s, the guy from Welco’s, plus all the others—were trucked from FBI Headquarters to the new facility in Clarksburg, WV. So many cards. Enough to go around the world if laid back to back, according to a former employee. Each and every card was scanned into a database, a feat in itself. Initially, that database was the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. IAFIS was a game-changing innovation that could sort through and match fingerprints in a fraction of the time that it would have taken an Ident staffer to do under the manual system. And as skillful as Ident staff were at reading fingerprint cards, no longer would the FBI need to rely on occasional judgment calls, which, much to Hoover’s and his successors’ chagrin, could vary. In 2011, CJIS began incrementally upgrading to the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, a massive database that is even faster and more powerful than IAFIS and incorporates fingerprint technology with all other biometric technologies except DNA. DNA has its own database, called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which we’ve discussed in previous blog posts.
So the process of collecting, sorting, and searching fingerprints has become way faster and more efficient thanks to the digitization of fingerprint data. But the basis of the technology—where the loops, whorls, and arches found on everyone’s fingertips are counted, categorized, and compared—is essentially the same as it was in 1924. And the importance of fingerprints in identifying one individual from another hasn’t changed much either, even today, when DNA reigns supreme.
Speaking of which, you know the meme of the guy who’s walking down the street with his girlfriend while he’s checking out another woman who just passed by?
Yeah, that one. DNA and the latest biometric tools, such as palm prints, irises, and facial recognition, may be what evokes oohs and aahs from people who like to keep up on the coolest new tech trends, which, to some degree, is most of us. But dollar for dollar, fingerprints continue to be the cute, nice, reliable technology that’s sometimes taken for granted. And yet, even with all the advances that are made in biometrics, it’s a safe bet that fingerprinting will continue to be an important identification tool for years to come. That’s because it’s built on the utterly astounding and never-proven-otherwise premise that no two people’s fingerprints are ever the same, even those of identical twins. And—get this—according to the book The Fingerprint Sourcebook, produced by the National Institute of Justice, of the U.S. Department of Justice, some people in China were using fingerprints as a means of identification as early as 300 BC. Does that blow your mind as much as it blows mine? How could people from 300 BC have known that fingerprints were so special? I’m quite sure that the first person to have used them would be surprised, no stunned, to know that their wild, out-of-the-box idea—their ancient hack to a primitive need—would still be used in 2020 and beyond.
Don’t get me wrong: No one here wants to disparage DNA. DNA is great. DNA is important. DNA technology has improved so much since the early days that even miniscule samples have helped solve cold cases such as the Golden State Killer. And if your DNA is found at a crime scene? Well, you’re probably toast. It’s pretty much attained “smoking gun” status, which isn’t the case for fingerprints. Fingerprints that are left at a crime scene—called latent prints—can be damning too, but, they’re rarely perfect. According to a 2017 study of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they are often refutable, since they’re usually incomplete and, as the AAAS study points out, nearly impossible to match to a single source.
Nevertheless, fingerprints, especially what the FBI calls the “ten print,” non-latent variety, aren’t going away anytime soon. If you want to know the true identity of someone, their fingerprints are better than a name. Better than a Social Security number. Better than a picture ID.
“Fingerprints are considered positive identification, so it’s a much better way to identify people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be identified. And that probably means most of the criminal element,” said one former CJIS employee.
So yeah—fingerprints, baby!
But we aren’t going to be talking about the science of fingerprints anymore on this blog post. No, the topic for today is standard operating procedures—or the bureaucratic maneuverings and machinations that take place once a set of fingerprints has been collected. In essence, we’ll be examining the life and death of a fingerprint, from the moment it’s pressed onto a white card or scanner and entered into the FBI’s system to the day it’s expunged. And friends, I challenge you to find anything on the internet that attempts to do what we’re attempting here. For the first time ever (I’m pretty sure), we’re pulling together information obtained from experts who categorized and analyzed fingerprints for the FBI for many years, a process that was drilled so deeply into their skulls that they could do it in their sleep. Then—when possible—we’re going to compare what the FBI routinely did, and sometimes still does, to what they did in Ronald Tammen’s case. And, spoiler alert: they aren’t the same.
My sources requested anonymity so they could speak openly, and because they no longer officially represent the FBI. We’ll do it like last time, in Q&A fashion. This time, however, I’ll list a question, provide an answer that merges what my sources told me with info from other related resources, and then, when applicable, compare and contrast that summary with the way things were handled for Ron Tammen, which will be printed in blue. Some answers may sound familiar to you, since we’ve discussed them before. Sometimes I added two and two together. You ready? Let’s do this.
Who can submit fingerprints to the FBI?
Only law enforcement agencies or a court can submit fingerprints to the FBI.
How it pertains to Tammen: This jives with Tammen’s case. Evidence indicates that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were taken by the local police in Fairview Park, Ohio, in 1941, when he was a second grader, and they submitted the fingerprints.
How were fingerprints submitted to the FBI under the manual system?
The FBI generally didn’t accept fingerprint cards from local police departments because they would have been overwhelmed by the numbers. Instead, they had state police bureaus and other channeling agencies. Generally, the local police department would send the prints to the state police bureau and the state bureau would send them to the FBI. Conversely, once the FBI determined whether or not there was a match, they would respond to the state bureau and the state bureau would notify the local police.
How it pertains to Tammen: According to info I have from around that time, the Fairview Park police sent the fingerprints directly to the FBI as opposed to going through a state police bureau. It could be that they’d gotten such an early jump on the FBI’s civil fingerprinting efforts that they didn’t need to involve a middleman. Whatever—this little swerve from the norm isn’t a big deal, in my view.
How are fingerprints submitted now?
It’s still law enforcement types and the courts who can submit fingerprints to the FBI, but they can do so electronically using the NGI system. Police officers can even fingerprint someone using a mobile device in their squad car, hit the send key, and then, in a matter of seconds, receive information on the person’s identity and whether he/she has a criminal record and if there are possible warrants out for their arrest.
How it pertains to Tammen: It doesn’t. It’s just interesting.
What does the FBI number mean?
The FBI number is assigned to fingerprints when they are submitted and placed in a file. It would not be assigned to a “return print,” a civil fingerprint that was going to be returned immediately to a local police department or to someone’s parents. This was the number that the Identification Division would use to track all information pertaining to those fingerprints.
How it pertains to Tammen: Ron had an FBI number (#358 406 B] assigned to his fingerprints, which means that the Identification Division took the time to create a fingerprint jacket for him (the folder where fingerprints were stored). This tells us that the FBI likely retained Ron’s prints from day one, as opposed to sending them back to Fairview Park, and that they also likely had his fingerprints on file the day Ron went missing. Is it weird that the FBI would have kept his prints when every FBI source I’ve spoken with has found this detail most unusual? Yes, it’s weird. But I’m just glad that A) he was fingerprinted at all, and B) the FBI retained the prints. Think about how much less information we’d have on the Tammen case if the FBI hadn’t had a fingerprint file on him. All the strange behaviors during all those critical years (particularly 1967, 1973, and ultimately 2002) wouldn’t have occurred. If my theory of what happened to Tammen bears out, then those fingerprints could be the one detail that his shrewd handlers had no prior knowledge of, and that Tammen had long forgotten about, that could finally bring us some answers.
What information was included in the fingerprint file/jacket?
The fingerprint jacket contained a person’s fingerprint card or cards. In a missing person case, if the Identification Division was fortunate enough to have the missing person’s fingerprints, that’s the only information they would maintain in this file. Other descriptive information would be housed in Records Management. As we all know from the preceding post, there was also an Ident Missing Person File Room, but it didn’t appear to be well known among Ident staff, and it was not part of the usual protocol when handling missing person cases.
How it pertains to Tammen: According to the FBI memo from 5-22-73, there was only one fingerprint card in Ron’s file, which followed protocol. What was unusual were the documents that had been kept—and removed from—the Ident Missing Person File Room, number 1126, in June 1973. I’ve filed several FOIA requests in hopes of figuring out that little side mystery and will keep you posted.
What did the FBI do with the civil print cards they collected?
Most of the civil fingerprint cards that the Identification Division received were treated as “return prints,” which meant that the FBI had no intention of keeping them in their files. Each fingerprint card would be searched manually against the criminal fingerprint file and, if there was no match, it would be stamped on the back: “no criminal record.” The card would then be mailed back to the submitting agency. If the civil fingerprint matched a criminal record, the submitting agency would receive a copy of the criminal record known as “a rap sheet.” (The FBI likely held onto those prints.)
Generally, the only fingerprint cards that would have been permanently retained by the FBI in the civil file would be military personnel and employees of the federal government. However, there was one group in particular whom Hoover encouraged to be fingerprinted, and that was the Boy Scouts of America. The organization, which had developed a merit badge in fingerprinting, would send the scouts’ prints to FBI Headquarters, and, in return, the boys would receive a letter thanking them for helping with the cause. According to MuckRock.com, the Boy Scouts’ prints were maintained in the civil file, though my FBI sources recalled that they had been returned.
How it pertains to Tammen: Every FBI source I’ve spoken with has been both surprised and skeptical that the FBI would have kept Ron’s fingerprints from 1941. Apparently, it was extremely rare for the FBI to retain children’s fingerprints in the civil file back then. However, the FBI clearly had his fingerprints on file at some point because in 2002, they expunged them. The fact that Ron’s fingerprints were assigned an FBI number convinces me that they held onto them as opposed to sending them back to the police or parents and asking them to return them when he went missing. (It doesn’t really matter which scenario happened, to be honest, but we’re going for accuracy here.) If the FBI did keep his fingerprints from childhood, they would have maintained them in the civil file until 1953. Then, when he went missing, they would have moved them to the criminal file since the criminal file is the active file that is always consulted when new prints come in.
What does the FBI do with the criminal prints they collect?
They keep them all. People who’ve been arrested 10 times will have ten sets of fingerprints in their file, ostensibly as a means for identifying latent fingerprints in possible future arrests. For example, if the fingerprint picked up at a crime scene isn’t very good, the FBI could bring up a suspect’s fingerprints from all ten arrests to find if a corresponding section of one of those prints is a match with the latent print. Also, retaining all criminal fingerprints creates a comprehensive history of all the dates the person was arrested.
Under the manual system, the first fingerprint card from the first arrest would be filed in the master criminal file. Fingerprints from any subsequent arrests were filed together in the person’s fingerprint jacket. Likewise, under the digital system, all fingerprint data was also entered into the database for that person.
The criminal file includes the fingerprints of, you guessed it, criminals, such as people who are incarcerated, arrested, or who have warrants out for their arrest. It also includes missing persons as well as some federal employees, such as people who work for the FBI. The latter policy started with—who else?—Hoover, who said, “if any of my employees have any contact with the law, I want to know about it!” Several other federal agencies with law enforcement responsibilities have their fingerprints in the criminal file as well.
How it pertains to Tammen: As you can see, the FBI goes to great lengths to preserve every set of criminal fingerprints that it collects, even in cases where multiple sets of prints for the same person are already on file. However, Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints—of which they only had one set—were expunged in 2002, even though Tammen was ostensibly still missing. We’ll be discussing this development in more detail later, but, for now, let’s try to fully appreciate how inexplicable and bizarre this action seems to be. By that year, Tammen’s single set of fingerprints—the FBI’s only definitive means for identifying him—would have been entered into IAFIS, taking up a negligible amount of digital space and harming virtually no one as they sat there waiting for a potential hit. For what earthly reason would the FBI feel compelled to erase them forever from their vast database? Why would that be in their best interest? I wonder.
Did the FBI ever check the civil file for a match?
According to one knowledgeable source, the only time an Ident staffer would consult the civil file is in the case of an unidentified deceased individual. If a set of fingerprints came in of an unknown person who had died, they’d first search the criminal file, then they’d search the civil file. During the Vietnam War, for example, the fingerprints of unknown soldiers who had died in combat would be sent to the FBI for identification. In such cases, the civil file would always be checked, since that’s where the prints for members of the military were maintained.
How it pertains to Tammen: This would only pertain to Tammen if his fingerprints were in the civil file and he turned up dead. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if either happened.
Do they still keep criminal and civil fingerprints separate in NGI, or are they all lumped together?
According to a 2015 article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all fingerprint data, civil and criminal, are now lumped together under NGI, and searched together thousands of times a day. While individuals found in the criminal file should be used to having their fingerprints searched for matches, this was a new development for people in the law-abiding civil file, and it creates privacy concerns. My FBI sources had retired before this policy was implemented, so they wouldn’t be able to comment. However, the controversy appears to be ongoing.
How it pertains to Tammen: It doesn’t, since Tammen’s prints were expunged in 2002, nine years before the transition to NGI had begun.
How difficult would it be to compare two sets of fingerprints in 1967: Ron Tammen’s, whose prints were in the criminal file, and a soldier in Vietnam’s, whose prints would have been in the civil file? (Question is in reference to this post.)
On average it used to take an Ident staffer 30 to 60 minutes to manually search an incoming fingerprint card against the criminal file, depending on the complexity of the print. A longtime employee said: “…If there were two sets of prints, one from an individual, one the military, it would be very easy to compare them to see if they were the same individual or not.”
How it pertains to Tammen: When Mr. Tammen wrote J. Edgar Hoover in October 1967 asking if the soldier pictured in an AP photo might be his son, Hoover responded that he didn’t have any more information on Ron’s case and suggested that Mr. Tammen contact the adjutant general of the U.S. Army regarding the soldier. In my opinion, this was a classic attempt at appearing helpful without helping at all.
Was Hoover’s response flaky? Couldn’t Hoover have found out the soldier’s name and asked his staff to test Ron’s prints against the soldier’s?
Said one expert: “Yes, it was. I thought so too.” Said another: “I am guessing that the Bureau did not have the time or resources to follow up on a newspaper article with a picture.”
How it pertains to Tammen: Let the record show that I consider it flaky—and telling—that Hoover wouldn’t have asked one of his Ident staffers to do this minor task for Mr. Tammen. As for the suggestion that Hoover may have had insufficient time and resources, the Identification Division was one of Hoover’s biggest bragging points, where hefty amounts of resources were devoted to the processing of millions of fingerprint cards each year. In 1964, the year of the FBI’s 40th anniversary, they were averaging 23,000-24,000 incoming fingerprint cards daily. Couldn’t they take some time to look at a couple more? Once Hoover had determined who the soldier was by calling the AP or the adjutant general himself, all he needed to do was ask one of his many Ident employees to spend an hour or less comparing the two cards. If it was a match, he could be a hero. For some reason, he didn’t feel it was worth that small effort.
What does it mean to expunge fingerprints?
The word expunge is often used in legal situations when referring to a criminal record. If a criminal record is expunged—some indiscretion of youth, for example, for which a judge decides a person has done their penance and, in a sense, lets bygones be bygones—it’s either sealed or wiped clean, as if it never existed. In a missing person case, the preferred terminology is generally to purge the records.
How it pertains to Tammen: According to Stephen Fischer, the CJIS media liaison in 2015, Tammen’s prints were “expunged” in 2002, though no evidence exists to indicate that he had a criminal record. Fischer later referred to the criteria by which fingerprints are “purged,” using the terms interchangeably. From this point on in this post, I’ll use both terms interchangeably as well.
When are fingerprints expunged?
According to Stephen Fischer in 2015, “The FBI purges fingerprint data and records at 110 years of age or 7 years after confirmed death.” In addition, according to other sources, the FBI will purge fingerprint data upon receipt of a court order to do so.
How it pertains to Tammen: Ronald Tammen would have been 68 or 69 in 2002, far younger than the 110 years of age currently required with NGI or even the slightly more youthful 99 years of age that was required with IAFIS. Unless there was a court order (which I’m still attempting to find out), the only other (ostensible) possibility is that the FBI had confirmed Ronald Tammen to be dead. It should be noted, however, that when I asked my FBI sources if they would make the same inference, no one was willing to go out on that limb for reasons that I’ll get into shortly.
How does the FBI know when 7 years/110 years have expired?
Under the manual file system, it would have been more tedious and probably fairly random to keep track of expiration dates. Now, however, my sources concur that it is an automated process, though no one I spoke to was aware of how the system sifts through the file to detect expired records.
How it pertains to Tammen: Unless his fingerprints were purged because of a court order or there’s another possible reason to remove a person’s fingerprints that I’m unaware of, something must have tripped the automated system.
Why would the FBI want to expunge someone’s fingerprints?
In general, this is something they’d prefer *not* to do. The FBI still relies heavily on fingerprints as a means of identifying people, particularly all the standout folks whose prints are in the criminal file. It’s not in the FBI’s best interest to purge those fingerprints without a very good reason. Storage space happens to be one very good reason. Once the FBI digitized its fingerprint data in 1999, beginning with IAFIS, a need arose to free up some storage space on occasion. And with NGI adding biometric data that requires even more space, the need has grown stronger since 2011. That’s why they have the 110/7-year rule. Other reasons for purging involve the legal system—the court ruling we’ve discussed earlier, for example. But according to most of the FBI experts I’ve spoken with, the reasons for purging a fingerprint can be counted on three fingers of one hand.
How it pertains to Tammen: This is the question that keeps me up nights. Ron didn’t make the 110-year age cut, so it’s either that he’s dead, and the FBI knows he’s dead but they don’t want us to know they know he’s dead, or it’s the court order thing. However, one source I spoke with speculated that perhaps someone in CJIS decided to purge Ron’s prints when they noticed that, if alive, he would be a much older adult in 2002, and maybe he didn’t want to be found:
“There were some situations where people were adults that had been reported missing and they weren’t really missing. They didn’t want to be found for some reason. And so, to me, it makes a difference whether you’re a minor child or above the age of 18 or 21, because an individual can choose, for whatever reason, just choose to disappear for their own reasons, for whatever purpose.”
The problem with that theory is that it completely goes against protocol. Nowhere have I read or heard that the FBI would purge a missing person’s fingerprints once a missing youth had reached adulthood. Perhaps an Ident staffer might have been inclined to make that sort of judgment call under the manual system…I don’t know. But, in 2002, when they were relying on the automated IAFIS system? I doubt it. There’s another reason I don’t think someone would have removed his fingerprints simply because he was older. I’ll discuss it in the next question.
What happens if a missing person turns out to be dead?
If an unidentified body was found, the local police could submit their fingerprints to the FBI through the state bureau. If the FBI already had the missing person’s fingerprints on file and they were a match, the submitting agency would have been notified of the match through the state bureau. In addition, a notice would have been placed in the missing person’s file saying that they had been confirmed dead, and, if available, the date they died. Here’s an important point to remember: the FBI doesn’t immediately purge the fingerprints of a missing person who has been proven dead. They just add the note. Even if a person is dead, those prints can still be valuable. They might be useful in helping solve cold cases or for identifying bodies following a disaster. That’s why they have a policy to wait seven years before purging them.
How it pertains to Tammen: If the FBI purged Ron Tammen’s prints in 2002 because he’d been confirmed dead seven years prior, that would mean that he would have died in 1995 at the latest. The FBI was still using its manual system in 1995. They were still using fingerprint jackets, and there should have been a note in the jacket saying that he was dead, and perhaps when he’d died.
As one knowledgeable source said:
“And even if a print had been identified as deceased, in that jacket, there still would have been information written in there by hand that it had been identified as deceased individual such-and-such. So all that would have been automated [after IAFIS was introduced], along with the actual fingerprints themselves that were digitized.”
Ostensibly, no notes have been written claiming that Tammen is deceased. However, it also bears repeating that, even if they’d found Tammen to be dead, it wouldn’t be reason for immediately tossing his fingerprints. They would have waited the seven years. If the FBI doesn’t think it should just toss the prints of a dead person right away, I doubt very much that they’d purge the fingerprints of a missing person who’d managed to evade detection for many years as an adult.
Would the FBI purge a missing person’s prints after they’re found?
Same answer as above. The fact that a missing person was located would be noted in the jacket but the fingerprint card would be retained. A court order would be needed to physically remove the print—which would also include a note saying that the prints had been expunged. Otherwise, they’d wait until that person was 110 years of age or seven years after confirmed death.
How it pertains to Tammen: Again, no explanatory information was in his file—no record of having been located and, as pointed out earlier, no record of his being found dead, and no record of a court-ordered purging. Also, to further drive home this point, if the FBI isn’t willing to purge a missing person’s fingerprints after they’ve been found, why would they remove them while he was still out there, unaccounted for? Answer: they wouldn’t.
How do you fingerprint a dead body?
[Warning: this is gross] If an unknown deceased body was discovered, sometimes the fingerprints would be in bad shape due to decomposition. However, fingerprints have three ridges that penetrate the skin fairly deeply. In such cases, a technician would put on rubber gloves and remove the skin down to a more, um, legible layer, shall we say? Then, they’d roll those prints on a ten print card. According to one former employee, any fingerprint that came from a deceased body was generally of poor quality—too dark or too light. Therefore, it was often difficult to conduct a manual search using a dead person’s fingerprints.
How it pertains to Tammen: Sorry about that. But if Ron Tammen died and the FBI confirmed that he died, they might have had to do that. We don’t know.
What types of records are kept after fingerprints are expunged?
We’re building up to one of our primary take-home messages, and here it is: Fingerprints aren’t supposed to just disappear without some sort of record. Based on information provided by Stephen Fischer in 2015, no other info was available on Tammen other than the fact that his prints were expunged in 2002. But the removal of fingerprints while they were considered still active would require some note of explanation regarding when they were removed and why. And these notes of explanation were all to be digitized as part of IAFIS.
According to FBI protocol back then, the notes were to be printed in the file jacket on sheets called Additional Record Sheets or ARS’s. Not only did the ARS require an employee to provide their employee number and date the sheet any time they removed the file, but they also were required “to record any disseminations of the record, including notations of expungement or purges of record entries, such as deletions of arrests for non-serious offenses.”
And here was their record retention policy after adding these notes to IAFIS:
Hard copy files: DESTROY after verification of a successful scan.
Scanned version: DELETE when the individual has reached 99 years of age, or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.
You guys, and I’ll put this in bold italics for added emphasis: the information on Tammen’s ARS should theoretically still be available for his expunged fingerprints.
There was an additional record-keeping system that the FBI used to implement between the years 1958 and 1999. When the FBI purged a fingerprint file, they would put those fingerprints on microfilm for archival purposes. However, CJIS stopped making microfilm copies after IAFIS was implemented, which had been in place for roughly three years when Tammen’s prints were purged. Therefore, the microfilm library doesn’t apply to Tammen’s case.
How it pertains to Tammen: In February 2008, when former Butler County, OH, cold case detective Frank Smith requested a “hand search” for Tammen’s fingerprints, CJIS sent this response a couple days later by Fax:
“A SEARCH OF OUR CRIMINAL AND CIVIL FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR YOUR SUBJECT. A COMPLETE SEARCH OF OUR ARCHIVE MICROFILM FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR THIS MISSING SUBJECT AS WELL.”
What the CJIS rep neglected to tell the detective—a member of law enforcement, and therefore a supposedly valued working partner of the FBI’s—was that they’d expunged them in 2002. So, to recap:
- It appears as if someone in the Identification Division or CJIS didn’t document, didn’t digitize, or flat-out destroyed the ARS notations from Tammen’s manual jacket, including the reason for the expungement of his fingerprints in 2002, which is a clear break with protocol.
- CJIS also didn’t disclose to the Butler County Sheriff’s Department the full extent of their knowledge about the case, the very least of which would be that they’d expunged Ron’s prints in 2002. This, in my view, is another break in protocol since I would think that members of law enforcement should generally try to be forthcoming with one another. (I’m guessing that, if the FBI had told Smith that they’d expunged the prints, they could anticipate a potential follow-up question that they didn’t feel like answering. Something along the lines of “Oh, really? Why?”)
Does the FBI verify someone’s identity before they expunge their prints?
The FBI will not purge someone’s fingerprints unless they’re certain that the person whose prints they’re purging is who they think he or she is. If the FBI is purging fingerprints because of a court order, the court or submitting agency would have to provide identification to ensure that the FBI was removing the right set of prints. Often, this would involve another set of fingerprints since fingerprints are still one of the best ways to identify someone. Other times, they may get away with simply providing telling details, such as the FBI number, the date of the arrest, and other specifics on the case, but fingerprints are still best. In the case of a deceased person or a missing person’s fingerprints being purged, a source said that it would be based on comparing two sets of fingerprints to make sure they’re the same individual.
How it pertains to Tammen: Think about the above paragraph for a second and maybe read it again, because it says a lot. First, the FBI wouldn’t have purged Ron Tammen’s fingerprints without verifying that they were indeed Ron Tammen’s prints. This helps solve a gnarly little question about the year in which Ron would have supposedly died. If they purged his prints in 2002, that would mean that Ron had probably died around 1995. Well, guess who else died in 1995: Ronald Tammen, Sr., who died on January 10 in Florida. So that was always a possibility. But according to my FBI sources, this likely didn’t happen because they would have verified it. Second, if they purged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 because he’d been dead for seven years, then they would have verified those prints against a second set of prints sometime around 1995. Remember what Stephen Fischer had said about the seven-year rule: “seven years after confirmed death.” That means that they would have confirmed Ron to be dead by comparing his prints against the prints on file, and then waited seven years before the system purged them. That could also mean that they know where his remains are. Third is the question raised by the source who said it could be that someone tossed Ron’s prints because he would now be an adult who doesn’t want to be found. If the FBI ensures that every fingerprint that’s purged needs to be verified, then that rule would nullify this possibility. How could they verify that it’s the correct person if they don’t have a second set of prints with which to compare his to?
Discussion: When a missing person’s records go missing
Are we any closer to being able to say that the FBI knows more than they’re letting on? I think so. It’s clear that the FBI broke protocol at least once, and possibly more than once when dealing with Ron’s fingerprints. Since the last update, I’ve submitted several more FOIAs, one of which has to do with the question about Ron’s father. Although I’m nearly positive that it was Ron Jr.’s fingerprints that were purged in 2002, I’ve submitted a FOIA request asking the FBI to search the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) offline historical database for any files on Mr. Tammen too, including evidence of possible fingerprint files. If they don’t have anything, I think we can safely conclude they were Ron Jr.’s. With this latest post, you can see that there are more FOIA requests to submit, including, for example, an in-depth search of Ron’s digitized Additional Record Sheets.
It’s probably also a good time to raise another possibility with you, a “what if?” that may have been in the back of some readers’ minds throughout this entire blog. What if Ron’s fingerprints weren’t destroyed because he died in 1995 but because someone in a high place decided that, for whatever reason, they needed to be purged—someone who also didn’t want telltale notes getting in the way of “plausible deniability.” Missing notes and expunged fingerprints aren’t smoking guns. The first two could possibly be blamed on anything: a distracted employee, an inadvertent mix-up, a computer glitch, whatever. Or they may have never existed at all. Likewise, it’s extremely tough to explain why fingerprints are missing when the records that could give the backstory on why they’re missing are also missing.
Most maddening of all is that If I were to lay out my (nonexistent) evidence before an official FBI spokesperson, this is what I’d get:
That’s essentially what I got when I asked them a while back to comment, yes or no, whether they’d confirmed that Ron was dead. Remember what the spokesperson said? “The FBI has a right to decline requests.”
All along, I’ve been pointing to the FBI’s 2002 purging of Ron’s fingerprints as reason to believe that Tammen is dead. But if the missing documents and destroyed fingerprints tell us anything, it’s that, for whatever reason, the FBI may have made the decision to break protocol in Tammen’s case. And if protocol wasn’t being followed, well, that opens up a whole range of new possibilities, doesn’t it? I mean, could it be that Tammen, who would be 87 on the 23rd of this month, is still alive after all?