I think it’s time we chatted a little more about Richard, don’t you?
Richard, Richard, Richard. Where to begin?
Richard Tammen was…a pill. A troublemaker. A royal pain in the ass. All those things and then some. But could he have been a blackmailer?
Before we get too far into this discussion, I need to establish a few guiding principles:
Guiding principle number one: When I started this project, I’d promised myself (and my mother) that I wouldn’t be airing people’s dirty laundry indiscriminately. If I stumbled upon a few cadavers in someone’s closet, an arm bone or two in someone’s armoire, I wouldn’t be sharing that information unless it was pertinent to the case. So even though I knew as early as 2012 that the end of Richard Tammen’s life wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t prepared to publicize those details, because, to be honest, I didn’t think that they had anything to do with Ron’s disappearance. Now, however, I’m more inclined to believe that they may be indicative of someone with serious character flaws, which may be relevant to his Miami years after all.
Guiding principle number two: Anyone who is living who may be related to Richard through a marriage or whatever will not be named or discussed on this blogsite—ever. I believe in protecting people’s privacy, y’all.
And finally, guiding principle number three: We’re just tossing around some ideas at this point. Right now, I can’t say whether or not Richard was blackmailing Ron—or even if Ron was being blackmailed at all. But it’s a question worth pursuing, and so I will.
I’ve already passed along several details about Richard during his K-12 years, some of which may help explain how he came to be the person he was. One former neighbor who used to play street football with the three oldest Tammen boys said that they nicknamed Richard “Peewee” because he was so short. That’s bound to rile you after a while. John attributed Richard’s meanness to the fact that he was left-handed, and, for years, the teachers used to rap his knuckles to get him to switch hands. And while we’re on the subject of school, Richard was escorted to the principal’s office so often that John and Ron felt the need to employ a secret hand signal to let each other know if they’d spotted their mother Marjorie in the building. Her flair for the dramatic made things so much worse.
But lots of people who grew up in Richard’s day managed to survive nicknames and sore knuckles and trips to the principal’s office without becoming, um, blackmailers. John also said that the three boys got along, and were each other’s best friends—building forts, sliding down hills, cooking up money-making ventures. And Richard seemed to be following in Ron’s and John’s footsteps, joining all the same clubs in high school. Despite their personality differences, the Tammen boys looked alike. They dressed alike. They seemed to like to do the same kinds of things. When Richard came to Miami as a freshman during the 1952-53 academic year, he pledged Ron’s fraternity, Delta Tau Delta. Why would he do that if they didn’t get along?
Nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to escape who we really are, even as we mature and mellow, and Richard’s bullying reputation followed him to Miami. The Delts weren’t that enamored with Richard either. They knew him to be a hothead…an aptly named Dick. One of them let me know that the only reason Richard was invited to join the fraternity was because of Ron. And maybe that was always Richard’s survival method—riding Ron’s coattails to get through any door. Did he have his hands in Ron’s coat pockets too?
Seriously, would he do that? Here’s why I’m looking into this question: as far as I can tell, Richard was working his way through college by caddying in the summers, and that’s all. It doesn’t appear as if he had a job as a freshman at Miami. His brother Robert doesn’t recall Richard having any additional income sources either.
Ron, on the other hand, was also caddying during the summers. Before starting his freshman year at Miami, he reported earning $350 from caddying for the Hawthorne Valley Country Club as well as performing semi-skilled labor for the City of Maple Heights. In addition, Ron had received a scholarship as a caddie through the Cleveland District Golf Association. The scholarship was for high school boys who had caddied for at least two years (Ron had been caddying for 7 years before college), who carried at least a B-plus average, and who were “unable to finance a university education.”
We don’t know the amount of Ron’s scholarship—it varied from person to person. We also don’t know if he received a two-year or a four-year scholarship, but, of course, that didn’t matter anyway, given the way things played out for him. As for the fund itself, in 1952, it totaled roughly $4300, which was split by all the overlapping recipients over a given academic year (18-ish, per a 1953 article). Ron’s piece of the pie would have likely been in the neighborhood of at least a couple hundred dollars a year. Possibly more.
But here’s my point: it seemed to be enough. Ron seemed to be getting along just fine during his freshman year between his scholarship and the caddying and city work over the summer and vacation breaks. He didn’t have his other sources of income yet—the Campus Owls, the residence hall counseling, the blood donations—until his sophomore year. And the university’s loan program didn’t apply to freshmen.
Richard, on the other hand, didn’t receive the caddie scholarship. I know that, because I have the newspaper article announcing the recipients for 1952-53 on my hot little hard drive. And yet, at a time when he seemed to be surviving with only the income from his summer caddying job, Ron was working more than ever, doing all of the above. And here’s the kicker: with all of Ron’s sources of income, including the loans, and with few living expenses other than his car, you’d think that he would have saved more. But all he had in his checking account when he disappeared was a little over $87. And he still owed the university for most of his dining hall fees plus that $100 loan.
Do I intend to continue following the money? Oh, you betcha. I’m currently attempting to obtain Richard’s Social Security earnings report for the years 1952-1954, and, while I’m at it, I think I’ll ask them for Ron’s entire earnings report just to see what they do. But the Social Security Administration is almost as difficult as the CIA when trying to obtain FOIA records. There are other sources I’ll be reaching out to as well. I’ll let you know how things go.
Now, at the beginning of this post I promised to reveal something I’ve been holding back about Richard, and here it is: when Richard died in an apartment fire on October 23, 2004, he was heavily armed. Not only that, but at least some of his weapons were potentially—and I’m going to say probably—illegal.
As it so happens, Richard had two Smith and Wesson guns in his possession when he died. One was a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol and the other was a 40-caliber semi-automatic handgun. Now, this may surprise you, but I’m not a gun person. In fact, the above sentence reveals the extent of my knowledge regarding Richard’s taste in guns. At this point, let’s just say that they’re both lethal. Also, did a 69-year-old guy with health issues living in an apartment for seniors really need that kind of weaponry to defend his hearth and home? Me thinks not.
But what was most interesting about Richard’s firearms stash—and what gave at least one of the investigating police officers pause—was the ammunition. The pistol, which was found in the fire debris, was loaded with what appears to be 15 cartridges, though there are inconsistencies in that report. More clearly stated was what investigators had later found: another three magazines—two .40 caliber and one 9 mm—that were each fully loaded with 15 cartridges. For the non-gun afficionados, anything over 10 cartridges in one magazine is considered a “high-capacity magazine,” which was prohibited during the years 1994-2004 by the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Here’s what the Giffords Law Center says on this topic:
“In 1994, Congress adopted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, making it unlawful to transfer or possess a “large capacity ammunition feeding device” not lawfully possessed on or before the law’s enactment.12 The law also banned the manufacture, transfer, and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons. See our summary on Assault Weapons for more information. The law was adopted with a sunset clause, however, and expired in 2004, despite overwhelming public support for its renewal. Thus, large capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons that were formerly banned under the federal law are now legal unless banned by state or local law.”
Keep in mind that Richard was living in Contra Costa County, California, at the time of his death. Even though the federal law against high-capacity magazines ended September 13, 2004—a little over one month before Richard died—California had its own law on the books.
Beginning in 2000, it was illegal to sell, manufacture, import, or transfer magazines that hold more than 10 bullets in California. However, if a person had already owned such magazines at the time the law went into effect, they were permitted to keep them. In 2016, 12 years after Richard died, it was illegal to own them. (You can read more on the California law here.) In August of this year, the Ninth Circuit voted to end the ban saying that it violated a person’s Second Amendment rights.
Were Richard’s high-capacity magazines illegal? It depends on when he bought them. Unfortunately, I’ve read that it’s practically impossible to tell when ammunition was purchased. (His guns and ammunition were destroyed in 2007.) I’m no lawyer, but it appears to me that if he purchased the magazines before 1994, then he would have been a law-abiding citizen. Is that what he did—held onto three, probably four, high-capacity magazines for 20 years? By the way, I’m also trying to determine if the semi-automatic guns were legal at that time, but the distinctions provided in the law are a lot tougher for a non-gun-person to determine. (According to a 2019 ABC News article that I found especially helpful, that’s why there were so many loopholes in the law.) I’ll be seeking the guidance of experts on that question.
And that leads me to ask this question: what is the point of no return when someone decides to start criming? Or, in Richard’s case, when did he decide to cross the line from buttoned-down college freshman to blackmailer and whatever else—if, in fact, that’s what he did? Could it have happened in an innocent, unintended way? Richard wanted to be an architect, but his personality was so repellant and his grades so bad that he may have had to ask his brother for an assist. If his brother said “No, sorry, you need to carry your own weight,” would he resort to force? Would he threaten to reveal some intel that he knew would destroy his brother if his brother didn’t cooperate?
Ron’s money problems seemed to have started during the summer of 1952, when he asked his father if he could control his own finances, and he showed signs of stress after returning home for spring break in 1953. Who would he have spent lots of time with during both of those periods? Little brother, that’s who.
What do you think? The floor is now open, but please note that any comments for or against gun control won’t be approved—this isn’t the place for that discussion. However, if someone has expertise on the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and whether a particular semi-automatic weapon was permissible or not, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Of course, anything else on the blackmail theory and Richard’s potential role is welcome too.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Despite the fact that (hopefully) most of us have adjusted our usual Thanksgiving plans and are keeping things small and meaningful this year, it’s still my favorite holiday. To commemorate this tumultuous year, I encourage you to use the comments section to tell us how you are—or aren’t—spending the holiday due to covid-19. (Send pics too!) I’ll go first: we won’t be making our annual trek to NYC to visit my brother and his partner this year. It sucks—it really, really does. But, for the good of the country, we’ll just have to wait until 2021 for my brother’s stupendous stuffin’ muffins (see my Thanksgiving 2018 post for recipe).
But I also have a surprise for you: an editorial on the topic of Thanksgiving that’s brought to us by our very own Ronald Tammen. So cool, right?? When Ron was a senior at Maple Heights High School, he oversaw the editorial page of the student paper, the Maple Heights Herald. Although I can’t say with 100% certainty that Ron wrote all of the editorials while he was in charge, they do sound a lot like Ron—or how I picture Ron’s writings to sound: serious and responsible and loaded with patriotism and advice about the importance of hard work to better oneself. If he didn’t write an editorial for a particular issue, at the very least, he would have given it a final polish and stamp of approval. But this one totally sounds like something he wrote.
The editorial I’m sharing with you was published 70 years ago—on November 16, 1950—and it certainly sounds that way in places. Plus, there’s nothing like reading the deep and earnest and not-quite-gelled thoughts of a high schooler on deadline. To provide additional perspective, in June of that year, the United States had entered into the Korean War. For a young man like Ron who would be registering for the draft in eight short months, the world was getting scary. (And if you think this editorial sounds somber, just give a read to this excerpt from the one he ran at Christmas: “As conditions are shaping in Korea, the atomic bomb may well be brought into use. And, if it is, assuredly, there are those of us who may not be around to celebrate the next Yuletide.”) Yikes. Despite the differences between then and now, some aspects still ring familiar, and, for this reason, I thought it would be worth posting.
Thanksgiving is a simple word—as simple and straightforward as the small band of Pilgrims who first gave it meaning over 300 years ago. They had given up every bit of security and even risked their very lives to come to America. And why did they sacrifice almost everything? They believed in having freedom from tyranny and despotism and were willing to give anything for this privilege.
Those first few years were very painful for the Pilgrims and they faced hardships never before encountered. Some died while they were in sight of shore and were buried before there was even thought of shelter. The Pilgrims had determination however, and still more important they had faith in God and in themselves. They had faith that if they worked hard enough things would brighten and take a turn for the better. They had faith in an ideal and nothing that happened would sway them from it.
Little by little they gathered strength and with the help of the friendly Indians, they were able to produce a crop large enough to maintain life. It was decided to set aside a day in which they could all feast and give thanks to the Lord for helping them.
It would be well for us to compare this Thanksgiving with the first one, in that we are experiencing a similar sense of uncertainty. Progress has changed our way of living, but we are still devoting our strength and faith to the same principles of freedom. We are the Pilgrims of the twentieth century and must stand as firm as they for our beliefs. Thus is Thanksgiving—the holiday that explains America.
Our recent discussions about Ron’s finances, loans, and faculty co-signers on those loans reminded me of something this morning: a letter that Ron’s father had written to Ron back in the fall of Ron’s sophomore year. Mr. Tammen wrote the letter on September 19, 1952—a Friday. Although his handwriting is beautifully legible, a remnant of days gone by, I’ve typed it out for you here:
19 Sept. 1952
Dear Ron: —
We have been waiting more or less to hear from you, but realize that you must be extremely busy not only with your studies, but also with your other activities: — such as, counselor and the Owls.
Mom picked up your checks today so we thought we would forward them as quickly as possible so you could get your “Savings Account” started. We are going along with you on this deal as we feel you are old enough and should have the experience of handling your own money. We hope you will be wise and remember that practically all of it will have to be used for next semester.
I am retaining your check stubs for your tax purposes, but will put down exactly what the stub shows:
All in all, it was slightly more than you expected and you were paid for that day.
When you do find time to write, please give us a brief on expenses and expenditures.
Mr. Tammen seemed to have a question concerning the dates of Ron’s bus-washing services. In addition, written in pencil at the bottom in the left-hand column is the following:
When I first read his letter, I was struck by how parental it sounded, but not in a warm way. It felt formal. The sentence that stood out most was the one about Ron being paid for that day, underlined twice. What could have happened at his city job that was so terrible, Mr. Tammen didn’t even want to put it in writing? Did Ron roll a truck? Did he get into a fistfight with another bus washer? The mind reeled. I tried to find out—I really did. I asked Ron’s siblings if they remembered some incident that happened to Ron at work that summer, and no one had any idea. I contacted the City of Maple Heights to see if they still had an employment record for Ron, but they didn’t. I visited the city’s museum where they store boxes of old books and city papers to see if his employment record might have been there. It wasn’t.
The rest of the letter didn’t interest me that much. It sounded like Ron was just trying to become more independent by handling his own finances, which only seemed fair. Ron was responsible for putting himself through college, just like his two brothers, John and Richard. Mr. Tammen wasn’t contributing a dime to his education. I filed the letter and didn’t think much more about it.
Several things stand out for me in light of what we now know:
First, the “Savings Account” that Mr. Tammen alludes to in the letter wasn’t mentioned by Mr. Shera of the Oxford National Bank when he wrote to Carl Knox about the $87.25 balance he’d mailed to Miami’s bursar. Mr. Shera calls it a “commercial account,” singular, and we already know that Ron was writing checks. I don’t think Ron had a savings account—I think it was just checking. In addition, a “commercial account” is defined as a business account where funds are readily accessible, as with a checking account. According to his brother John, in addition to playing with the Campus Owls, Ron was known to manage gigs on the side. Perhaps this is the reason his account is referred to as commercial? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.
Second, Mr. Tammen’s last sentence, where he’s requesting a “brief on expenses and expenditures” is telling. He seems like a micromanager and, I’ll say it, a bit of a pain. With Ron taking over his own finances, perhaps he thought he could somehow avoid his father’s scrutinizing every little expenditure. This could be Ron’s way of making sure that Mr. Tammen didn’t know about every single check he wrote.
And that’s when it occurred to me. Perhaps Ron wasn’t seeking to manage his own finances so that he could expedite adulthood. Maybe he wanted to keep some expenses hidden from his father.
But what expenses? Ron was so busy working, he barely had time to spend his money. Nevertheless, he was always in need of money.
Here’s where my head is right now: blackmail.
Several of you have suggested this possibility and I think you may be right. Think about it: Ron’s freshman year at Miami went fairly well, but his sophomore year was pretty much a bust from the get-go. Even beginning that first semester, he started to drop courses and was no longer considered full-time. He was always working and his grades were slipping.
During the summer of 1952, Ron was working for the City of Maple Heights doing a number of assorted jobs. Could it be that sometime during that summer, Ron and another male were caught in a tryst and the witness decided to make it lucrative? Maybe the blackmailer said that he could be paid on the installment plan.
So how might this have played out: At the beginning of the fall semester, Ron asks his father to let him handle his own finances. That way, his dad wouldn’t know about any checks Ron might have written to his newfound “friend.”
He struggles to make it work, again taking on jobs and securing loans. Perhaps he even volunteered for the Psychology Department’s hypnosis study, both to make some money as well as to see if they could change him somehow, to prevent this situation from happening again.
When Ron went home during spring break, however, something happened. Maybe he saw his blackmailer and the person upped his amount. Whatever happened, when Ron returned to school the following week, people noticed a change in Ron’s behavior. According to Carl Knox’s notes, he was seen reading the Bible 5 or 6 times, and, he “spoke of being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”
He was in a crisis. Someone may have been threatening to out him if he didn’t pay up, and he was way over his head in debt. Crazy as it sounds, this could have been what brought the CIA to his rescue.
A couple other thoughts:
I’m not sure who penciled in the calculations at the bottom of Mr. Tammen’s letter. It may have been Ron, though, based on another note page, the numbers appear to match those made by Carl Knox.
It amazes me that Ron had held onto his father’s letter for so long and that the university was able to obtain it. In addition, Carl Knox’s penciled-in notes asking “Did he owe Univ any money?” or telling himself to “Follow up re Check Book” clearly show that the university found Ron’s money issues to be as interesting as we do.
Sorry to be a bother, you guys, but I can’t keep this in. This afternoon, I was busy working on — what else? — Tammen research when I discovered something pertinent to our topic du jour. In the summer of 2019, I was visiting University Archives (sigh…I really miss road trips) going through a bunch of documents. On that particular day, I was leafing through issues of their Information Bulletin for Faculty and Staff from the early 1950s — 1950 and 1952 to be exact. As I recall, the university didn’t produce a new bulletin every year. Sometimes they just produced an addendum. Fortunately, I had taken photos of numerous pages — some relevant to the topic I was obsessing about at that moment, and a couple having to do with what I’m obsessing about now: student loans.
Here’s what they had to say about student loans in the 1950 issue (apologies for the bad photos, but I’m guessing you’re used to that by now):
And here’s what they had to say about them in the 1952 addendum, right around the time when Ron would have been applying for one:
Here are the points I want to leave you with today:
Student loans were a big deal.
Since Ron was a sophomore, his loan would have been limited to $100.
I’m guessing that Ron had been a recipient of this loan, and it’s the same one that Mr. Alden had written up when discussing Ron’s outstanding debt.
And the juiciest tidbit of all: our friend H.H. Stephenson oversaw the student loan program.
So H.H. Stephenson was overseeing the student loan program when Ron received his loan. That loan may have even been relatively recent, since Carl Knox’s notes indicate that Ron had recently deposited a $100 check from a loan. What this tells me is that H.H. Stephenson was even better acquainted with Ron than we had previously known. Sure, sure, H.H. knew him because he’d given him a car permit. But he’d also just handed him $100! Could that be one of the reasons the university kept a lid on H.H.’s potential Ron sighting — they didn’t want the money issue to come out? What’s more, for me at least, it also makes the potential sighting more believable.
Purposely lying to a member of the press is a big fat no-no for a spokesperson of any stripe. Obfuscating—intentionally throwing up smokescreens—is really bad too. But to look a reporter in the eye and say something that’s not in the least bit true takes a special kind of moxie. It also requires a motive. Otherwise, why not just tell the truth? For those with nothing to hide, honesty is so much easier.
So for someone like Carl Knox—who, from what I’ve been told, was an aboveboard kind of guy—to introduce an untruth with a reporter when discussing Tammen’s case seems especially bizarre. Wouldn’t he and other university officials have wanted to get everything out in the open in hopes that it might help them find Ron? What’s more, Knox was still in his first year as dean of men at Miami—a brand new post. He would have wanted to pour everything he had into a task that held such high visibility. Lying about it? That would be the last thing he would have wanted to do.
But then, nobody starts out planning to lie.
Lately, after finding tangible evidence of a university cover-up, I’ve been examining all of the old news articles for what feels like the zillionth time. I’ve been tracking any lies and obfuscations that are quoted—directly or indirectly— from university officials, knowing what they knew at the time.
We already know about a couple of them. We know that Gilson Wright (and others) chose to mislead the public about the psychology textbook on Ron’s desk, most likely to direct attention away from Dr. Switzer. We also know that they tried to depict Ron as doing very well in his classes. Once we saw his transcripts, however, we knew that Ron had recently dropped his psychology course for the second time in a year and was slipping far behind in his degree program. Again, the motive behind the deception was most likely to avoid shining a big bright light on Switzer.
There were the other lies and obfuscations too. Among the greatest hits are:
When Carl Knox decided not to divulge Paul’s (not his real name) story about his walk back to the dorms after song practice with Ron and Chip Anderson the night Ron disappeared.
When Gilson Wright disclosed in a news article that three amnesiac youths had wandered off and later returned, but never mentioned the youths in his articles again.
When Oscar Decker added an hour to the time of arrival of the young man who appeared on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared.
Living your life with one lie can be hard enough. But juggling all of those lies and obfuscations TOGETHER? That’s practically a full-time job.
Today, I want to discuss another lie that officials opted to tell about Ron—the one about his finances.
On April 25, 1953, the Saturday after Ron disappeared, Carl Knox was quoted in the Hamilton Journal-News by Gilson Wright, with the following matter-of-fact pronouncement:
“‘He was not in financial difficulties,’ Dean Knox said after a checkup Friday. ‘But he could not have had more than $10 or $11 in his possession when he left Fisher Hall.’”
On April 29, 1953, Wright wrote this in the Cincinnati Enquirer:
“A sizable balance was left in a downtown bank.”
And on May 4, 1953, Wright wrote this in the Hamilton Journal-News:
“…he took only $10 or $11 and left more than $100 in a local checking account.”
I don’t know how much money Ron had in his pocket when he disappeared, but I do believe Carl Knox fibbed about Tammen’s finances. Ron Tammen was experiencing financial difficulties. Despite the fact that Ron was always busy earning money as well as looking for ways to earn more money, he still owed a lot of money, with one of his primary creditors being the university. Also, his bank balance wasn’t “more than $100”—it was $87.25.
Here’s what was going on behind the scenes:
On May 26, 1953, Miami’s bursar, a guy named David C. Alden, wrote a memo to Carl Knox summarizing Tammen’s standing with the university. He said that Tammen still owed the university $100 in board (dining hall fees) and $100 on a “loan fund note,” minus the pay Ron was due as a residence hall counselor ($29.41) and a refund on his room rent and laundry ($29.10). The total Tammen owed, therefore, would be $141.49.
(We’ll get more into that boarding fee and loan fund note in a second.)
Mr. Alden added: “If the brother is still in town and the father and brother have approved the transfer of the account at the Oxford National Bank against the University account, the balance could be reduced by the amount of the account at the bank.”
The Tammens must have agreed to the transfer of funds. On July 2, 1953, Don Shera, vice president of the Oxford National Bank, wrote to Carl Knox letting him know that Ron’s balance of $87.25 had been sent via a certificate of deposit to bursar Alden to help defray the balance owed to the university.
That same day—July 2, which was a Thursday—Alden wrote to Mr. Tammen letting him know that the board fee was actually $110, not $100, and that, with the money from Ron’s bank account applied to the balance, the amount owed by Mr. and Mrs. Tammen was now $64.24. That might not sound like much, but if you plug the numbers into the inflation calculator, you’ll see that $64 in 1953 was worth almost ten times as much as it is today, or $624.
But that’s not my favorite part of Alden’s letter. Here’s the best part:
“I was sorry not to have had a chance to talk with you when I stopped at your residence on Monday. Please be assured that this communication is not being written to press for payment on the balance. Whatever time you need to clear it is satisfactory.”
Um, excuse me? At a time when the Tammens were at a perpetual Red Alert readiness level, hoping and praying with every doorbell and telephone ring for news of Ron, Miami’s bursar thought it would be a swell idea to hop into his car and drive to the Tammens’ house at least 4 hours away (probably longer back then) to discuss Ron’s outstanding balance. What’s more, it sounds as though he did it unannounced. A surprise pop-in! Let me put it thusly: if the university thought the situation warranted the bursar’s driving from Oxford to Maple Heights to personally discuss Ron’s balance, then please don’t tell me that Ron wasn’t in financial difficulties. If $64 meant that much to the university, then think about how much more it must have meant to Ron and Ron’s parents.
But let’s also talk about the university’s initial bill. The bursar said that Ron’s outstanding debts equaled $110 for board plus another $100 for a loan. According to the 1952-53 M Book, every semester, in-state male students who lived in the dorms had to pony up $315.88 for all of their expenses, which included tuition, residence hall rent, board, laundry, and other fees. The most expensive cost was board—eating in the dining hall—which for males came to $175. Although the university asked students to pay the entire amount upfront at the start of each semester, they did allow students to pay board in installments, as Ron chose to do.
But Ron wasn’t keeping up very well with the installment plan either. The second semester was almost exactly four months long, starting February 3 and ending with the last day of finals on June 4. Ron should have paid more than two months’ worth in board ($43.75/month), and possibly three months’ worth, yet he’d only paid $65 when he disappeared. (If you think that doesn’t sound like much, I’ll just direct you to Mr. Alden, who felt differently. And don’t forget to use the inflation calculator.)
Now here’s the weirdest part of the university’s bill: that $100 loan fund note. Ron had received a loan from the university for some unnamed purpose. Could this be the same loan that Willis Wertz and Glen Yankee had co-signed, according to Carl Knox’s notes? However, when you take a closer look at what Knox had written, you see that next to Wertz’s name, he wrote “co-signed a note at bank” while next to Yankee’s name, he wrote “co-signed a note.” It appears as if there may have been two loans, one a bank loan signed by Wertz and the other a university loan, ostensibly signed by Yankee. Or maybe Yankee’s note and the university note are different, in which case he may have had three notes.
Which leads me to my next question: why was Ron struggling so much financially when he was bringing in money from residence hall counseling, playing the bass, donating blood, and who knows what else? During the summers and breaks, he worked his butt off at decent-paying jobs as well. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Didn’t go out much with friends. Didn’t date much. He didn’t drive his car much. Even with his car on campus, he was known to hitchhike and bum rides from other people. Where was his money going?
In his notes, Knox scribbled in some expenses that Ron had incurred here and there with little explanation. Here’s my best attempt at a summary:
Of the most recently deposited money, Ron deposited a total of $40 from playing jobs (band gigs) and he also deposited a $100 check on a loan. (Could this be the university loan?) There was no “activity” in Ron’s bank account—and by “activity,” I think Knox means bank deposits—after April 6, 1953.
According to Knox, here were the checks that Ron had written the week before he disappeared.
4/13/53 $24.45 Delta Tau Delta
4/13/53 $4.07 Shillitos (clothing store)
4/15/53 $15.00 Cleveland Trust Co., Cleveland, Ohio, American Express Co.
4/16/53 $5.00 Check cash, John Minnis (drug store)
Knox also noted that in December 1952, Ron had obtained a $50 loan to clear up a “Housebill,” which I think means that he needed the loan to pay off his board from the first semester. Knox also noted that he “planned to repay [the loan] after Christmas work.”
By far, the most sizable payment had to do with Ron’s car, a green 1939 Chevy sedan, for which he needed to pay approximately $175 sometime before Christmas 1952. That was a major expense that may have involved some servicing problem—an engine, brakes, or something equally huge. From what I can tell, Ron had paid for the car in full after trading in his first car, a 1929 Ford. (His first car was really old-timey. These days, they’re cute in parades, but compared to what wealthier guys his age were driving, I’m sure he felt the need to upgrade asap.) Thanks to reporter Joe Cella, we know that Ron also paid his car insurance on the Friday night before he disappeared for $17.45. Both the $175 car bill and the $50 housebill expenses had also been paid.
But let’s be real. Ron wasn’t just juggling his grades, he was juggling his finances as well—taking out loans to pay his bills and other loans, which I suppose would be fine if it weren’t for the other bills and loans that lay in wait. See how cyclical debt can be? Ron was drowning in it, and Knox and the others in Miami’s administration knew it. But for some reason, they didn’t want anyone else to know.
The Tammens weren’t made of money either. I think they were a little freaked out by the bursar’s in-your-face manner of doing business—wouldn’t you be?—and said so to Carl Knox, which prompted Knox to send a follow-up letter on July 6, backing up what Alden had said in his letter and cushioning it with some hopeful news about Mrs. Spivey’s possible sighting. On August 17, 1953, roughly 4 months after Ron disappeared and 12 days after Ron was possibly spotted in Wellsville, NY, Mr. Tammen submitted his check for $64.24, thus closing the university’s ledger on Ronald Tammen, and making Mr. Alden a very, very happy man.
So why did university officials feel the need to lie about Ron’s finances in addition to everything else they lied about? My feeling is that they already had their narrative in place and didn’t want to deviate from it. In their imaginary world, Ron was a stellar student with no failings, therefore, he MUST have walked away with amnesia. If he was having problems—with grades, with money, with his personal life, or anything else—then that would just raise problematic questions from troublesome reporters. And if someone wielding a lot of power was requiring the university to cover up the truth, maybe Carl Knox and the others didn’t have any choice in the matter.
Monday, 11/16/20, add-on:
Because Mr. Alden’s visit and July 2, 1953, letter to the Tammens was of particular interest to readers, I thought I’d also post Carl Knox’s follow-up letter to Mr. and Mrs. Tammen from July 6, 1953. Although I paraphrased the letter in my write-up, perhaps I didn’t do it justice.
Is it just me, or do you detect a certain officiousness/harshness/annoyance in his tone concerning payment, even while telling them to take whatever amount of time they need? Perhaps his decision to open with the words “It was my understanding” is what gives it a less-than-fuzzy feel, despite the “hoping and praying” that comes later, in the 3rd paragraph.
Happy Halloween, everyone! October 31st has always held special significance in Tammen world—the whole phantom ghost schtick. Although the holiday has nothing to do with the Ron Tammen story, people do tend to think about him during this time of year and, like clockwork, I’ve been noticing an uptick in visits to the blogsite. So let’s take advantage of the fact that we’re all here together once again and have ourselves a little catch-up, shall we?
Research-wise, things are still moving forward, however, most of the balls happen to be in other people’s courts at the moment. For this reason, I’m sorry to say that I don’t have breaking news to share with you regarding hypnosis, mind control, psych professors, a university cover-up, and all the other topics we’ve come to enjoy pondering on this page. Don’t worry—we’ll get there. We will. Just not today.
What I will be sharing with you has to do with a topic that’s super apropos for the holiday—cemeteries! Specifically, we’ll be discussing the permanent resting place of several of the people who have something to do with Ronald Tammen. Some of the people you know well, some you sort of know, and several will be brand new to you. And the coolest part is that they’re all lying a mere stone’s throw from one another.
So, yeah…cemeteries, y’all. Do you love them as much as I do? The tranquility of nature commingling with the people who preceded us; the copious ways in which the dead choose to express their individuality, from dark and scary mausoleums to looming obelisks to blocks of granite, etched with butterflies and angels; the stark reminder that we’re here for but a brief blip in time and that we should probably make the most of it. As a wannabe author, one reason I love cemeteries so much is that the people who occupy them are so…dependable. You can go to a cemetery, rain or shine, and know that a certain person will always be there, no matter how important they were here on earth. No appointment necessary. Walk-ins accepted. They won’t stand you up, and ironically enough, they won’t ghost you.
The cemetery we’ll be discussing is Oxford Cemetery, a hilly little respite off Route 27 (Oxford Millville Road), just south of Peffer Park and Miami’s Western Campus. If you’re driving to Hamilton from Oxford, it’ll be on the righthand side. If you’re driving in the opposite direction, it’ll be on the left.
Here are some of the people you’ll find buried there. (You can click on the names to see a portion of their interment cards.)
You probably know this guy best. Dr. Patten was chair of the psychology department at Miami from 1932 to 1961. In the early days, he was St. Clair Switzer’s mentor, and very likely was the person who encouraged Switzer to pursue graduate study under Clark Hull, the famed behavioral psychologist and hypnosis expert. In 1961, Dr. Patten turned over the chairmanship to Switzer. He retired in June 1965 and, sadly, died one year later. Dr. Patten was one of the three hypnosis experts at Miami when Ron was a student.
Gilson Wright was the journalism professor at Miami who also worked as an on-call correspondent (stringer) for several area newspapers, including the Hamilton Journal-News,Dayton Daily News, and Cincinnati Enquirer. Wright also was an adviser for the Miami Student.I’ve already written quite a bit about Wright, so I won’t drone on here. Most importantly, it’s my belief that Wright was helping the university cover up certain aspects of the Tammen case, particularly that Tammen’s psychology book was open on his desk when he disappeared.
We haven’t talked about Robert Howard yet. According to a news article announcing Gilson Wright’s retirement (which was written by Howard), Robert Howard began heading up Miami’s news bureau in 1956 after Wright turned over those reins, while continuing with his journalist/advising/stringing duties. (This detail doesn’t quite jive with what it says on Howard’s tombstone, but hey, if a person can’t embellish his credentials a little on his tombstone, when can he do it?)
One of the more interesting anecdotes I have on Robert Howard is that, in 1973, when Joe Cella (Hamilton Journal-News) wrote the article that introduced the name of Dr. Garret J. Boone to our Ronald Tammen lexicon, we were told that university officials didn’t welcome Boone’s information warmly. In fact, he was given the brush-off, he told Cella.
Here’s the rest of that story: In the University Archives, a short message written on “Miami University, Office of Public Information” notepaper is stuck to the back of Cella’s article. Scrawled in pencil, the note reads: “Paul — Who’s left for him to scold but thee & me?” and it’s signed “Howard.” There’s no telling who Paul was—I checked the 1972 and 1973 M Books, and no relevant administrators went by Paul, be it a first or last name. Maybe he was an assistant in the news office. But I have a very strong hunch that the snarky comment was written by the guy who’s buried here, Robert T. Howard.
Did you know that Ronald Tammen had a relative who was an emeritus professor at Miami when he disappeared? True! Tammen’s favorite uncle, John McCann (Mrs. Tammen’s brother), married a woman named Eleanora Handschin, and her parents were Charles and Helena. Charles Handschin was a highly respected German professor at Miami. He also had been chair of the Department of Romance Languages for 39 years. The Handschins’ home was just around the corner from the Delt house, and Ron used to visit them from time to time. I’m not sure why this fact was never reported in the news—till today!—but perhaps the university wanted to spare them the publicity.
(A few more interesting facts about John McCann: he was a Miami graduate who later became a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. John A. McCann is buried in Arlington Cemetery and there’s even a Miami scholarship in his name.)
Karl Limper was an esteemed professor of geology at Miami beginning in 1946 until his retirement in 1981. How does a geology professor factor into the Tammen story? Dr. Limper served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1959 to 1971, and he was the person who interviewed Ted Perin as part of Miami’s oral history project. As you may recall, Dr. Perin was a psychology professor at Miami as well as a former doctoral student of Clark Hull’s and he had some interesting things to say about St. Clair Switzer. One of his best stories was how Doc Switzer, as a retiring department chair, packed up his office and left without saying goodbye to anyone, even though he’d been there for over three decades. Also worth noting was that, when Dr. Perin raised the subject of hypnosis, Dr. Limper would change the topic as quickly as possible. Whether that was on purpose or coincidental, I can’t say for sure. What I can say was that it happened at least twice, and, at least to me, it felt forced.
Another new name for you is Willis Wertz. Wertz was an architecture professor at Miami when Ron disappeared. Actually, he was one of the first two students to graduate from Miami’s architecture school, and in 1973, the year he retired, they named the art and architecture library after him. It still is.
So how would Willis Wertz have come into contact with Ron? Ron’s brother Richard was the architecture student in the family. Ron was business. Surprisingly, Professor Wertz is mentioned in Dean Carl Knox’s notes as having signed a bank note for Ron along with Glen Yankee, a former accounting professor. This seems…weird. What professor agrees to sign a bank note for a student, potentially making themselves liable for the repayment of said bank note if said student should, oh, I don’t know, disappear? I mean, I don’t care how much of a go-getter you are, can you imagine walking up to a professor and asking him or her to cosign a loan? Ballsy move, Ron!
Thankfully, a faculty memorial written about Professor Wertz explains a lot. First, he was a member of Delta Tau Delta as a Miami student, so maybe he felt a connection with Ron in that regard. One of Ron’s fraternity brothers had this to say about him: “Willis Wertz was our fraternity advisor. I’m not surprised that they co-signed a note with Ron. [Ron] was so smart and likeable.”
And here are the giveaway sentences in the memorial:
Retirement did not diminish his interest in students, past and present. His concern for them could not be terminated by his retirement. He was a friend, adviser, teacher, and, at times, banker to almost forty years of architectural students at Miami.
If Professor Wertz was in the habit of lending money to students, I’m sure Richard found out and he told Ron. I don’t know about Glen Yankee’s side of the story, however. That bank note is one riddle within this mystery that I’d love to learn more about.
Who among us doesn’t love the story of Mrs. Clara Spivey, the woman from Seven Mile who contacted authorities in June 1953 saying that a young man who appeared on her porch on April 19 answered Tammen’s description. Oxford police chief Oscar Decker embraced her story and said it supported the amnesia theory. Others, including Ron’s brother Richard, weren’t so sure. They said there were discrepancies in her story.
In 1976, Joe Cella wrote an article with accompanying photos that retold old details and divulged new ones. Although Clara had passed away by then, her daughter, Barbara Jewell, is quoted in the article. Barbara was with her mother when the visitor showed up at the door.
“I still believe it was him,” she told Cella.
However, Paul Jewell, Barbara’s second husband, said he was also there that night, and he didn’t believe it was Ron. Sometime around 2008, he told the Butler County cold case detective that he thought it was one of the local ruffians. Barbara and Paul Jewell are buried in Oxford Cemetery too, though their memorials are located further down the hill, away from the university section.
Last but not least is the gravesite of Dr. Phillip Shriver, the beloved former president of Miami University, who is buried in the newer part of the university section. Dr. Shriver was obsessed with the Tammen case and he used to give talks to students about his disappearance, especially around Halloween. Dr. Shriver was my first interview for this project, and I sometimes wonder what he would say if he knew where my research has taken me.
Dr. Shriver had arrived at Miami on July 1, 1965. (His planner for that day is completely blank except for the words “First Day!”) He’d been in meetings with St. Clair Switzer in 1966, the year Switzer retired, so he was at least acquainted with our person of interest. I don’t know when he became sucked in by the Tammen case, and I’m currently looking into that. Even though Joe Cella had already written in 1954 that the open book on Tammen’s desk was his psychology textbook, I feel Dr. Shriver played an important role in finally making it known around Miami’s campus. Regardless of how things eventually play out, I’ll always feel grateful to him for talking to me back in 2010 and for getting this party started.
I’m heartbroken to share the news of the passing of Marcia Tammen, Ronald’s only sister. Marcia died this morning of complications from a chronic health condition. She would have been 78 on September 30.
Marcia was only ten years old when Ron disappeared, but she carried his memory and the hope of finding him with her all her life.
On the day of her brother’s disappearance, Marcia had won a framed print at her church after memorizing 18 verses of the Bible. The print was of Christ at Heart’s Door, by Warner Sallman. On the back, her teacher had written: “Only one life—‘Twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Marcia kept that print with her for the next 67 years.
Marcia was my go-to source and confidante as I was conducting my research about Ron, and she was always open to whatever information I sent her way. A couple times each year, we’d meet up at Wendy’s or Bob Evans’ near her home, and I’d fill her in on updates. She’d listen intently to what I had to say, taking meticulous notes, and then would usually respond with, “Well…that sounds interesting. Keep up the good work.” She was warm, kind, and unflappable in a Midwestern sort of way.
The last time I saw her was this past February, just before the coronavirus impacted all of our lives. She was interviewed in her apartment by a Cincinnati TV reporter about Ron’s disappearance, and did a beautiful job sharing her thoughts about her family’s loss. The segment never aired because of COVID-19, but I’m so glad that we had the chance to do it. After our interviews, Marcia, her roommate Jule, and I drove to a local diner and had lunch together and gabbed like old friends. On the drive home, Marcia wanted me to look at a building I was driving by and she suddenly raised her arm to point it out. I thought she was telling me to take a quick left, and I jerked the wheel and very nearly rolled the car. Usually, she kept a straight face with me, but this time, she started cracking up, again, like an old friend. That was cool.
Every time someone associated with the Tammen mystery passes away, I feel as if I’ve let that person down. I really wanted to solve this in time. In fact, I’ve always pictured throwing a big party, and getting us all together, hopefully with Ron showing up as the main attraction. This one hurts so much.
The myriad ways Gilson Wright described Tammen’s open textbook without ever once using the word ‘psychology’
(Supplement to season 2, episode 4 of The One That Got Away)
One of the topics that Josh, Tyler, and I discuss in episode 4 of The One That Got Away, which dropped tonight, is the psychology book that was open on Ron’s desk the night he disappeared. We’d already established on this blog site that Joe Cella was the first reporter to reveal that it was a psychology book, and he did so in his one-year anniversary article, published in the Hamilton Journal News on April 22, 1954. Later still, 23 years after Tammen disappeared, we learned that the book was opened to “Habits,” thanks again to the intrepid Joe Cella, on April 18, 1976.
In preparing for the podcast, I thought it might be fun to document all the ways that book was mentioned in the press during the 1953-1976 time period by the two reporters who covered the case the longest, along with one other major reporter. I wanted to find out how that uber dull yet utterly intriguing psychology book became part of the Tammen narrative.
Below is a chart I created of news articles about the Tammen disappearance that mention the textbook on Ron Tammen’s desk. The three primary reporters were: Joe Cella, a reporter for the Hamilton Journal News who followed the case for more than 20 years; Murray Seeger, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who wrote one well-researched article in 1956; and Gilson Wright, a journalism professor at Miami, who also was a freelance stringer/correspondent for area papers, and a long-time adviser to student journalists at the Miami Student. Because he was a Miami employee, Wright had a conflict of interest when reporting on the Tammen case in area papers, and it shows.
As you can see, only Cella and Seeger refer to the book on Tammen’s desk as his psychology book, as highlighted in red. At no time—ever, in his entire reporting career—does Gilson Wright refer to the book as a psychology book. (He retired from Miami in 1970, but kept writing for area newspapers on occasion.) Even when he was aware of Cella’s reveal in April 1954, Wright continued to refer to it as a book or books, or a textbook or textbooks. And if the university’s search algorithm didn’t let me down, it wasn’t until 1988—35 years after Tammen disappeared and 18 years after Wright had retired—that a reporter for the Miami Student, Julie Shaw, finally described the book as a psychology textbook.
left to right: Gilson Wright, Joe Cella, and Murray Seeger
This is tangible evidence that Gilson Wright was being used by the university to hide Ron’s psychology textbook from the curious public. Officials likely didn’t want people to find out that Ron was no longer enrolled in his psychology course, and to question why the book would be there. I believe they were attempting to steer reporters and others away from the psychology department because of their hypnosis activities at that time, which could implicate them in his disappearance. If Tammen’s psych book was opened to the page I think it was opened to, that would have worried them even more.
How Joe Cella obtained the information about the textbook, I don’t know. He may have had inside sources. Maybe Chuck Findlay told him. Remember that Cella’s April 22, 1954, article also included photographs of Tammen’s room after he disappeared, which also showed the open book on Tammen’s desk. [Article is provided with the permission of the Hamilton Journal-News and Cox Media Group Ohio.] From what I can tell, those were the first and last times those photos were ever published. I’m also not sure how Cella discovered the information about “Habits,” 23 years after Tammen disappeared. My guess is that he may have obtained it from Carl Knox. By then, Knox had moved to Florida, and had agreed to appear in The Phantom of Oxford with Cella in 1976. Perhaps Knox told Cella about the book pages then because he didn’t think it would cause a ruckus by that time.
Although Wright probably had the best of intentions in his reporting at the start, it appears as if someone at the university sat him down and gave him his marching orders. His cookie-cutter articles on the Tammen case year after year with no new revelations are indicative of a man living within boundaries. It was as if he was doing everything in his power not to mention that psych book, because, by God, he never did, even after Cella let the cat out of the bag.
In an April 11, 1977, article for the Dayton Daily News, Cella is quoted as saying: “The university covered it up. They wouldn’t give you any answers.”
Damn, Joe—I do believe you’re right, and the above chart helps prove it. If Gilson Wright and his superiors were going to these lengths to hide Ron’s psychology textbook from public view, then they obviously felt that it was important to the case.
I don’t know about you, but this tells me that we’re on the right track.
(Supplement to season 2, episode 3 of The One That Got Away)
*This post was formerly titled “More thoughts on two ignored clues,” but that was really boring, so I changed it. The URL remains the same, however.
I’m not gonna lie—podcasting has been fun. Not only is it helping me cope with my covid-fueled despair in a meaningful and productive way, but it inspires me to revisit some of the old blog posts and think new thoughts in light of findings that came out a little later in the process. (Please note: I won’t be producing a supplemental blog post for every podcast episode; I’ll only create a new post if we cover territory there that I haven’t discussed here.)
What I’m about to share is discussed in season 2, episode 3 of the podcast The One That Got Away, which I encourage you to listen to when you have a few idle minutes on your hands. Josh and Tyler are delightful human beings and they’re becoming quite the avid Tammen fans as well. But if you prefer to get your Tammen news by way of written words on a screen, no problem. I love that you like to read. Here are my latest ruminations regarding two questions that you may have already wondered about but were too polite to ask. I’m also going to share some brand new info that was released by Josh and Tyler during episode 3.
Question 1: Why did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story so quickly?
Let’s talk about those two extra hours we discovered in Ron’s timeline. Remember when Paul (not his real name) swore up and down that he and a guy named Chip Anderson (real name, but deceased) walked home with Ron after song practice on the night of April 19, and that they didn’t arrive until around 10:30 p.m.? And remember how university reps and the police interviewed them but completely ignored their story, instead telling everyone that Ron disappeared from his room at around 8:30 p.m.?
But Mrs. Spivey didn’t come forward until June. Why then did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story right off the bat?
I think the answer has to do with their favorite theory as to how Tammen disappeared. Very early in the investigation, by Friday, April 24, the university had declared in several Miami Valley and Cleveland papers that Ronald Tammen probably had amnesia. “Officials believe that he might have suffered an attack of amnesia,” an article in the Hamilton Journal News read. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “University officials said Tammen might be suffering from amnesia as he took no clothing or personal articles with him.” (Neither article contained a byline, but my guess is that they were penned by Gilson Wright, since he wrote for both papers.) At least the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed some healthy journalistic skepticism about the university’s conclusion. It read “The dean [Carl Knox] believed the youth might have suffered an attack of amnesia, but had nothing to back that theory.”
So, amnesia. Now let’s consider how investigators would have tried to explain their amnesia theory under both estimated times of departure. Under the 8:30 p.m. scenario, Ron would have developed his amnesia at some point while he was in his dorm room, after he’d changed his sheets. Maybe it had hit him while he was studying at his desk. No one could possibly know the reason, because no one was there. He was alone, so anything was possible. In their view, he just, you know, cracked.
Under the 10:30 p.m. scenario, Ron had walked back to the dorms with Paul and Chip. He dropped them both off at Symmes Hall, and then headed toward Fisher Hall. But Ron never made it back to his room in Fisher. How do we know that? We know it because that’s roughly when his roommate, Chuck Findlay, had returned from his weekend in Dayton. Chuck never saw Ron.
Therefore, and this is crucial: Ron would have been struck by amnesia at some point between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall.
Below is a map that shows you how close the two buildings were to one another, circled in red. Symmes is building #37, and Fisher is building #36. In my driving video on Ron’s possible trip to Seven Mile, that’s Symmes Hall on the left, immediately after I exited the circular driveway that’s now in front of Marcum Hotel and Conference Center. That driveway used to be in front of Fisher. You guys…Symmes and Fisher are super close.
Which scenario do you think investigators gravitated toward? While both are a little tough to swallow, wouldn’t it be easier to explain the one in which Ron went wandering off when no one was watching as opposed to walking with two people and then forgetting who he was immediately afterward? Exactly. Scenario A was the one they chose: 8:30ish. This brings me to the second question.
Question 2: Why did no one follow up on the clue regarding the woman in the car?
In July 2017, I learned about an astonishing lead. I learned that Ron had reportedly been spotted sitting in a car with a woman from Hamilton late on April 19 and, after about 45 minutes or so, the two had driven away. I learned this after I’d met with a former member of the Oxford police force—someone who had actually worked for police chief Oscar Decker in 1953, when Tammen disappeared. In my blog post, I refer to this man as Ralph Smith, but that was just a pseudonym. I was keeping his identity secret.
In preparing for the podcast, I checked online to see if my source was still alive, and unfortunately, I found his very brief obituary. My source’s true name was Logan Corbin, and he passed away at the age of 97 on December 16, 2017, five months after our meeting. I’m posting his photo below as well as a link to an audio clip of him telling me about the purported woman in the car.
Logan was African American. In those days, it was virtually unheard of for a rural, small-town, predominantly white community such as Oxford to hire a Black cop, and, for that reason, I give the city credit for taking a step toward progress in the early-1950s. Nevertheless, racism was rampant there, and Logan endured daily doses of slurs from his fellow officers, sometimes over the police radio. Eventually, he decided to leave that position for another job, though he remained with the Oxford PD for seven years, from 1952 to 1959.
When you listen to Logan tell the story, one of the points he keeps repeating is that the lead concerning the woman in the car was never checked out. To that I say, WTfreakinF, Oscar Decker?! Logan wasn’t sure how the police had found out about it—”word just got out,” he’d told me. Granted, it would have taken some detective work to follow the lead. They didn’t know the woman’s name, the make or model of her car, its color, the exact time she drove away, any of that. But it would have been way easier to check out those details then, when all the major players were still alive and well, and walking around that small section of campus, as opposed to six decades later. The cops could have publicized the possible sighting far and wide, asking anyone with information to come forward. For some reason, they chose not to.
If, as I believe, Ron Tammen disappeared from somewhere between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall, that circular driveway between the two buildings could have been ground zero to where it all happened.
So, again I ask, why wouldn’t investigators follow the one lead that places Tammen in that exact location—in a car, in the driveway between Symmes and Fisher Halls? For some reason, investigators felt the need to steer everyone in a different direction.
**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 missing notes 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 were expunged 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?