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Ronald Tammen’s moment of crisis

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I imagine that very few crises happen out of the blue. Most have a build-up period in which everything seems fine on the surface as trouble churns below. Still, there are usually small signs—cracks that appear in an otherwise smooth façade. Even a tsunami produces an eerie ebb tide as its forewarning. Earthquakes are harder to predict, yet they do seem to give some sort of rumbling, quivering clue to animals of the land, sea, air, and (if they’re of the cat or dog variety) living room.

So it was with the crisis that was about to befall Ronald Tammen. This wasn’t something that had happened overnight. It had been festering for a while, his new normal. And even though he appeared to people around him to be the usual Ron, the one of unrivaled responsibility and ambitious optimism, he was showing signs that he knew something big and potentially life altering was about to occur. A few had begun to take note of those signs as well. Someone had told Dean Knox that, after spring break, Ron had been reading the Bible “5 or 6 times” (which wasn’t like him) and had spoken of being “tired lately.” Mrs. Todhunter, Fisher Hall’s manager, had mentioned how exhausted he looked when he picked up the new sheets the night he disappeared.

I’d always suspected that Ron was going through some type of personal crisis at the time of his disappearance, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Thankfully, it was one day over the past week or two when a lightbulb clicked on.

For a long while, I’ve known about Ron’s grades. I knew that he’d withdrawn from enough courses during his sophomore year that he would have no longer been considered full-time. But I hadn’t given much thought to what the repercussions might have been, because nothing seemed to change for him. He was still living in Fisher Hall and counseling freshman men. He was still active in his fraternity. He was still playing his bass with the Campus Owls. University officials seemed OK with his predicament—in fact, judging by their comments after he disappeared, they didn’t seem to think he was in a predicament at all. I focused instead on why such a smart, studious guy would be having difficulty in the first place, particularly in subjects in which he seemed capable of sailing through with little effort. Why, for example, would a guy with such an abiding appreciation for money have trouble with an introductory economics course?

Recently, while addressing a reader’s question about Ron’s draft status, I began mulling over his situation again. In previous interviews, I’d asked Ron’s friends and family if Ron had been concerned about the draft, and everyone had told me no. This had always made sense to me, since I knew that Ron had a college deferment and I figured that he could have continued renewing it until he graduated.

And that’s when it hit me. The federal government wouldn’t be nearly as nurturing as Miami seemed to be if a male student had slipped from full-time to part-time status and wasn’t keeping pace with his degree program. This became even more evident after I later read that the pool of men available to be called to fight in the war in Korea had reached “a new low.” Was Ronald Tammen about to be drafted because of his academic record?

Before we proceed further, let’s become better acquainted with some dates in Ron’s Selective Service records. (His information is in the fifth row from the bottom of this document, and his registration is here.)

  • July 26, 1951—Three days after his 18th birthday, Ron registers with the Selective Service System through local draft board 32, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
  • December 10, 1951—Ron, a freshman at Miami University, is sent a questionnaire from the Selective Service. On January 23, 1952, he would be 18 1/2 years old, and therefore, of “liable age” for training and service.
  • March 25, 1952—Ron (or Ron’s parents) is sent a notice saying that Ron has been classified 1-A (available for military service), just like most of the other young men born around his birthday who fell under draft board 32’s purview. This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, since draft boards considered each registrant 1-A until it had been demonstrated that he qualified for deferment or exemption. There were additional hoops to be jumped through too—it wasn’t as if he could have been immediately called to serve.
  • July 15, 1952—Roughly a week before Ron’s 19th birthday, in the summer before Ron’s sophomore year at Miami, another notice is mailed to the Tammens, this time saying that Ron had been reclassified as 2-S (registrant deferred because of activity in study). He’d obviously taken the Selective Service College Qualification Test and had received an acceptable score.
  • June 24, 1953—The Selective Service mails a third classification notice to the Tammens, saying that Ron was back to being 1-A. Of course, this had happened after he’d gone missing and didn’t renew his deferment.
  • July 27, 1953—Ron failed to report for his physical on this date, which, coincidentally, also happened to be the day that the Korean War ended. He was marked DEL, delinquent, with an induction date of August 25, 1953. In the remarks section, someone had written: “Failed to Report for Physical. Complete File To Hqts 9/8/53. Ordered for Immediate Induction as a delinquent.”

So Ron had been granted his student deferment immediately before his sophomore year, which, as we’ve already established, was when things started to implode for him academically. Because I wanted to see the full picture, I contacted Jacky Jones, Miami University’s archivist, who emailed me the courses and credit hours required for a business degree at that time.

Here’s what was required of him for his freshman and sophomore years:

Business degree requirements
Excerpt from Miami University’s 1952-53 course catalog. Click on image for closer view.

If you compare Ron’s transcript during his freshman year with the freshman course requirements for a business degree, you see that everything matches up. During his first semester, all required courses were accounted for: Business 101, English 101, Laboratory Science (he chose Geology), Social Science (he went with American Social and Economic History), and Physical Education. His non-professional elective was Unified Math, a subject in which he performed solidly, and which provided 5 hours instead of the required 3. The second semester was pretty much the same. He was keeping up well. By the time he headed home for the summer, he had earned a 3.205 grade point average (GPA) and 34 credit hours, the upper amount required of him.

transcripts-freshman year
Ron’s freshman year courses and grades. Click on image for closer view.

At the start of Ron’s sophomore year, he was brimming with good intentions and a full course load. With a schedule totaling 17 credit hours, he was carrying more than what was required of him. But his withdrawal from two required courses quickly landed him on a treadmill that made it nearly impossible to catch up. By the end of the academic year, Ron should have passed both General Psychology (Psych 261) and Business Psychology (Psych 262), yet he still hadn’t made it all the way through the first psychology course. The same is true for Principles of Economics. By the end of his sophomore year, he should have completed two of his economics requirements, but he was still taking EC 201 at the time of his disappearance. According to the 1952-53 course catalog, after the sophomore year, a business major should have accrued between 62 and 66 hours in required courses. Even if Ron hadn’t disappeared, he would have only racked up 57, with his sophomore year supplying only 23 of those hours. Put another way, Ron would have only completed about three-fourths of the lowest number of required credit hours for that year.

transcripts-sophomore year
Ron’s sophomore year courses and grades. Click on image for closer view.

I contacted the Selective Service and asked a public affairs officer what the criteria were for a college deferment during the Korean War. I specifically wanted to know if a student had to be enrolled in a certain number of hours of college coursework each semester to be eligible.

Her response was lengthy, so I’ll paraphrase here: There were two types of student deferments at that time. The first type, 1-S, was a one-time-only deferment and only extended until the end of that academic year or until the student’s performance was no longer satisfactory, whichever came first. The second type, 2-S, had no such time limitations and was provided at the discretion of the draft board. They applied to both undergraduate and graduate students and could be renewed. As we already know, Ron was 2-S.

Her last sentence held the key: “The college student had to be a full-time student making satisfactory progress.”

The draft board would have surely noticed that Ron’s hours had taken a nose-dive and, for that reason alone, they would have likely changed Ron’s classification. But what I find most puzzling is, if he were concerned about the draft, why would he drop his psychology class for a second time when we know from this post that Ron was carrying a C? A grade of C generally means fair or average, which in my mind is satisfactory progress. If he’d stuck it out for the whole semester, he would have ended up with 15 credit hours, which was back to being full-time. Draft boards were instructed to treat each case individually. That might have been enough to convince them to allow him to hold on to his deferment.

I checked with the Selective Service again to see if they could tell me what “satisfactory” meant back then, and they responded that it was up to the local draft boards to define that term. Because it’s likely that everyone on the board has passed away, I contacted another man who had received a college deferment from draft board 32. As he recalled—and he reminded me that it was a long time ago—you could have at least a C average and still maintain your deferment.

It turns out that Ron had another worry though. As I’ve noted in prior posts, the Tammens didn’t have much money, and Ron was putting himself through school. Thanks to his years of caddying for the Hawthorne Valley Country Club, he was nominated for, and subsequently received, a scholarship from the Cleveland District Golf Association (CDGA). The CDGA caddie scholarship was a prestigious award that was given annually to caddies who had demonstrated academic ability and leadership potential and who were in financial need. Begun in 1940, it was modeled after the national Evans Scholars scholarship program. In fact, the CDGA scholarship’s founder, Martin Morrison, used to caddie for pro golfer Chick Evans as a youth. The caddie scholarship wasn’t based on how well a person played golf. The applicant had to have the grades, the financial need, and the ability to state his case in a high-stakes interview with the board of trustees. The numbers of recipients varied, as did the amount of the scholarship, which depended on the family’s finances.

There is no CDGA anymore. It’s now the Northern Ohio Golf Association (NOGA). The scholarship arm used to be called the NOGA Charities & Foundation, but today, the foundation is called The Turn, and its mission is “improving the health and wellness of people with physical disabilities.” They’ve graciously offered to peruse old records to see if they might have something on Tammen’s scholarship, though my contact said it could take a while. I’ll keep you posted. But, there’s more than one way to schlep a golf bag. Using old news articles as a starting point, I reached out to other men who had received the caddie scholarship at around the same time that Ron did. I managed to track down two.

Jack had used his CDGA scholarship to attend John Carroll University, and he told me matter-of-factly that the scholarship had changed his life. He described himself as a “welfare kid” who would have never had the opportunity to attend college if it weren’t for that scholarship money. He’d started out with a two-year grant, but because his grades were so good, the organization funded him for two more years.

When I asked him if he had to maintain a certain grade point average to keep the scholarship, he said he didn’t know, because it was never a concern. “I only got A’s,” he said.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in educational administration and he later became the assistant superintendent of the Cleveland Public Schools.

Philip had experienced his share of economic hardship as well. His parents were born to first-generation immigrants from Czechoslovakia, and for a long time, his father raised his family with only an eighth-grade education (though he did eventually earn a high school degree). When Philip was nearing his graduation from high school, he recalls announcing to his parents that he might become a plumber or some other type of tradesman. His father stood up, pounded his fist on the table, and said that Philip would be going to college, throwing in a few expletives for effect.

Thanks to his CDGA caddie scholarship, Philip studied premed at Kent State, and then went on to Ohio State for his medical degree. He became an anesthesiologist and instructor at the Children’s Hospital in Columbus. His specialty was administering anesthesia to infants in preparation for open-heart surgery.

When I asked Philip if he needed to maintain a certain grade point average to keep his scholarship, he couldn’t recall, and said he carried a 3.4 at Kent. Like Jack, he’d only been given a two-year scholarship at first, but he was doing so well, they extended it to four. I was just about to give up on finding an answer to my question, when I asked: Wasn’t there any time that you were on the verge of getting a C and were worried about retaining your scholarship?

Thankfully, a long-ago memory tumbled loose.

“You had to have a B average,” he told me with zero uncertainty in his voice. He remembered this because, one semester, he’d earned all B’s, except for a C in physical education, which caused his GPA to dip to 2.85.

“They were going to take my scholarship away,” he told me. He then recalled marching down to the dean’s office, and letting them know that he was in danger of losing his scholarship, and how unfair it would be for him to lose it “just because I can’t play badminton.”

Philip got to keep his scholarship, and he remembers never allowing himself to get into the precarious position again of carrying all B’s in his major subjects. I’m guessing that Ron needed to maintain a B average too, which is why he was taking the proactive steps he was, however detrimental those steps may have been in the grand scheme of things.

In January 1953, near the end of the first semester of Ron’s sophomore year, the CDGA had requested a copy of his transcripts. Because his grade point average was still fine, 3.178 by my calculations, CDGA representatives may have taken note of the fact that he’d dropped below full-time status. Or perhaps it was just a routine inquiry, though there didn’t seem to be a request during his freshman year. News articles indicate that Morrison was diligent in keeping track of how the scholarship recipients were doing academically.

I don’t know why Ron prioritized keeping his GPA above 3.0 over carrying a full course load, despite the implications. He may have reasoned that if he were to lose his scholarship, he’d have no way to continue his studies at Miami. Perhaps he figured that, whether he had a lower GPA with a full course load or a higher GPA with a lower course load, he was destined for the military either way. He might as well go out with more impressive marks.

If Ron were going to be drafted, would that have constituted a crisis for him? If he wanted to get his degree and start making money ASAP, it would have been a setback. But his deferment was just that—a postponement, a delay. The man I spoke with who also had a college deferment said that, as soon as he graduated, he received notices asking him if he was enlisting in the armed forces or waiting to be drafted. (Enlistment was viewed more favorably because you could choose which branch of the military you signed on with and what your role might be.) Either way, he was expected to serve. And it wasn’t as if Ron was opposed to serving in the military. He’d applied for the Naval ROTC at one point, but was turned down because he’d failed the physical.

Maybe there was something else that was causing Ron so much angst—something that might better explain his sudden impulse to consult the Bible, which doesn’t seem to be the typical response to being drafted. Perhaps it had something to do with why he was having trouble keeping up with his classes to begin with.

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Good Man readers/followers: Thank you so much for your interest in and support of this blog. I plan to take the next two or three months off to research some key issues in earnest and will be turning off comments during this period. Enjoy your spring/summer, and please stay tuned.

P.S. To our T-shirt winners: I shipped your T-shirts on Saturday! Thanks for taking the quiz!

 

You have questions? Here are some answers.

 

Last week, as we were observing the 65th anniversary of Ron Tammen’s disappearance, I promised to address some of your questions. Because that’s how it goes with this mystery, right? Every new tidbit of information brings with it a ton more questions. Some pertain to Ron and his open psych book. Others may have been bugging you for a while, either from earlier blog posts or from the few scant details that were made public about his last moments before going AWOL. Before we begin, let me just say this: you really know your stuff. No, I mean it. Many of you are veritable walking encyclopedias on Ronald Tammen.

Some of your questions are so good that I won’t be able to provide a satisfactory answer to them. They were probably the same questions on the minds of the people who had their hands on whatever evidence was available at the time. In fact, some of your questions could only be answered by those very people because they alone had access to information that was never mentioned to a reporter or even written down on a notepad. (Here’s a question I’d like to ask: why was that?) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some of your questions I’ve boiled down to a smaller word count, some I’ve clarified, and some I’ve combined if they cover similar territory. Even if I answered a question during the livestream event, I might still include it here, since some of you may have missed it and I felt like elaborating. Sometimes you really didn’t have a question, but more of a comment, and I felt like riffing on it anyway. Lastly, if I didn’t address a comment you’ve made—and that goes for anytime—don’t be offended. Many of your comments stand on their own and don’t seem to require further discussion from me. Nevertheless, all have been really, really good and totally on point.

Here goes:

Pretend you’re just now starting your project and can interview “Uncle Phil” (former President Phil Shriver). What do you ask him?

As I’ve mentioned before, Dr. Shriver was my first interview, and my questions were pretty uninspired. I did ask him about the Delts though, and I remember how surprised he seemed at my suggestion that it could have been a fraternity prank gone awry. That was the first time anyone had ever raised that question with him, he told me. I remember feeling a little silly—as if I were being scolded for thinking the thought. I quickly moved on to the next question.

Today, knowing everything we know now, the key question I’d most like to ask Dr. Shriver is: Have you ever heard of any hypnosis studies being conducted in the psychology department in the early-1950s? The reason I’d ask him this is because Dr. Shriver seemed to know at least several people in the psychology department. (And bear in mind: just because someone was in the psychology department and/or was a hypnosis expert back then doesn’t mean that I think he or she had something to do with Ron’s disappearance.) There’s a photo of Dr. Shriver socializing in one of the psychology labs in the 1960s. I’ve also seen some of the professors’ names in his daily planner shortly after he’d arrived as the new president. So I’d love to share with him some of my findings and ask for his perspective. Of course, maybe he’d respond in the same way he did to my question about Ron’s fraternity brothers. This time, however, I wouldn’t feel silly or move on to the next question so quickly.

If you were a friend of Ron’s and knew the answer to the mystery on April 18,1953, what would you say to him?

I’m not the type of person who doles out advice. I have enough trouble dealing with my own foibles and day-to-day schtuff to feel as if I have any business telling someone else what I think he or she should say or do when standing at one of life’s crossroads. I’m pretty sure this would still be the case if I had advance knowledge of what was about to happen to Ronald Tammen and why. Granted, if I knew that something bad was going to occur, like if he was going to be jumped by a couple thugs with a pillowcase, of course I’d warn him, risking whatever damage that might inflict on the space-time continuum. (But even if I did warn him on the 18th, who’s to say that the thugs wouldn’t return another day?) Thinking what I think at this moment, I probably wouldn’t say anything instructive or cautionary to Ron Tammen. Instead, I’d use the opportunity to ask him a few questions, because the one place I’ve most longed to be over these past eight years is inside Ronald Tammen’s head. So my three questions would be:

  • I hope you’re doing OK. Is something bothering you? You seem…stressed.
  • Who’s that woman from Hamilton we sometimes see you with? You know, the one with the car?
  • Have you ever heard of some sort of hypnosis studies being conducted in the psych department?

If we had time for one more question, I’d also ask: why did you drive all the way to Hamilton on a Wednesday to have your blood type tested when you could have had it tested on campus or at the blood donation center for free?

And one last thing: As he turned to go, I’d probably wish him well and let him know that he was about to become very, very famous.

Have you seen a picture that really struck you, mystery-related or not?

I love every photo that has anything to do with this story. I especially love every photo of Ron, and how different he looks depending on the circumstances. The wrestling photo in particular fascinates me because he doesn’t look at all like the fraternity guy in the suit. The prom photos of him standing next to Grace are awesome because you can just sense the excitement and the nervousness in the two of them. But the photo that I’ve found most compelling is the one of the open psychology book on Ron’s desk. In my mind, I feel as though it’s evidence that was largely ignored.

What’s been the biggest surprise?

The transcripts were a pretty big deal for me. Finding out that the FBI had purged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 was also big. But the biggest surprise is yet to be revealed.

What was your original best guess back in 1980?

I just thought that he got fed up with school and all its stressors and walked (or hitchhiked) away from it all. I always thought he’d show up alive somewhere, which is why I kept checking online, just to see if anything new had turned up.

What I hadn’t realized back in 1980 was how shocking his disappearance was based on who he was. I knew a little bit about his activities at Miami, but I had no idea what a  fine person he was. (And I use that word in the best sense, as in fine wine or fine linens, not in the “How are you?” “I’m fine” sense.) Everyone seemed to look up to him for their own reasons—his niceness, his friendliness, his smartness, his handsomeness. All of those things and more. That discovery introduced a whole new level of mysteriousness to the mystery for me. Lots of people disappear, but Ron Tammen?! That’s when I decided that I needed to dig deeper, because the answer couldn’t have been as simple as his merely giving up and running away. There had to be more to the story.

What working hypothesis, in whole or in part, have you had shot down?

On the livestream, I answered this question as follows:

  • Charles Findlay had nothing to do with Ron’s disappearance.
  • Neither did Richard Tammen.
  • Neither did the Delts.
  • Neither did the Campus Owls.

I’ve since learned that the questioner had wanted to know what hypothesis (or hypotheses) did I subscribe to that I eventually shot down. That’s slightly different, because I never suspected Charles, Richard, or the Campus Owls. (More on the Delts in a second.) Also, I feel the need to admit here that, while the idea that I could shoot down any theory on my own is flattering, I’m not sure how attainable it is. After so many years, and so much lost evidence, it’s not so much about disproving something happened as opposed to proving that something else is much more likely to have occurred. You know, like Perry Mason used to do: “It can’t be the defendant, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, because, take a look at the guy in the third row!”

Early on, I was delving into the Delts and the “fraternity prank gone awry” theory (even though Dr. Shriver wasn’t a fan). But I soon found that the Delts whom I was able to track down were utterly delightful and forthcoming and receptive to my calls and questions, which didn’t seem consistent with guilty parties who’d signed a pact of secrecy. When I asked a couple of them, point blank, if they’d ever “kidnapped” one of their own as a prank and dropped him off in the middle of nowhere (which might explain a potential Ron sighting in Seven Mile), some told me “no,” but one person said you had to live in the house for that to happen.

“They’d call you on the telephone and about four of them would throw you in the backseat of a car and all that kind of stuff, drop you in the middle of nowhere,” he said with a laugh.

But, he added, they wouldn’t have done it to Ron because Ron didn’t live in the house. Plus, don’t forget that one of the Delts distinctly remembers an evening of song practice, burgers, and wrestling moves at the house prior to a walk back to the dorms with Ron. It may seem unconvincing to some readers, but these guys are just as eager to find out what happened to their friend as the rest of us.

I also investigated the possibility that the mob might have been involved, not because of the fish in Ron’s bed, but because no one knows how to hide a body quite like they do. I’d trained my laser on one man and spent the first year of my investigation getting to know his story, but I eventually came to terms with the nothingness in that premise and moved on.

I’d also wondered if Ron might have gotten a girl pregnant, what with his blood type test on November 19, 1952. There was a girl he sometimes dated during his freshman year, but she’d moved to Colorado to attend nursing school after only one semester at Miami. There were some interesting aspects to that theory—one being that I wasn’t able to obtain confirmation that she’d earned a nursing degree from that institution. But the timeframe in which Ron had taken the blood test doesn’t work out. As I mentioned in this post, a potential baby would have had to be conceived by August 1951, which was before Ron had even started at Miami. Moreover, I’d begun gathering evidence that supported my current theory, and, in July 2014, I found what I considered to be the smoking gun.  Four years later, I’m still pursuing that lead in high gear.

One thing that I’d like to add: somewhere on my website, I mention that I plan to hold back some of the bigger findings for the book. I’ve had a change of heart on that front. If and when I obtain what I need regarding that document, I’ll be making the information public immediately. But it could take some time.

What could or should someone or anyone have done to stop the disappearance?

Truthfully, I don’t think anyone could have done a thing to stop it. As far as whether someone should have stopped it, I don’t know that answer either. Maybe Ron lived a good life afterward. I hope so.

 If Ron’s disappearance was voluntary, why didn’t Ron ever contact his family?

Make no mistake—Ron loved his family. His brother John told me that Ron was “family-oriented” and very caring toward his parents and siblings. If what I think happened did happen, I don’t think Ron had much of a choice. He may have thought that, as unthinkable as it was to leave his family for the rest of his life, it was the only answer to whatever dilemma he was in. I’m guessing that this is probably why he was showing signs of stress after spring break.

I’ve sometimes wondered if Ron was somehow involved in scheduling the Campus Owls gig at John Carroll University in Cleveland for the weekend before he disappeared. That way, he could see his parents and younger siblings at least one more time before he left. I’ve also wondered if he intentionally left his jacket at his parents’ home as a keepsake. (They immediately mailed it back to him.) The papers didn’t specify which jacket it was, but my hunch is that it was the same one that he’d worn the night he disappeared—his blue and tan checked Mackinaw.

Is there any possibility that his roommate was taking psychology and had left the book there instead of Ron? Could they have assumed it was Ron’s simply because the roommate was away?

I don’t think so. The open book was one of the few clues that investigators pointed to as an indication that Ron had been studying, and it was on Ron’s side of the desk. Also, Chuck was interviewed and photographed for the 1954 Hamilton Journal-News article that shows the book from two angles. I’m sure he would have said something if the book were his. Also, in October 2014, I spoke with Chuck about the book. Here’s how that exchange took place (paraphrased in my notes):

JW: Do you remember seeing the book open on his desk?

CF: I vaguely recall seeing the book, although it was a very long time ago.

JW: Do you recall seeing what section it was opened to? People have said it was open to Habits. Do you remember seeing that?

CF: No, I don’t remember that.

Again, if it had been Chuck’s book, I believe he would have said something.

Was there any human error involved with entries on Ron’s transcripts?

There’s always room for human error, but in this case, I don’t see it. Everything fits according to what was recorded and described. Ron’s student records said he was given Incompletes, and his transcripts confirm that. His transcripts also indicate that he’d withdrawn from PSY 261, and the Registrar’s Office possesses a grade card that confirms that he withdrew with a passing grade. Therefore, I think we’re interpreting this scenario correctly. Also, I believe Dean Knox found the open psych book to be more than a little interesting, and I have evidence that indicates he and others were investigating the matter. But that’s a post for another day.

Could there have been some misguidance in the way the book notations were written?

I’m assuming you’re referring to the notation that specified the book title and edition? I think we have enough clues to rule out the possibility that someone misidentified those details. We know from Dean Knox’s notes that the psych book was opened to “HABITS,” which is consistent with sections in Munn’s book. Also, the first edition of Munn’s book was published in 1946. That’s probably too dated for use in 1952-1953, especially since students purchase their own books, and the second edition had come out in 1951. The third edition was published in 1956, which is too late. I believe we have the right book.

Maybe Ron just had a profound interest in the subject of psychology and was reading on his own.

The only problem with that theory is that he’d dropped the course twice. So he couldn’t have been that interested in psychology. But, maybe there was some aspect of psychology that he found relevant to his life. That’s where my thinking is right now.

Was Ron being used as a guinea pig by one of the university’s professors? 

Hmmm. Interesting. By “guinea pig,” you’re referring to possible university studies. I do have evidence that there may have been something going on at that time. We’ll discuss this possibility more in future posts.

Do you suspect anyone, outside of the feds, of knowing but not telling?

I do suspect that one or more people may have known something about Ron’s case, and that they managed to keep quiet over the years. One person whom I’ve wondered about is Ron’s younger brother Richard. His aggressive behavior leading up to Ron’s disappearance on April 19 makes me think that he was experiencing a great deal of inner turmoil about his brother, and his evasiveness afterward makes me think that he knew something and promised not to tell. I also think that people from the university might have known something, though perhaps they didn’t know the whole story. Maybe they were told by a higher authority that they needed to stop looking for Ron, but they weren’t told why. Judging by how closely they guarded the details of their investigation, someone might have been told to withhold some of their discoveries from the press. Thankfully, reporters such as Joe Cella managed to unearth certain details anyway.

Would you have done the same thing if you’d been in Ron’s shoes?

Perhaps. I don’t judge the choices he made. Whatever he was going through was a different reality from mine. Ron was a smart guy and, even though he was barely an adult, he had a good head on his shoulders. I have to assume that it took a lot of courage to do what he did. Maybe that’s the difference between the two of us. I probably wouldn’t have been as courageous as he was.

I once had a fleeting thought of asking if he was in a psychology class. I guess the many generic references to “he was doing well in school” took my mind off the more specific question.

I’ve found this interesting too. The April 24, 1953, Hamilton Journal-News said: “Miami professors said his work has been good in the classroom and that there was little likelihood of pressure from that point.” This stellar assessment was repeated in subsequent HJN issues as well as other newspapers, including the Dayton Daily News and Cleveland Plain Dealer. We now know that things were a lot shakier grade-wise that year for Ron than reporters had been led to believe.

Why was the university telling a different story, and why were they publicizing his higher freshman grade point average instead of his sophomore GPA? Did Miami officials want to avoid tarnishing a student’s reputation, even if that student happened to be missing and the information might help provide a clue? Or was it simply that the professors who said he was doing well represented courses Ron hadn’t dropped, thus skewing his academic performance in a more favorable light? If anyone understood the bigger picture, however, it would have been Carl Knox.

How is it Ron took Economics 201 two semesters in a row his sophomore year? Did he withdraw from the Economics class first semester, apparently while he was grading out as an A?

It’s true that Ron had withdrawn from Economics 201 the first semester of his sophomore year, and then he took the course again during the second semester. The A’s and B’s immediately following the course title appear to be sections, not grades. We don’t have his grades for either semester that he was enrolled in Economics 201.

When he withdrew from two courses to 11 hours, unless things were different back then, he was no longer a full-time student. That would affect grants, loans, ability to live on campus, etc.

Good point. I’d figured that he’d fallen below full-time status, but it didn’t occur to me that it could affect his ability to live on campus, among other issues. I suppose I didn’t think much about it because he was still living on campus the second semester. I don’t have the complete Miami Rules and Regulations booklet for 1952-53. I’m currently attempting to get a copy to see how this change in status might have affected other aspects of his college life.

So he falls below full-time student status first semester, then turns around and takes 2 of the very same classes he withdrew from in the second semester!

In my mind, I figured he was taking the same courses for a second time because they were requirements for a business degree. I’m currently seeking information on required courses for that degree program back then. It would be very strange indeed if he took the same courses twice in one year if they weren’t required.

His class schedule for the semester that he disappeared doesn’t sound very busy to me. Where was he, what was he doing?

Indeed. The Campus Owls kept him busy, but they played primarily on weekends. He was also known to study quite a bit. But from what I can tell, he wasn’t wrestling. He wasn’t very active with his fraternity. Many of his fraternity brothers have said they didn’t see him much because of his other activities, such as the Campus Owls, his work as a residence hall counselor, and his need to study. His roommate and the men Ron counseled mentioned how busy he was with other things, such as his fraternity and the Campus Owls. And his Campus Owl bandmates would often remark about how busy Ron was with his fraternity and his counseling.

Do you sense a pattern here? I think Ron may have had other things going on in his life that weren’t part of the activities we’ve read so much about. If we can figure out what those additional things were, I think we’ll have a better grasp on why he disappeared.

The blog says Knox wrote down a vague note: “all except putting pillow in pillow case.” To me that sounds like the pillowcase is laying there in the room, just not on the pillow. Did people interpret that phrase to mean that the pillowcase was missing? Or do we know for sure it was missing?

Welcome to my personal purgatory. So Ron goes downstairs to get some new sheets because of the fish. Even though Knox’s notes or subsequent news articles don’t say so explicitly, I’m sure that he dropped off the old sheets and pillowcase with Mrs. Todhunter and brought only the new ones up. Then, and this is critical, Knox’s notes say (with his capitalizations included): “Madeup [sic] Bed, all except putting pillow in Pillow Case.” I agree with you that his note implies that the pillowcase was sitting somewhere in the room and, for whatever reason, didn’t make its way onto the pillow.

But did you notice the photo of the bed in the April 22, 1954, Hamilton Journal-News article? [Article provided through permission of Hamilton Journal-News and Cox Media Group Ohio.]

It’s difficult to see in the online version, but in a copy held at Miami University’s Archives, you can see the striped pillow covering without its pillowcase. I can’t tell if the pillowcase is on the bed, however. The caption says: “ROOM LIKE HE LEFT IT…..book, freshly made bed without pillow case.”

That caption—written by someone who had a clear view of the photo—might be interpreted as saying that the pillowcase wasn’t there. And, as you point out, it could be a big deal if Mrs. Todhunter had given Ron a pillowcase and the pillowcase disappeared with Ron. One knock against the “missing pillowcase” theory is that Joe Cella doesn’t mention it in any of his articles. Only the photo caption alludes to the possibility that it may not be there, and Cella may not have helped write the caption.

So, to answer your question, yes, some people have interpreted the lack of a pillowcase on the pillow to mean that the pillowcase had disappeared. Because we don’t have a definite answer—and probably never will—I look at it both ways. Maybe it was there, and maybe it wasn’t. My theory doesn’t hinge on a missing pillowcase, but if it were missing, that would add some interesting color to the story.

And missing pillowcase or no missing pillowcase: Ron was considered a tidy person. It wasn’t like him to make a bed and leave the pillowcase off. At the very least, there’s that.

Would a musician normally leave his bass out in those temperatures for a long time?

Most websites advise against keeping a stringed instrument in the car ever, and definitely not in extreme temperatures. My husband, a percussionist, had this to say on the topic: Even if the temperatures were hovering around freezing that night, they probably wouldn’t have damaged the wood in that amount of time. The temperatures would have to be really cold—below zero—to damage the wood. Ron probably would’ve had to retune his bass the next time he played, but that wouldn’t have been a big deal.

Therefore, even though leaving a bass fiddle out in the car in those temperatures wouldn’t have been recommended, it isn’t necessarily a sign that Ron was signing out.

It’d be wonderful to find someone who was in the same class who could confirm a hypnosis experiment. Or to narrow it down, you might be able to track down a grad student in Psychology in that year who conducted the experiments.

Yes, absolutely. I’ve been attempting to track down possible psychology students/grad students for several years now. It’s been slow going, but I’ve found a couple noteworthy remembrances that have spurred me on. One of the reasons I’ve decided to post this discovery is the hope that it might jog more people’s memories. If anyone reading this recalls participating in or hearing about hypnosis studies in the early-1950s at Miami University or wherever, please contact me.

The open psych book

Psych book
Cover of 1951 edition of “Psychology–The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment,” by Norman L. Munn, the issue and title of the book that was open on Ronald Tammen’s desk the night he disappeared.

One of the most frequently named items that Ronald Tammen had left behind—apart from his wallet, IDs, and car keys—was the open book on his desk. Remember the book? From what I can tell, it was first brought to the public’s attention on April 25, 1953, when the Hamilton Journal-News reported “books” (plural) being “open on a study table” after he’d disappeared. On May 2, 1953, the books were narrowed down to “a textbook” that “was left open on his desk,” though some reports reverted to the plural form on occasion after that date. In April 1954, we learned from Joe Cella, also of the Hamilton Journal-News, that it was a psychology book, and in 1976, Cella reported that the psychology book was turned to “Habits.” This detail is posthumously corroborated by Carl Knox, dean of men, whose investigative notes say “Psych Book opened to HABITS,” with the last word written in all caps and underscored twice. What’s more, Knox had also noted that Tammen was spotted “Studying Psych” from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. on the day of his disappearance. How someone might have known the subject matter that Tammen had been studying, we can’t be sure, but that person must have felt reasonably confident of that detail to mention it to investigators.

Carl Knox notes -- HABITS
The HABITS reference, underlined twice, can be seen at the bottom of Carl Knox’s note.
Carl Knox notes -- studying psych
Beneath Tammen’s name is Carl Knox’s notation that Tammen had been “Studying Psych” from 3-4 p.m. that Sunday.

Juxtapose all of the above with what Dick Titus told me Tammen had said to him before Tammen had walked out of Titus’s room the evening of his disappearance: that he needed to study his own subjects. What does all of this tell you? For me, it indicates that one of the last things on Tammen’s mind before he went missing was psychology. In fact, it appears to have been the subject he felt most compelled to study during the afternoon and evening of his final day as a Miami student. The topic of “Habits” is an added bit of intrigue.

Here’s why I find the open psych book so fascinating: Ronald Tammen wasn’t taking a psychology class.

Oh, let me rephrase that. Although Ronald Tammen had been enrolled in psychology the semester that he disappeared, he’d already withdrawn from the course by the time he went missing.

The documents that I’m posting today, which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been posted online before, are Ronald Tammen’s college transcripts. Here they are.

Before we get to the topic of psychology, let’s take a look at Ronald Tammen’s grades. He was a B student—the average of the A’s, B’s, and C’s he had accumulated since he’d arrived at Miami. His much-publicized grade point average of 3.205 was from his freshman year. The A’s were in courses such as Unified Math and General Geology—he was, after all, a math and science guy. The C’s were in American Social and Economic History (first semester) and Freshman Composition (second semester). All things considered, he was doing fairly well academically his first year away from home.

 

transcripts-p1
Page 1 of Ronald Tammen’s transcripts

Now, let’s turn our attention to Ron’s sophomore year. W’s—withdrawals—had begun popping up like wins in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1953 baseball standings. Except Ron wasn’t winning. He was struggling. Juggling. At the start of the first semester of his sophomore year, Ron was carrying a course load of 17 credit hours, which is typical for a full-time student. At its completion, however, he was carrying only 11 hours, having dropped two 3-hour courses—an economics course and General Psychology, PSY 261. Despite the much lighter load, his grade point average had now slipped to 3.178, by my calculations.

That’s where the grades end, because at the conclusion of Tammen’s second semester, we see only a string of I’s (incompletes), a P (passing) in gym, and a W in psychology, the same course he’d dropped the previous semester. The P is of no consequence to this story. It only tells us how badly a person would have to be doing in gym to be given a failing grade. You could fall off the planet five weeks before finals and still pass the course. It’s the lone W in the line-up of I’s that was most curious to me. I needed to know the timeframe by which those I’s and W were handed out.

Our first clue is a statement at the bottom of page 3 of Tammen’s student records (made available for the first time here), that says: “DISAPPEARED FROM RESIDENCE HALL APRIL 19, 1953. GIVEN INCOMPLETES FOR SEMESTER (2ND, 1952-53).”

Ron's student records

In my mind, that would imply that when Ron disappeared, he’d already dropped his psychology course and those I’s only pertained to courses in which he was still enrolled. To make sure my reasoning was correct, I contacted the Miami University Registrar’s Office in October 2010, asking how it could be that Ron had received that W in his psychology course.

Miami’s Registrar, David Sauter, is one of the most responsive administrators I’ve encountered anywhere. He’s also interested in the Tammen case. He got right on it. The next day, an assistant contacted me with information from an old grade card. It said that if a course is dropped after seven weeks, “either ‘WP’ for withdrawn passing or ‘WF’ for withdrawn failing must be entered.”

“The old grade card for that course indicates Mr. Tammen had a midterm grade of ‘C’ for the course in Spring 1953 and that he was dropped with a ‘WP.’  It does not, however, provide a drop date,” she said in her email. She added that she and her colleagues in the Registrar’s Office believed that the reason that there is a lone W on the transcript, and not a WP, was because the columns were only one character wide.

That provided me with one endpoint to my timeframe—Ron must have withdrawn at least seven weeks into the semester. But what about the other endpoint? I contacted Miami’s archivist at that time, Bob Schmidt, who emailed me a page from the 1952-53 issue of Rules and Regulations Governing Students, Student Activities, and Student Organizations for Miami University. In addition to confirming the information that the Registrar’s Office had provided, it said that course withdrawals had to be performed through the student’s adviser, and any withdrawals after eleven weeks resulted in a WF.

So, to recap, thus far:

  • Ron Tammen had indeed already dropped his psychology course by the time he’d disappeared.
  • He’d done it between the seventh and eleventh weeks of the second semester.
  • Ron’s adviser, a professor by the name of Belden J. Dennison, knew it; Carl Knox, in his principal role as dean of men, also likely knew it; and now we know it too.

University calendars for 1952-53 show that Tuesday, February 3, was the date when second-semester classes started at Miami. Not quite seven weeks later, Saturday, March 21, 1953, was the last day a student could withdraw from a course without receiving a grade, and Saturday, April 25, 1953, a little over 11 weeks after the semester’s start, was the last day a student could withdraw from a course without receiving a WF. That means that the timeframe in which Ron had withdrawn from the course was likely sometime between Monday, March 23, and Saturday, April 18. Not only was this “drop” period within weeks of Ron’s disappearance, and possibly only a day or two before, it also overlapped with spring break, which had taken place from noon, Saturday, March 28, until Monday, April 6, with classes resuming on Tuesday, April 7. Ron wouldn’t have been able to drop his psych course during the university’s week off, so he either did it right before spring break or right after. My guess is that it would have been after spring break, because that was also the time period in which Ron had appeared to be showing signs of stress. Carl Knox had noted that Ron had been consulting the Bible several times after spring break and had also spoken of “being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”

Carl Knox notes -- signs of stress
According to Carl Knox’s notes, Ronald Tammen seemed to be showing signs of stress following spring break.

So I think the question on everyone’s minds is: why would Ronald Tammen be reading a textbook for a class he’d already dropped?

It could be that he had a general, non-school-related question he was pondering—something that led him to crack open an authoritative resource, not unlike how we now crack open our laptops to ask Google What’s romanesco? or How old is Kirk Douglas?

But why look up the very vague and arbitrary topic of habits? If Ronald Tammen had a habit he wanted to break, it would make more sense to research that specific topic somewhere, like a library, or to seek guidance from an expert. Besides, what habit would Ronald Tammen even have that needed breaking? Smoking? He didn’t smoke. Drinking? He wasn’t a drinker either. Was he a nail-biter? I doubt it. To be honest, it’s difficult to imagine what habit Ronald Tammen would want to kick with such urgency that he would interrupt his busy Sunday to consult his former textbook for a dry-as-a-bone description of habits. That would be like looking up the word Italy in an encyclopedia in hopes of finding a really good marinara recipe. It makes no sense.

HABITS

Among the boxes devoted to Ronald Tammen at the Miami University Archives are copies of textbook pages, many of which have the following notation typed on them: “Copy of textbooks left open on Ron Tammen’s desk.” The word “textbooks” is plural, but the pages are from one book: Psychology–The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment, by Norman L. Munn. At the top of one of the pages, someone has made the notation that the book was a 2nd edition, from 1951. I found it puzzling that the archived documents covered a range spanning pages 152 to 295. Typically, if a book is open on a desk, there are only two pages facing upward, not a range of 143 pages.

I purchased the 1951 issue of Munn’s textbook online. When it arrived, one of the first things I did was make sure that the nine copied pages from University Archives corresponded with my version, and they did. I felt confident that I was perusing the same textbook edition that Ron had been spotted studying. The second thing I did was check to see if there was a chapter titled “Habits,” and there isn’t one. I then took a deductive leap, and reasoned that whoever observed that Ron’s book was opened to “Habits” must have noticed the word in a section head or subhead. (We’ll discuss why I think this was the right decision a little later.) I examined each of the 143 pages looking for headings with some form of the word habit written there. I also checked the rest of Munn’s book for any other possible mentions of the word in a section head or subhead.

I found four pages in all, which happened to be among the nine archived pages. They were pages 152 (with the section head Levels of Complexity in Habit Formation), 162 (subhead: Habit Interference), 277 (section head: Man is Primarily a Creature of Habit), and 294 (section head: Force of Habit). Finally, it dawned on me. Whoever had made the archived copies was probably doing what I was doing: trying to figure out which two pages Tammen was studying before he disappeared. (That person even went a little farther than I was inclined to go, making copies of a couple additional pages that included the word habits in the regular text.) But how could I narrow down those four pages, plus the pages they were facing, to just two? If only someone had taken a photo of the open book.

As it so happens, someone had. A few days after the first anniversary of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance—April 22, 1954—the Hamilton Journal-News published an article that included photographs of Ron and Chuck’s room after Ron had disappeared. One of the photos was a close-up of the open book he’d left on his desk and a second photo was of the same book from another angle. Although we can’t be 100-percent certain that the pages in the photos are exactly as Ron had left them—a current of air or an accidental bump could have caused one or two pages to flip—nevertheless, it’s all that we have. Moreover, the article was written by Joe Cella, who likely obtained the photos from investigators. If Cella believed the photos to be accurate, who am I to second guess him?

Unfortunately, I’m not able to obtain enlarged versions of the photos. The originals no longer exist. However, you can access the article here and zoom in on the two photos. [Article is provided with the permission of the Hamilton Journal-News and Cox Media Group Ohio.]

From what I can tell, the left-hand page appears to lack any images or graphics. Therefore, at a minimum, I believe we can rule out two of the two-page spreads on the basis that there were fairly prominent photographs on the left-hand pages. They are pages 152, which had a photo of a memory drum in the upper left-hand corner, and 276, which is opposite the habits reference on page 277, and which had four photos down its left column of a mother rat and her babies. In my view, spreads 152–153 and 276–277 are no longer contenders.

The right-hand page is more difficult to discern in the Journal-News photos. It doesn’t appear to have images either, which would eliminate pages 162–163 on the basis that the latter page has a photograph on the upper left side of a student operating a card-sorter.

But there’s another, more compelling reason to remove pages 162–163 from consideration. As I mentioned earlier, Munn’s book contains both section heads and subheads. The section heads are written in all capital letters, while the subheads are written in bold type with only the first word capitalized. As I’ve already mentioned, when Carl Knox wrote the word “HABITS” in his notes, he did so in all capital letters, accentuated by a double underline. I can’t help but believe that he was imitating the style in which the words were written in the book, perhaps without even realizing what he was doing. In my opinion, Carl Knox was looking at a section head, not a subhead, which would eliminate the page spread 162–163.

HABITS 2

That leaves us with two pages that are composed entirely of text: pages 294 and 295. On the left-hand page is the section head “FORCE OF HABIT,” which Dean Knox could have shortened to “HABITS.” On the opposite page is a subject even more intriguing. Within a section titled “UNCONSCIOUS MOTIVATION” is a discussion on how someone can be influenced to behave in certain ways. The subhead is “Post-hypnotic suggestion.”

I’m not sure why investigators failed to specify the page numbers that the book was turned to or why Carl Knox chose to write “HABITS” in his notes as opposed to the actual section head. As we’ve established, no subhead or section head on any of the pages was simply called “Habits.” It’s also curious that university officials didn’t appear to question why Ron would be studying psychology, since they knew he’d already dropped the course. Did that detail somehow escape them?

Or could it be that investigators had noticed the reference to post-hypnotic suggestion and didn’t want to raise suspicions that Ronald Tammen’s disappearance could have had something to do with that phenomenon? I get it—why get everyone all riled up if it had no relevance to the case? But with Miami’s psychology department employing at least three faculty members who were hypnosis experts—two of them having collaborated with a renowned psychologist on the 1933 seminal book Hypnosis and Suggestibility, and one of those two being Ronald Tammen’s former psych professor—it seems as if that might have been something worth inquiring about.

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Yep, we’re going to go there in subsequent posts, but we’ll be proceeding slowly and cautiously. I don’t intend to point fingers at a person, department, or agency before all of the evidence is in. I also won’t be disparaging a medical practice that has helped countless people overcome personal difficulties. What I will be doing is posting relevant documents as they become available and asking questions that, as far as I know, haven’t been posed before—at least not publicly.

In the meantime, please join me today on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/agmihtf/) at 11:30 a.m. ET as I live-stream additional information concerning today’s post. Among other things, we’ll be leafing through the individual pages of Tammen’s psychology book, looking at the habits references. If you’re tied up at that time, or are discovering this website after April 19, no problem. You can access a recording after-the-fact.

 

Closing a couple loops: Why Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a child, and why the FBI considered his prints ‘criminal’

 

photo of child Hal Gatewood
Photo credit: Hal Gatewood at Unsplash

Before our big reveal later this month, I’d like to close the loop on a couple lingering questions I’ve had over the years concerning Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. The first question, which you’ve probably been wondering about too, is: why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a young child? (I can now say with reasonable certainty that he would have been seven at the time.) The second question pertains to something you may or may not be aware of, since I haven’t really discussed it in detail up to this point. That question is: why were those prints designated by the FBI as criminal?

Why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a child?

To arrive at the first answer, I was fortunate enough to find a resource by the name of Chris Gerrett, a tenacious history buff and president of the Fairview Park Historical Society. Fairview Park is a suburb that borders the western side of Cleveland and is only a few minutes’ drive from the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Before becoming the City of Fairview Park, it was called the Village of Fairview Park, and before that, Fairview Village, which is where the Tammens lived in 1941, the year Tammen was fingerprinted. You may recall that Ron’s mother told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Ron was in the second grade when he was fingerprinted, which would have been during the 1940-41 school year. However, when I asked Ron’s older brother John if he recalled being fingerprinted as a child, he told me no, and he couldn’t remember Ron being fingerprinted either.

Based on the family’s address, Chris quickly determined that the Tammen boys would have attended Garnett Elementary School, one of two public elementary schools serving the village at that time. When I asked her if she knew anyone in Tammen’s age group who might remember being fingerprinted in grade school, she said she’d ask around.

Chris is the type of person who, when she tells you that she intends to do some digging and will get back to you, she means it. She was able to locate several people who remembered being fingerprinted as children in the early 1940s, and she even found fingerprint cards for two brothers. One was fingerprinted at age seven in 1942 and the other was fingerprinted at six in 1943. Why children in Fairview Village were being fingerprinted at a stage of life when they were still mastering basic skills such as shoe-tying and time-telling was still unclear. Some people floated the idea that it might have something to do with the Cold War, and the need to identify bodies after an attack. But the Cold War didn’t start until 1947, a couple years after WWII ended. Others proposed that it was because of the Nike missile sites that had been located in Cleveland, part of our nation’s defense against a potential Soviet attack. But again, the Nike bases were Cold War–related, and weren’t in place until 1955, long after 1941.

In another email, Chris passed along the happy news that the Fairview Park Museum, which is run by the historical society, had been offered a load of boxes containing documents from the Fairview Park Parent Teachers Association (PTA). The documents went as far back as 1928, she told me.

“The PTA seemed to handle all activities for the schools: wellness check, hearing check, eye check, parties, food drives, etc.,” she informed me. “We just might find that the PTA arranged the fingerprinting.”

I met Chris at the museum on a Monday morning in March, and we soon commenced rummaging through the boxes. After several hours of searching and a mid-day burger break at the local diner, we finally found what we were looking for. Under the heading of “Safety,” a mimeographed newsletter dated May 1942 had this to report:

“Finger printing of 253 pupils was done in Fairview Schools this past year. The P.T.A. wishes to express to Mr. H. A. Walton its appreciation of his willingness to give both time and service to the finger printing of our boys and girls.”

Newsletters for the spring of 1943 and 1944 also provided fingerprint tallies. Unfortunately, it appears that no statistics were made available for Ron’s year, 1941. However, perhaps the best find was from a newsletter dating back to October 1938. In it, under “Safety Department,” was an excerpt from an FBI publication on the importance of maintaining noncriminal fingerprints—citing reasons such as identification disputes, catastrophes, “kidnaping” (spelled the old-fashioned way), and amnesia. A second paragraph informs readers that fingerprinting in the schools would soon begin. Here’s the buried gem:

“Through the efforts of Mr. Henry Walton, Deputy Marshall [sic] of Fairview, who has made an extensive study of fingerprinting, we will soon be able to have any children in this community fingerprinted, a record of which will be kept in a ‘Personal Identification’ file, and a copy of same to be sent on to Washington, for their ‘Personal Identification’ files.”

Thanks to an old newsletter that might have been tossed out if not for Chris Gerrett, the Fairview Park Historical Society, and the Fairview Park PTA, we are now able to establish: 1) why Tammen’s fingerprints were taken at such a young age, and 2) why Ron’s prints were already at FBI Headquarters by the time he’d disappeared. It was all because of an industrious, forward-thinking Fairview Village cop. Much obliged, Henry Walton, much obliged!

You can read the relevant section here:

why fingerprint kids
For closer view, click on image.
Why were Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints designated as criminal?

Nowadays, any law-abiding citizen who has their fingerprints taken—federal employees, people in the U.S. military, people who undergo background checks for work or volunteer activities—is given a criminal identification number. I have one. My husband has one. If you’ve ever been fingerprinted, you have one too. In addition, as of February 2015, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is housing all fingerprints—the lawful and the lawless, the free and the incarcerated—in one electronically searchable database.

But back in Hoover’s day, things were different. From what I can tell, the term “criminal identification number” wasn’t in use back then, or at least it wasn’t the favored term. Rather, the number assigned to a person’s fingerprints was their “FBI number.” Also, there was a criminal file system and a noncriminal, or civil, file system. I came to these conclusions as I was perusing a 1963 FBI paperback, titled The Science of Fingerprints: Classification and Uses, which featured an introduction from J. Edgar himself. Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, confirmed the two-file system in an April 2015 email to me, saying:

“A Civil Fingerprint File was begun in the 1930s and civilians, especially children (and their parents on their behalf), were encouraged to add their prints to it on FBI Tours, at expositions, and many other events. The idea was to have a collection of identification records to be referred to in the cases of missing persons, kidnappings, and massive disasters/tragedies.  It is through this program that Mr. Tammen’s prints were first taken.”

So, at a time when the FBI was keeping its civilian and criminal fingerprints separate, why were Tammen’s fingerprints eventually lumped in with the criminals? One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is the November 16, 1959, form letter from Hoover to Tammen’s parents, which has the notation “crim” in front of Tammen’s FBI number. The October 30, 1961, letter has a “cr” notation above his FBI number, though, admittedly, that’s pretty cryptic, and we can’t be 100% sure of what it means. (Come to think of it, the “cr” might as well stand for cryptic.)

After taking a look at the November 16 form letter, Dr. Fox also concluded that Tammen’s prints had been filed with the criminals. In the same email, he hypothesized that Tammen was possibly arrested before he’d disappeared or even sometime after 1959, “likely around 6/1973.” He was only guessing though. He didn’t have proof.

I asked Ron’s family members if they knew if Ron had ever been arrested, and their answer was no. I then contacted law enforcement and clerks of courts in the cities and counties in which Tammen had lived or that were a short drive from Cleveland or Oxford, Ohio. I even contacted the attorney general’s office for the state of Ohio. I found no arrest records on Tammen anywhere, other than the ticket he’d received for running a red light in Oxford a month before he disappeared.

Another theory was that Tammen’s fingerprints might have been moved to the criminal files after the Selective Service changed his classification to 1-A and he failed to show up to the draft board for his physical. I conducted a review of documents for other men who violated the Selective Service Act of 1948 during that time period to find out if they were somehow marked criminal too, but it was difficult to find an apples-to-apples comparison. Words like fraudulent, forged, and stolen showed up in their documents—nothing that pertained to Ron’s situation, in my view. I also wondered why I was able to obtain their documents at all, since their Selective Service violations occurred before Ron’s, yet the FBI had destroyed Ron’s file more than 20 years ago.

Recently, I found two people who could speak more knowledgeably than most about the FBI’s fingerprint operation. They’d both worked in the former Identification Division, “Ident” for short, when Hoover was still in charge, though I don’t think they worked there at the same time. By then, the Identification Division was located at Second and D Streets, SW, in Washington, D.C.

Both individuals—who prefer not to be named—had some remarkable stories to share about those days. They talked about how tightly Hoover ran his ship. They spoke of how Hoover had established strict rules governing where employees could live, who they could see (Person A said they checked out her husband before hiring her), and how they should look on the job—their attire, their facial hair, their height, their weight. Person B recalled how his life’s goal to become an agent was almost sabotaged by the fact that he didn’t make the height requirement, which was 5’7” at that time (the same height as J. Edgar Hoover, according to Alexa). His sheer determination and knowledge of the subject matter, together with elevator shoes, eventually convinced Hoover and his number two man, Clyde Tolson, that he was up to the job.

Both Person A and Person B had experience handling the fingerprint cards, which was important but grueling work. Person A recounted how she and her fellow “Ident” employees would be assigned a fingerprint card, which they would classify according to the prints’ arches, loops, and whorls. They then searched among the other cards—numbering in the millions—for a possible match. They didn’t use computers back then, just their two eyes and maybe a magnifying glass. Of course, there was quite a bit of training involved. Of the two fingerprint files that they consulted—civil and criminal—the criminal file was always the first stop, since potential employers, local law enforcement, and Hoover himself would want to know immediately whether a newly arrived print belonged to a fugitive. As for possible mistakes, Hoover used the same rule as the sport he loved: three strikes and you were out.

It was Person B who offered up the most likely reason why Ron’s fingerprints would have been found in the criminal file. Backing Person A’s claim that the criminal file was the first place to look, he said:

“I think missing persons are placed in the criminal file because that’s the most active file. So, if you want to find the guy, and somebody gets arrested and a print comes in, it doesn’t get searched through civil files. It gets searched through criminal files.”

And there you have it. The explanations for why Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were taken at the age of seven and then later maintained in the criminal file after he disappeared are probably that innocuous and ho-hum. But they’re also the explanations that, in my view, are most conceivable, which means we can now focus on some bigger matters. See you on the 19th.

 

 

On April 19, 2018, Ronald Tammen will be missing for 65 years. Here’s how the ‘Good Man’ blog is commemorating the anniversary.

circled date
Photo (minus the red circle) by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Time flies, doesn’t it? When I first heard about Ronald Tammen’s disappearance, it was back in 1978, and Tammen had been missing for a mere 25 years. To the near-adult I was then, that seemed like a long time. Now, 40 years later, and eight years since I began digging into the case, are we any closer to understanding what happened to Tammen?

In my mind, we are. We know, for example, that there were clues that had been overlooked, disregarded, or maybe even purposely kept out of public view by the Oxford PD, the university, and the FBI. We know that the FBI already had Tammen’s fingerprints on file by the time he disappeared, yet those prints didn’t seem to help them locate Tammen. Most significantly, we know that the FBI had expunged those prints in 2002. That’s not nothing. And I’ve made several more discoveries, the most significant of which I hope to reveal to you in the coming months, after at least one document has gone through a process called a mandatory declassification review. If what I think happened happened, we’ll have a pretty good idea why we’ve been kept in the dark for so long.

We’re told that patience is a virtue, and that good things come to those who wait. Sixty-five years is long enough, don’t you think? Here are some things we’ll be doing to commemorate the day Ronald Tammen was last seen on Miami University’s campus.

 April 19, 9 a.m. ET — New documents to be released

Visit this blog on Thursday, April 19, at 9 a.m., when I’ll be posting documents that have never been released as well as a discussion on what new insights these documents bring to our current understanding of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance. Of course, you’re welcome to visit this blog sooner than that, as I plan to post at least once more before the 19th. (You’ll be notified by email when a new update has been posted if you follow this blog.) But definitely be sure to stop by on the 19th.

April 19, 11:30 a.m. ET — Livestream discussion on Facebook

On Thursday, April 19, at 11:30 a.m. ET, join me on Facebook for a 15-minute livestream event. We’ll be discussing the documents that are being released that morning as well as their significance to the case. In the remaining time, you can submit any burning questions you have about the whole Ronald Tammen saga and I’ll do my best to answer them. Here’s where you need to be: https://www.facebook.com/agmihtf/.

From now until April 19, 11:59 p.m. ET — Take the quiz and maybe win a T-shirt

Are you a Ronald Tammen addict? Do you think you know pretty much all there is to know? Take a quiz to assess your knowledge about some of the details of his story, both old and newly uncovered. Upon submission — regardless of your score — your name will be entered into a drawing for a free commemorative T-shirt. Twenty shirts will be given away!

Here are the rules:

  • Only one entry per person will be considered. If you submit more than one quiz, your name will be entered only once for the drawing.
  • All entries must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time, on Thursday, April 19, to be included in the drawing. After that date, you’re welcome to take the quiz, but you won’t be eligible to receive a T-shirt.
  • Only entries from people living in the United States will be eligible for the drawing. (Sorry–I need to keep shipping costs within my budget.)
  • The drawing will be conducted by an unbiased person who is not related to me and is not affiliated with my blog.
  • If your name is selected, you will be contacted by email and asked for your mailing address and T-shirt size. Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery.

And that’s it! Good luck, and please share this link with your family and friends!

Was Ronald Tammen hiding out as a technician at Welco Industries in 1973?

Welco brass plate
Photo credit: Government Liquidation

On Thursday, April 26, 1973, someone placed an anonymous phone call to the Cincinnati office of the FBI. According to a memo from the special agent in charge (SAC), the caller said that “he was aware the FBI has an interest in one Ronald H. Tammen. The caller advised he has strong reason to believe that captioned subject is identical with one [whited out], who is employed with Welco Industry, 9027 Shell Avenue, Blue Ash, Ohio.” The SAC went on to say that “The caller based his opinion upon physical description and ‘other reasons which he cared not to discuss.’” The caller then hung up the phone.

We’ll never know what additional reasons the caller had for thinking that a man who worked at a plant that built motors for the aerospace industry in a Cincinnati suburb was Tammen or, moreover, why he didn’t care to discuss those reasons with the FBI. Did the Tammen lookalike act all weird and evasive when asked if he went to college? Did he drive around with a string bass in his back seat? Did he have an irrational aversion to fish? Or perhaps had the man pulled the caller aside one day and said, “Don’t tell anyone, but the guy they’re talking about in this news article? Yeah, that’s me.”

One thing that we can be pretty sure of is what triggered the unknown man to make his anonymous phone call on that particular day. Note that his call took place one week to the day following the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance. It was also three days following the article that ran in the Hamilton Journal News—the same article in which Joe Cella revealed that Ron had visited Dr. Garret Boone requesting a blood type test five months before he disappeared. (From what I can tell, no anniversary articles ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Tammen that year.) Although no physical description of Tammen was included in that article, it did provide a college photo, which is probably why the SAC referred to the “captioned subject.” So it’s not a stretch to conclude that the FBI’s caller first learned about Tammen in the newspaper and thought the photo looked a lot like someone he knew.

Which is totally fine. In fact, that’s how many missing persons cases are actually solved. Someone spots an old photo of an acquaintance in a news article or on TV and alerts the authorities. It’s the FBI’s actions after that call was placed, however, that are most telling.

Let’s examine the two FBI memos that I received from my FOIA request pertaining to this potential lead. (Link to them here.)

The first memo was written on 5/9/73—almost two weeks after the initial call had been made. The memo was from the SAC in Cincinnati to the acting director of the FBI, who, thanks to Google, we are able to ascertain was William D. Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the EPA who was subsequently brought over to the FBI as Watergate was heating up. He was only in his position as acting director for a couple of months, before continuing on with his esteemed career (he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015). But for our purposes, he was the man in charge when the question about the guy at Welco came to the forefront; in parentheses, the SAC had added “ATTN: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION.”

The first line reads: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.”

This cryptic little sentence fragment is an example of FBI codespeak, a system of pretend words and abbreviations that keeps their employees informed and the rest of us in the dark. Thankfully, through a variety of means, I’ve been able to decipher at least some of what the G-men of yore were communicating to one another through their typewritten words and their scribbles and scrawls all over my FOIA documents.

In FBI parlance, “Re” is easy. It means “in reference to,” just as it does in any email or memo you might read these days. “Bureau,” as you probably already know, is an unofficial way of referring to the FBI. “Airtel” might sound like a trendy type of overnight accommodations, but it was one of the methods that the FBI used to communicate internally back then. Think of it as a letter that, according to Wikipedia, is mailed the same day that it was typed, which doesn’t sound all that extraordinary, but it is what it is.

So who is “CI”? Fortunately, I own a book titled “Unlocking the Files of the FBI: A Guide to Its Records and Classification System,” written by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart, and published in 1993. According to Haines and Langbart, CI does not mean “criminal informant” or “counterintelligence” or anything exciting like that, at least not in this case. No, the abbreviation CI stands for the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, just as the abbreviation for the Cleveland field office is CV.

Last but not least comes the date, 12/19/58. The SAC was referring to an airtel that had been sent from Headquarters (most likely) to the Cincinnati field office about 5 1/2 years after Tammen disappeared. Don’t bother looking for that airtel in the FOIA documents I’ve posted online, however. It wasn’t included in the first batch of documents that the FBI sent me in December 2010, nor was it in the documents sent to me on appeal or in my lawsuit settlement. Ostensibly, the FBI doesn’t have it anymore. As its name might indicate, that airtel seems to have been teleported into thin air. (If you’re thinking that I should ask the Cincinnati office directly if they might have the memo, I’d already contacted them and the Cleveland office before I filed my lawsuit. Both said that FBI Headquarters had everything on the Tammen case.)

The second and third paragraphs refer to some personal information about the Welco employee that the Cincinnati field office had sent to Headquarters for both its use and the use of the folks in Cleveland. We learn in the accompanying pages (which are almost entirely redacted) that they’d obtained this information from his personnel file, when a special agent paid a visit to the company the same day in which they’d received the phone call.

Paragraphs four and five summarize Tammen’s case, though the SAC erroneously states that a missing persons notice was filed with the Identification Division on 5/26/58, when it was actually filed 5/26/53. (Does that mean that our 12/19 airtel was also from 1953 instead of 1958? We’ll never know, although I don’t have a document from 12/19/53 either.) The writer also says that the Cleveland office was the “Office of Origin in SSA, 1948 case.” Translation: The writer is referencing the Selective Service Act of 1948 and he’s saying that the Cleveland field office had opened an investigation into why Ron didn’t show up for the draft after he disappeared. The FBI called off that investigation on 4/29/1955. The SAC also mentioned Ron’s fingerprint file from 1941, #358 406 B.

The last paragraph on page one and the first paragraph on page 2 discuss the phone call concerning the Welco employee, the details of which we’ve already mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The memo ends with this:

“The Identification Division is requested to compare the fingerprints of [whited out] with those of subject and advise Cincinnati and Cleveland of the results.”

In memo #2, dated 5-22-73, Acting Director Ruckelshaus responded to Cincinnati’s SAC. True to FBI form, he opened with the pretend word “Reurlet,” which, according to Haines and Langbart, means “Reference is made to your letter.” He then said that, in a nutshell, they compared the Welco guy’s fingerprints with Tammen’s prints, and there was no match. In a note at the bottom he’s included some background information on the case that we already know and, in the last sentence, he said “MP,” which stands for missing person, “placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.”

And that’s it. If you were to glance at the next memo to appear in our FOIA docs, you’d see that there is nothing more until 2008, when the Walker County Sheriff’s Office in LaFayette, Georgia, contacted the FBI about the dead body that had been found in a ravine in June 1953, and they were checking to see if it might have been Tammen.

As we’ve already discussed in the January 16, 2018, post, Tammen’s father had written the FBI in October 1967, saying that he could swear a soldier in an AP photo might be his son. But J. Edgar Hoover didn’t bother asking his Identification Division to compare the soldier’s fingerprints with Ron’s, even though he was a big believer in fingerprints for solving missing persons cases and they could have easily run the comparison. Five and a half years later, with Hoover out of the picture, the Cincinnati office had approached the Identification Division directly with the request to compare Ron’s prints with the Welco employee’s. This time, the Identification Division ran the comparison and it turned up negative. FBI Headquarters wrote its memo to Cincinnati’s SAC on Tuesday, May 22, 1973. Two weeks later, on June 4 or 5, 1973 (there are notations that mention both dates, but most say June 5), something related to Ronald Tammen’s case was “Removed from the Ident files.”

Removed from Ident files

Coincidentally or not, June 5, 1973, also happened to be exactly 20 years after the memo was sent from Headquarters to the Cleveland office in which they acknowledged that the young man who had been reported missing by his mother was the same person who had been fingerprinted back in 1941. For this reason, some readers may conclude that the removal of whatever it was from Ron’s record is not coincidental—that the FBI may have had a protocol in which, if there were no promising leads in 20 years, the FBI would make some sort of status change in the case, perhaps to the point of calling off the search.

This makes sense, except for a couple factors: I’ve received no indication from any source that there ever was a 20-year cut-off. When I asked Stephen Fischer, chief of multimedia productions and the media liaison for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS), if he had a suggestion regarding the meaning of the phrase “Removed from Ident files,” he said, “Sorry, but we do not.” If they had a 20-year rule, it would have been easy enough for him to say so. Also, if there were a 20-year deadline, wouldn’t it have coincided with the date in which the missing person report was filed, which was May 26, 1953?

I do think that the 20-year timeframe is significant, but not because of FBI protocol. I think it’s significant because of the news article that ran on the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which brought about the Welco lead.

So the question remained: What was removed from the Ident. files, and why?

There’s something that I need to share with you at this point, and I do so with a great deal of embarrassment. Sometimes, when a lot of information comes at me firehose style, I’ll focus on what I believe to be the most crucial take-home message—such as the fact that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002 and the FBI had probably confirmed him dead seven years prior—while accidentally letting some of the other details slip by, even though they may be even more important in answering a question at hand. As I was writing this blog post, I revisited emails from 2015 in which I was discussing the “Removed from Ident files” language with members of the FBI. Even though Stephen Fischer said that they didn’t know what it could refer to, Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, did have something interesting to say.

“The reference to ‘Removed from Ident File,’” he wrote to me in an email, “refers to the missing person notice on file.”

Ron’s missing person file was the one that begins with the number 79—#7931966, to be exact—that you see scribbled on many of the FOIA documents, and it contained correspondence between FBI Headquarters and its field offices as well as the Tammens. It was different from the fingerprint card that was contained in Ron’s #358 406 B file. Fox also said that Tammen’s missing person file was managed by the Identification Division.

At that moment, nearly three years after first reading Fox’s email, the significance of the Identification Division became clear to me. John Fox wasn’t telling me anything that I hadn’t read many times elsewhere. The division’s name had been written in the 5th paragraph of the 5/9/73 memo and in the first paragraph of every form letter leading up to it. It had been written at the top of the May 26, 1953, document in which the Cleveland office summed up its conversation with Mrs. Tammen—ATT: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION. For so long, I had been fixated on the fact that the Identification Division was known informally as the fingerprint division, which housed the hundreds of thousands of fingerprint cards in the enormous building that’s now the D.C. Armory. (Listen to two brief audio clips about the history of the Identification Division and its fingerprint records: Part I and Part II.) All along, I had been grappling with the question of how the FBI could remove Ron’s fingerprints from the Identification Division, but not expunge them until 2002. But it wasn’t just Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints that were maintained by the Identification Division. It was also Ron’s missing person file.

Could it be that Ron’s entire missing person file was removed from the Identification Division on June 5, 1973? Nearly every one of the letters of correspondence regarding Tammen’s case had the words “Removed from Ident files” written on them. In addition, stamped at the bottom of the June 5, 1953, memo are the words “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room,” and a number that looks like 429. The October 11, 1967, letter from Hoover to Mr. Tammen and the 5-22-73 memo from Ruckelshaus to the Cincinnati field office have a similar stamp, but the room has been moved to 1126. In all cases, the stamps are crossed out.

I believe that the reason for the removal of all of those pages was that Ronald Tammen was no longer considered by the FBI to be missing.

Here’s my theory: When J. Edgar Hoover chose not to compare the soldier’s prints with Ron’s in October 1967, he likely already knew what had happened to Tammen and he felt it would have been a waste of time to compare the two men’s fingerprints. It’s also my belief that Ron’s whereabouts were to be kept secret, even from his family members, for whatever reason. (Heck, 65 years after Tammen’s disappearance, I believe that’s still the case.)

In 1973, the Cincinnati SAC didn’t know what Hoover had known. He innocently submitted the fingerprints to Headquarters, and, just as innocently, the Identification Division ran their comparison. But something happened between May 22 and June 5, which led to the FBI’s decision to remove Ron’s missing person file from the Identification Division. Could that be what Ruckelshaus (or whoever authored the 5-22-73 letter for the acting director’s signature) had meant when he said that “MP placed in 1953 to be brought up to date”?

I think someone discovered what Hoover had known in 1967 and ordered that Ron’s missing person file be placed elsewhere, so they would no longer be bothered by additional MP-related requests. His fingerprints, on the other hand, would remain on file with the Identification Division, and later CJIS, until 2002, at which point the prints were expunged.

To sum up where my head is right now: not only do I think that the FBI knew when Ronald Tammen had died—seven years prior to 2002, or around 1995—but I also believe they knew what he was doing when he was still very much alive. They just don’t want us to know they knew.

But it’s still just a theory. I need to talk to a few more people.

________________

On a side note, I’ve come to learn the name of the person who worked at Welco as well as the details that were included in his personnel file. I won’t be revealing his name in order to protect his privacy and the privacy of his family, but I will say this: his name had a similar ring to Tammen’s. It would have been logical for the caller to make that connection because people who run away and change their names often use new names that sound like the old ones. The other details I’ll divulge here are his height and weight, which were recorded in his personnel file as 6 ft. 2 ½ in. and 185 pounds, respectively. Unless Tammen had experienced a major growth spurt after he disappeared—his medical records at Miami listed him as 5 ft. 9 in. in April of ‘53—there was no way this man could be confused with Tammen.

 

 

Hoover, JFK, and the day the FBI stopped writing to the Tammens

Over these next several posts, we’ll be continuing to focus our attention on what’s in the documents that were sent to me by the FBI as a result of my 2010 FOIA request, and what, if anything, they might add to the story.

________________________________

 

JFK funeral
Jacqueline, Caroline, and John Kennedy, Jr., among other family members, on the day of Kennedy’s funeral. Photo credit: National Archives; Photographer: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service

On the morning of Tuesday, May 2, 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover didn’t wake up. His body was discovered at around 8:30 a.m. by his maid, who had arrived at his home to make his breakfast. He’d worked all day at the office the day before, had dinner with his long-time companion and deputy director, Clyde Tolson, and then died of a heart attack sometime during the night or early morning.

Immediately upon Hoover’s death, and at his instruction, his secretary, Helen Gandy, went into high gear destroying what she later claimed to a House subcommittee to be “letters to and from friends, personal friends, a lot of letters.”

Yes. How very thoughtful of this man who’d made an art form of gathering the goods on the powerful, famous, and nonconforming to preserve the trust of those he held most dear by having his secretary tear up, and then send away for further shredding, all of those friendly, personal letters.

Hoover’s death also seemed to bring an end to a different kind of letter—something more relevant to those of us who are concerned with what happened to Ronald Tammen: the form letters. You may recall that the FBI would send a form letter to the Tammens every two or three years, usually in the autumn, to ask if they should continue looking for Tammen. Mr. or Mrs. Tammen would check the box marked “Is still missing,” sign the bottom, and mail the letter back to the FBI. After Hoover died, however, the letters came to a halt, even though, in the final letter, the “Is still missing” box was checked by Ron’s father.

While Hoover was still alive, the FBI had been fairly consistent about sticking to the schedule—jarringly so in 1963. That letter was dated November 29, just seven days after President Kennedy had been assassinated, and the last day of a grueling week in which the country had bid their tearful goodbyes to him. On a day when the nation was still mired in the shock and grief of having seen their young, energetic leader being carried around in a flag-draped casket, someone in Hoover’s employ had the clarity of mind to glance at the calendar and say to him or herself, “Time to send the Tammen family another form letter.”

To put the above action into context, let’s take a quick look at the timeline of that unspeakably sad week, juxtaposed with a few of the more tangible ways in which J. Edgar Hoover had busied himself.

Friday, Nov. 22, 1963

President John F. Kennedy is murdered in Dallas; President Johnson is sworn in. Hoover speaks with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and later sends a memo to his executive staff summarizing his conversation: that the person whom he believed shot and killed the president was in custody at Dallas Police headquarters, and the name of the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, who was “working in the building from which the shots were fired.” He concluded, “I told the Attorney General that, since the Secret Service is tied up, I thought we should move into the case.”

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963

President Kennedy’s casket is on display in the East Room of the White House. President Johnson declares Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, a National Day of Mourning. J. Edgar Hoover briefs LBJ about the FBI’s investigation (transcript — 3 pages), telling him, among other things: they had charged “this man in Dallas” with the president’s murder; they had the rifle that killed the president, the bullet, and the gun that killed the policeman; and “one angle that’s confusing”: a person who showed up at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963 using Oswald’s name was not Oswald.

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963

JFK’s casket lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda for 21 hours. Roughly 250,000 mourners wait in long lines to pay their respects. At Dallas Police headquarters, as he is being transferred to the county jail, Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, and he later dies. At 4:00 p.m. ET, J. Edgar Hoover dictates a summary of the investigation, saying that Oswald is dead, and that he was shot in the stomach by Jack Ruby. “The thing that I am concerned about, and so is [deputy attorney general] Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin,” he said.

Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 – National Day of Mourning

Beginning at roughly 11 a.m., there is a procession and funeral for John F. Kennedy, after which he is buried at Arlington Cemetery at roughly 3:30 p.m. (View Associated Press footage.) President Johnson calls J. Edgar Hoover at 10:30 a.m., to speak about his concern that people are calling for a presidential commission to look into the assassination. “Some lawyer in Justice is lobbying with the [Washington] Post because that’s where the suggestion came from for this presidential commission, which we think would be very bad,” (Hoover: “I do too,”)…“and put it right in the White House. We can’t be checking up on every uh, every uh, shooting scrape in the country…” Johnson then said that they planned to do two things: 1) Hoover would give a full report to the attorney general, which would be made available to the public, and 2) the attorney general of Texas would “run a court of inquiry.” Listen to the conversation (20:23) or read the transcript.

Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1963

President Johnson gives his “Let Us Continue” speech before Congress.

Thursday, Nov. 28, 1963Thanksgiving

(Unbelievably, Americans that year had to celebrate Thanksgiving three days after watching the funeral of their president.)

That evening, President Johnson delivers a televised speech to the nation asking Americans for their help, strength, and prayers, “that God may guard this Republic and guide my every labor.” (See transcript.)

Friday, Nov. 29, 1963

On Friday evening, President Johnson names the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy.

 

Earlier that day, at 1:49 p.m., President Johnson and Hoover discuss possible members of the presidential commission. When they move on to the FBI investigation, Hoover says “We hope to have this thing wrapped up today, but could be we probably won’t get it before the first of the week.”  Listen to Part 1 (10:06) and Part 2 (10:24) of the taped conversation or read the transcript.

Oh, and one more thing: a form letter signed by Hoover is mailed to the Tammen family.

I don’t know about you, but I find it extraordinary that the FBI was even thinking about Ronald Tammen during that momentous week in our nation’s history.

Of course, Hoover may not have been aware that a letter with his name and signature was mailed to the Tammens on November 29, 1963. It could be that a low-level civil servant had readied the memo and had it signed with an autopen while Hoover was on the phone with the president telling him about Oswald’s ties to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or the ACLU. Regardless, what this says to me is that in a week when the FBI should have been firing on every cylinder in an effort to determine who killed our president and why, someone within the organization had a more menial task on his or her plate. Even if that person’s job had nothing to do with helping with the Kennedy assassination investigation, even if his or her only job was sending out missing person memos, in my view, it was rather unseemly to be going off-topic so soon. For the rest of the country, the week was rife with cancellations, postponements, and closings in somber reflection of the upheaval we’d experienced. Why couldn’t the FBI—the nation’s top law enforcement agency—have held off on some of its other public duties until, say, after the weekend? Apparently, the bureau had moved on, and they didn’t seem to care if anyone outside its walls knew it.

One last point about the 1963 memo: it wasn’t as if there was a firm date when the memos were mailed out. Nope, the dates were all over the map, as can be seen here:

August 25, 1955

October 1, 1957

November 16, 1959

October 30, 1961

November 29, 1963

January 19, 1967

October 1, 1970

I’m sure the Tammens wouldn’t have minded if the FBI had waited another week or two before sending the letter.

Here’s the other thing that I want to point out about those dates. Based on the above pattern (other than the blip in January 1967), it would be logical to conclude that Mr. Tammen was due to receive another letter in 1972 or 1973, probably in October or November. But then Hoover died in May 1972 and the letter was never mailed. In fact, if these documents are telling us what I think they are, the FBI never wrote the Tammens again. Either Tammen’s case had fallen by the wayside or someone had made the decision that it was time to put a stop to the form letters.

________________________________

In my next post, I’ll discuss the two documents from May 1973.

 

 

The dog handler, the dad, and the director

Director Hoover Portrait
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director from 1924 to 1972 — Photo credit: FBI

Let’s take a few steps back to the year 2010, when the FBI had sent me their first round of FOIA documents on the Tammen case. What do the FBI’s officially sanctioned records say and how might that information offer up some additional clues into the case, knowing everything else we know now?

For a quick recap, here are the FBI documents we’ve mentioned so far:

  • This is the initial report that was submitted roughly a month after Marjorie Tammen contacted the FBI informing them of her missing son.
  • This document shows that the FBI had Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints on file as early as 1941 “for personal identification.”
  • This form letter (as well as this one) sent by the FBI to Ron’s parents features the notations used to describe Ron’s fingerprints.

The document that I want to focus on today is the below letter, written to J. Edgar Hoover from Ronald Tammen’s father, Ronald H. Tammen, Sr.:

Mr. Tammen's letter to JEH on AP photo
Click on link for closer view

The document isn’t dated, however it references an Associated Press photo that appeared in the October 2, 1967, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as numerous other newspapers around the country. The photo was of a dog handler and his dog in Vietnam.

Here’s the photo:

Vietnam South U.S.  Forces  Dogs
ASSOCIATED PRESS — For Editorial Use  — http://www.apimages.com

 And here’s the caption that ran beneath it:

COOLING OFF IN VIETNAM – A dog handler attached to the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade and his dog take a cooling swim in a stream near the unit’s home base at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. They had just returned from a patrol and both leaped into the water.

Mr. Tammen had this to say about the photo: “From the few features I can see of this soldier, I would swear it is my son.”

Although I can see a resemblance, I have no idea if the soldier in that photo was Ronald Tammen, who would have been 34 at that time. However, the letter does tell me a couple things about Mr. Tammen. First, counter to the FBI FOIA liaison’s claim that Mr. and Mrs. Tammen thought Ron “to be deceased given some suspicious facts” (the FBI’s supposed reason for sending me the FOIA documents without requiring proof of death or third-party authorization), as of October 1967, Mr. Tammen was still hopeful that his son was alive. (Mrs. Tammen had passed away by then, in 1964.) Second, the letter shows that Mr. Tammen had no idea what had happened to his son. If any readers have been secretly wondering if Ron’s parents might have known something by that time, this letter should put those suspicions to rest.

Now let’s review the response from then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, dated October 11, 1967:

Hoover response to Mr. Tammen
Click on link for closer view

I’m going to go ahead and say it: That was one lame-o response, J. Edgar Hoover! Why do I think so? This was a disappearance in which the FBI had, at least at one time, more than a little interest. It was a case on which they’d staked their fabled reputation, one they’d sunk some serious tax dollars into, dispersing agents hither and yon to investigate what might have happened to Ron. Then, after 14 years with (supposedly) little to no new evidence, Ron’s father—someone who knew Tammen about as well as anyone could—writes in to tell them, Hey fellas! I could swear the person in this photo is my son! Can you check it out? Mr. Tammen hadn’t asked that much of the FBI up until that point. It wasn’t as if he’d been calling them once a week asking for an update. I’m no expert, but I’d call this a potential lead.

But is J. Edgar intrigued? Does he put a couple of his dark-suited G-men back on the trail to follow up in hopes that he can wrap up this case, while getting some great P.R.? No, he does not. Instead, Hoover responds with a tepid, “In reference to the newspaper item you enclosed, you may wish to write directly to The Adjutant General, Department of the Army, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 20310, for possible assistance.”

That, Good Man readers, is what I would call a first-class, grade-A, top-of-the-line brush-off.  If Mr. Hoover had truly been interested in finding out if the soldier in the photo was Ronald Tammen, don’t you think he would have made a phone call of his own to the Adjutant General? After all, in 1967, Tammen’s fingerprints were still on file with the FBI, and the Army obviously would have taken the soldier’s fingerprints when he enlisted. If the FBI didn’t already have the dog handler’s prints in their identification files (a big if), the Army could have sent them a copy, and, bada bing bada boom, question answered. But Hoover didn’t take that simple step. Why not?

I’ll venture a guess. By 1967, I think Hoover had stopped caring about what happened to Ronald Tammen. Either that, or he already had a good idea what the answer was. And if it was the latter, there must have been some reason that he didn’t want that information to be made public.

__________________

Congratulations! You’ve just completed post #20 of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After reading some of the new details presented on this website, you may have begun forming an opinion of your own about what happened to Ronald Tammen—or maybe your opinion has evolved. If you wish to discuss your views, the floor is always open, and, at this stage of the game, there are no wrong answers. Also, don’t forget to share this blog with friends and family members! The more followers we have, the more people we can involve in the discussion, which could produce more leads and possibly more answers.

Did Ronald Tammen cross paths with Richard Colvin Cox?

Richard Cox
Richard C. Cox

Happy New Year, Good Man followers! Did you know that January 2018 marks the 68th anniversary of another person’s disappearance from his college dorm? That individual is Richard Colvin Cox, from Mansfield, Ohio, who was a sophomore cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in New York, in 1950, the year he disappeared. On the day he went missing, Cox had been watching a basketball game with roommate Deane Welch, and, on their return to their room in the North Barracks, he took a detour to check his grades. While in that vicinity, Cox ran into an acquaintance who had visited him the previous weekend—a person he’d known in Germany while he was in the Army who supposedly went by the name of George. After a brief conversation, Cox headed back to his room to change into the requisite uniform before going to dinner at the Thayer Hotel with his visitor. At 6:18 p.m., he said a quick goodbye as Welch preceded him out the door, and was never heard from again.

Although the two young men’s stories have their differences, there are plenty of parallels. Here’s a short list:

Personal/Family Characteristics

  • Both were from Ohio. Tammen was from Maple Heights, a Cleveland suburb, while Cox was from Mansfield, a small town between Cleveland and Columbus.
  • Both were intelligent and studious.
  • Both were considered leaders in their class. Tammen was a counselor in Fisher Hall, and Cox was voted by his classmates as the highest-ranking yearling (the term used for sophomores at West Point) in his company.
  • Their birthdays were only two days apart, though Tammen was five years younger than Cox. Cox was born July 25, 1928, and Tammen was born July 23, 1933.
  • Both were considered friendly, but private. They tended to keep things to themselves.
  • Both were handsome with similar smallish builds. Cox was 5’8” and 165 lb.; Tammen was 5’9” and 175 lb.
  • Both came from families of modest means. Cox’s family owned an insurance agency in Mansfield, however Mr. Cox had passed away when Richard was 10. Tammen’s father worked as a clerk for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen in Cleveland.

Conditions of Disappearance

  • Both disappeared while they were sophomores in college.
  • They disappeared within three years of each other. Cox disappeared Jan. 14, 1950, and Tammen disappeared April 19, 1953.
  • They disappeared on a weekend—Cox on a Saturday, and Tammen on a Sunday.
  • They disappeared at the end of the day. Cox disappeared a little after 6:15 p.m., while Tammen disappeared sometime between 8:00 and 10:30 p.m., based on varying accounts of his final moments.
  • Both young men appeared to be showing signs of stress or inner conflict. Cox sometimes shared that he was growing fed up with West Point, while Tammen had spoken of being “tired lately” and had been seen reading the Bible several times, which was considered out of character.
  • Both seemed to be in good spirits on the day of their disappearance.
  • Both walked away with just the clothes on their backs and little money.
  • Both had supposedly been sighted after-the-fact by people who knew them. Cox was reportedly spotted in March 1952 at a restaurant in the Greyhound bus terminal at 11th Street and New York Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C. Ernest Shotwell, a friend of Cox’s from their days at the Stewart Field Prep School in New York, had seen him sitting at a table, and they spoke briefly, though Cox appeared uncomfortable and left shortly thereafter. (The Greyhound building is still there, a curvy, Art Deco blast from the past now bordered on three sides by more modern—and boring—structures.) Tammen was potentially seen in a restaurant in Wellsville, NY, in August 1953, by H. H. Stephenson, the housing administrator at Miami who had given Tammen permission to have a car on campus. Stephenson had walked out of the restaurant without saying anything to the young man.
  • Both men’s fingerprints were on file with the FBI when they’d disappeared. Tammen’s had been on file since 1941, when he was in the second grade, and Cox’s was on file at least since he’d enlisted in the Army in September 1946.
  • After committing significant resources and manpower into finding the young men, the FBI ostensibly, failed to solve either case.
IMG_0314 New York Ave terminal
The Greyhound bus terminal, in Washington, D.C., where there had been a potential sighting of Richard Cox in 1952.

Finding the similarities compelling, in June 2011, I submitted a FOIA request to the FBI seeking all documents that they had on the Richard Cox investigation. At that time, I hadn’t yet come to fully appreciate the nuances of FOIA—and by “nuances,” I mean, well, let’s just say that it isn’t an exact science. People at the agency of interest are likely to make judgment calls on a regular basis. Some decisions may hinge on the topic in general, the way a request is phrased, and any number of factors.

With that said, the FBI saw fit to send me 24 pages on the Cox case within the same month of my request. (They told me that they were sending me information that had already been processed for another requester, which is the probable reason behind the quick turnaround.) As with my FOIA documents on Tammen, the amount seemed surprisingly small to me, considering the fact that Cox had been affiliated with the U.S. Army, and the military doesn’t take disappearances from its ranks lightly. Nevertheless, I moved on without submitting an appeal. I had little knowledge of the case at that point and 20-odd pages seemed to be the FBI’s M.O. when it came to men who’d gone missing in the 1950s.

And then I dug deeper. What I found was that two people had done a good deal of digging ahead of me, and they got much, much more from the FBI. One person was James Underwood, who, as a reporter for the Mansfield News Journal, wrote an in-depth investigative series on Cox’s disappearance in 1982. (In 2012, Mr. Underwood appeared on the History Channel’s episode on West Point and the Cox disappearance.) The second person was Marshall Jacobs, a retired Florida teacher who began investigating Cox’s disappearance several years after Underwood. Jacobs eventually collaborated on a book, titled Oblivion, with Harry J. Maihafer, a graduate of West Point. Jacobs had conducted the research, while Maihafer did the writing. In their respective publications, Underwood and Marshall/Maihafer had disclosed that they’d both received thousands of pages from the government—some from the Army, some from the FBI—which provided me with ammunition for a follow-up FOIA request. In 2013, I wrote (in part):

…after reading the attached article from the 8-1-1982 issue of the Mansfield (OH) News Journal, I’d like to make a second FOIA request for FBI Bureau file 79-23729 as well as file #79-25 from the Cleveland field office. I understand that Mr. Underwood and another researcher (Marshall Jacobs, who is now deceased) received more than 1200 pages [I guesstimated] on the Cox disappearance from their FBI FOIA requests, and I would like to receive the same documents they received…

Of course, I realized that it had also been roughly 30 years since they’d submitted their FOIA requests, and a lot of purging can happen in that amount of time. Still, I thought it was worth a try. The one thing I had going for me was that, because Richard Cox had been declared dead by the state of Ohio in 1957, there was no need to provide proof of death or third-party authorization.

With little fanfare, and no apology whatsoever, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the FBI’s parent agency, sent me three CDs with 1631 pages of documents on them—which is a far cry from the original 24 pages the FBI had sent me in 2011, and serves to underscore the oft-repeated advice that one should always appeal his or her FOIA request. Why my Cox FOIA was bumped up all the way to the DOJ, I’m not sure. At the time, we were still in the middle of my FOIA lawsuit on Tammen, and they seemed to be tying the two cases together, even though they’re unrelated. (As for the Army, they’ve been harder to crack than the FBI. So far, they’ve sent me a smattering of documents, though I’m currently following up on one FOIA request.)

Incidentally, I wasn’t re-requesting the Cox files to be a thorn in anyone’s side or because I didn’t have anything better to do. I was trying to locate the source of a certain piece of information that had been mentioned on page 97 of Marshall and Maihafer’s book. What to most readers appeared as a footnote of little consequence seized my attention as if it had been written in blazing, buzzing neon.

Maihafer wrote: “Meanwhile, tips about Cox had continued to come in at the rate of nearly three a day. One report said a man resembling Cox was working at Miami University in Ohio…”

What kind of a crazy coincidence would it be to have one inexplicably missing person turning up in the same tiny university town just prior to someone else going inexplicably missing? What’s more, wouldn’t it be incredible if Richard Cox and Ronald Tammen had actually known one another? The book said that all of the leads turned up nothing. Still, I had to see the documents for myself.

I feel compelled to point out here that the documents I received from the FBI weren’t electronically searchable. They’re PDFs of old, difficult-to-decipher pages that require reading. Lots and lots of reading. On evenings and weekends, and even during a trip to Switzerland, I’d insert one of the CDs into my laptop and, folder by folder, wade through the bureaucratic minutia of names, places, and dates, until I was bored out of my mind, my lower neck muscles were screaming, or both. Periodically, I’d have to reassure myself that this wasn’t a colossal waste of my time. It took months for me to get through them all. As I was nearing the end of the third CD, when I’d just about given up hope, I found the reference to Oxford, Ohio.

The first document to catch my eye was an FBI report recounting a visit to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Curtis Sandage, of Lombard, Illinois, by agent William H. Gray. The report was dated November 21, 1952, and the visit was in response to a letter that Mr. Sandage had written to the Army’s 10th Criminal Investigation Detachment in New York, NY, on August 5, 1952. A few details of the letter were included, such as the fact that the couple had recognized Cox’s photo from a recent article in Life magazine. Although Mr. Gray didn’t specify the date of the magazine, I can tell you that it was the April 14, 1952 issue. The article can be read here (albeit not easily), beginning on page 147.

FBI report
For closer view, click on link

Gray indicated that the visit yielded no new information, as Mrs. Sandage had “nothing pertinent” to add to what her husband had written in the letter. In the main narrative, however, he also mentioned that the Sandages didn’t know the young man by name, but that both felt sure that “the man they knew was employed in some public or semi-public place such as a restaurant or filling station in Oxford, Ohio and that he wore sport clothing.”

About 20 pages later, I arrived at the letter, which had been reproduced in a summarizing document by the Army and thus the reason that there’s no signature. Here it is:

Page 1:

Sandage letter to CID, page 1
For closer view, click on link.

Page 2:

Sandage letter to CID, page 2
For closer view, click on link.

As the letter states, the Sandages, who were both faculty members at Miami, remember seeing Cox (or someone who looked like Cox) between January and September 1950, before they moved to Illinois. During that same winter and spring, Ronald Tammen was a junior in high school, and, that September, he was just beginning his senior year. If it were Richard Cox and he was pumping gas over the next couple years, when Ronald Tammen was at Miami, I’d think that the chances would have been pretty good that they would have bumped into one another, especially since Tammen was one of the few students with a car on campus during his sophomore year. Those are a lot of “ifs,” I know, but it’s interesting to ponder.

The Sandages have both passed away, however, I contacted a son to find out if he was aware of their potential sighting of Richard Cox. He was interested, but knew nothing about it.

I won’t be discussing Jacobs’ theory regarding what may have happened to Richard Cox in this post. Cox’s family feels strongly that the assertions made in his and Maihafer’s book are untrue, so I’ll be steering clear of that debate for now.

I will say this: Nothing I read in the FBI files indicated that they had followed up on the Oxford sighting after the November 1952 visit to the Sandages’ home. (The pages I’ve received from the Army don’t mention the potential sighting.) That also means that I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the FBI had ruled out whether the person in Oxford might have been Cox.

Although we can’t be sure that the person the Sandages knew in Oxford was Richard Cox, here’s what I come away with as a result of their story:

  • There’s a chance that Richard Cox and Ronald Tammen may have known one another or perhaps had a common acquaintance.
  • It’s also possible that their disappearances might have been related to one another.
  • It’s intriguing how, just five months after their visit with the Sandages to discuss a possible sighting of Richard Cox in Oxford, Ohio, the FBI was brought in to search for Tammen, who happened to disappear from, of all places, Oxford, Ohio. If anyone at the FBI wondered if there was a connection between two high-profile cases of missing college men and the town of Oxford, they didn’t put it in writing.

What does their story tell you?

 

 

 

The missing fingerprints, part 4*

(*or the myriad ways to answer a yes-or-no question)

Yes-And-No-Typography-Black-800px
Clipart by GDJ at openclipart.org

In a mid-day moment of inspiration, I realized that I could contact the FBI’s public affairs office seeking comment about their actions on Ronald Tammen. As a former fed who had worked in other public information offices, I knew that reporters did that sort of thing all the time. In fact, it always made me proud to live in a country where a reporter could contact a government agency with questions and have them directly responded to. They could be from anywhere—the New York Times or the Pahrump (Nevada) Mirror. Readership didn’t matter. Here I was, a wannabe author, a quasi member of the press. Why couldn’t I do it too?

On October 29, 2015, I sent the following to the FBI public affairs office:

For a book I am writing, I’m seeking comment from an FBI spokesperson on the following:

Background:

It appears from FBI’s past actions that the FBI has confirmed Ronald Tammen, Jr., (FBI #358 406 B), who has been missing since 1953, to be deceased. This is evidenced by the following:

— Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged from the CJIS database in 2002, when Mr. Tammen would have been 69 years of age. It is CJIS policy to expunge fingerprints when a person is 110 years of age or seven years after a person’s confirmed death.

— In 2010, the FBI’s FOIA office released to me documents on Tammen  without requesting authorization or proof of death. Likewise, authorization or proof of death was not requested for Lyndal Ashby, whom I’ve subsequently discovered died in 1990. Such proof was required for missing persons William Arnold and Raymond Harris. 

Questions for Comment:

For these reasons, I am seeking a comment from an FBI spokesperson in response to these questions:

Is it true that the FBI has confirmed that Ronald H. Tammen, Jr., is dead?

IF YES:

  1. How did the FBI confirm Ronald Tammen, Jr.’s, death?
  2. When did the FBI confirm Ronald Tammen, Jr.’s, death?
  3. Where is Mr. Tammen’s body?

IF NO:

  1. Why were Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints purged in 2002?
If the FBI confirms a death of a missing person, is the next of kin usually notified?

IF YES:

  1. Why didn’t the FBI notify surviving members of the Tammen family that they had confirmed Ronald Tammen’s death?

Thank you, in advance, for your responses to these questions.

Yeah, I know, I could have eased up on all the follow-up questions and just left it at the single yes-or-no question for starters. I could have always followed up later. However, if the FBI hadn’t confirmed Ron Tammen to be deceased, any PR rep worth his or her salt could have easily provided the shortest of responses and sent me on my way. Something like: The FBI has no additional information that would confirm whether the subject is alive or dead. Unfortunately, we have no information as to why his fingerprints were destroyed in 2002. Seriously, that’s all they’d have had to do—if the FBI hadn’t confirmed Ronald Tammen to be dead, that is.

Instead, I received this email:

“Thanks for contacting the FBI.  Your request was forwarded to me for review and handling.  I contacted the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS).  They informed me that you should submit a FOIA request in order to obtain the information you are seeking.  The following link will provide some guidance on submitting a FOIA request https://www.fbi.gov/foia/sample-fbi-foia-request-letter.  If you have further questions, do not hesitate to email or call me.  Thanks again for contacting the FBI.”

Yes-And-No-Typography-2-Black-800px
Clipart by GDJ at openclipart.org

As instructed, I didn’t hesitate to call her. To my surprise, she picked up. Here’s how our conversation went, taken from notes I’d written after-the-fact (comments are paraphrased as closely as I could recall at the time):

I told her I had already been through the FOIA process and there are no more documents. Because of my lawsuit, I’m not even allowed to submit a FOIA request on the Tammen case unless I think there is a source that hasn’t been searched. I said that I was seeking a statement from the FBI saying whether Ronald Tammen was dead based on their actions.

FBI rep: I asked them, and they said that you needed to submit a FOIA request.

JW: I FOIA’d information on four guys. You returned docs on two of them, and for the other two, you told me I had to prove they were dead or I needed their approval. The other guy whose docs you sent to me—Lyndal Ashby—I’ve since discovered is dead. Which leads me to believe that you know that Ron is dead. You also discarded Ron’s fingerprints, which is another sign that you think he’s dead. And that is what I’m asking. Something is causing you to act in a certain way and I am requesting a statement based on your actions.

FBI rep: The FBI has a right to decline requests.

JW: So the FBI is declining my request for a statement? Are you a spokesperson?

FBI rep: No, ma’am. You cannot use me as a spokesperson.

She then said that they were declining on the basis that they didn’t have documents to back up what I was asking for.

JW: I feel like we’re going in circles here. It’s not about documents. It’s about actions. Something is causing the FBI to treat these cases differently. I’m seeking an FBI statement on whether the FBI has concluded Ron Tammen to be dead based on your actions.

Again, she said that I would not be receiving a statement from them.

My reasoning during that thoroughly enjoyable exchange was I felt that there must be some way in which the FBI’s FOIA office could tell whether or not Ronald Tammen was confirmed dead without having the information exist in document form. Remember that FOIA is all about documents, be they hard-copy or electronic. I wondered if there were some database that they could check.

Regardless, the public affairs rep was so insistent that I submit a FOIA request, I wondered what request I might be able to submit that didn’t drift into the forbidden territory of my former lawsuit. I decided that emails were fair game and submitted a FOIA request on all internal communication that was sent among CJIS staffers pertaining to their decision to purge Tammen’s fingerprints in 2002.

Several weeks later, I was told that they’d checked their Central Records System (CRS) and came up empty. I appealed on the basis that, while I was no expert, I didn’t think staff emails would be in their CRS, which is the catch-all system that holds current and past case files on virtually everyone whose ever been investigated by the FBI, from Al Capone to Busic Zvonko, and anything else on its radar. In my view, employee emails would be stored on an email server. In March, I received a response from an Appeals staff member, who boiled things down to this:

“After carefully considering your appeal, I am affirming the FBI’s action on your request. The FBI informed you that it could locate no records subject to the FOIA in its files. I have determined that the FBI’s response was correct and that it conducted an adequate, reasonable search for records responsive to your request. The FBI determined that, depending on the reason for the purge, there would have been no emails created, or if there were, they would be well past the records retention period for such records.”

So there were no emails. I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t take no for an answer terribly well, especially when I think I’m being yanked around. However, another awesome aspect of our democracy is that an average citizen such as myself can contact her or his congressional representative or senator for assistance with a federal agency that isn’t being particularly responsive in providing a service that is part of its mission. Most requests probably have more to do with Social Security checks, veterans’ benefits, and whatnot, not so much journalistic inquiries seeking an answer to a yes-or-no question. Nevertheless, I thought I’d give it a whirl. I contacted my senator, and asked if he’d be willing to approach the FBI on my behalf. He accepted my request and one of his staffers contacted the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs with my question and related follow-ups.

I was optimistic. They could give my small-potatoes self the brush-off, but a sitting U.S. senator? Surely, they’d address any questions coming from him promptly and truthfully.

A little over two months later, the FBI’s deputy general counsel at the time—a guy named Gregory A. Brower—contacted my senator with a response.

It opened like this:

“This letter is in response to your email dated March 29, 2016, which was sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on behalf of your constituent, Ms. Jennifer W. Wenger, who is requesting information as to whether or not the FBI searched Sentinel as part of her original FOIA request. The matter was referred to the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) for response.”

How my simple question about whether or not they’d confirmed Tammen to be dead morphed into “whether or not the FBI searched Sentinel,” I’m not sure. Before that moment, I’d never heard of Sentinel.

“Sentinel is the FBI’s next generation case management system for FBI investigative records generated on or after July 1, 2012,” Mr. Brower explained. Since Tammen’s case was from 1953, it obviously wouldn’t apply. Fine, I thought, but what about the question I’d actually asked?

Mr. Brower then went into great detail about my entire FOIA experience with them, reliving every thrilling twist and turn, even disclosing information to my senator that I’d been told by my lawyer I was not permitted to make public. I’m not going to reveal that information on this blog, despite Mr. Brower’s (perceived) breach, because, quite frankly, I don’t want to piss these guys off any more than I already have. Truth be told, they seem humorless. If I showed you the letter, you’d see what I mean.

But there was something else that Mr. Brower told my senator that I couldn’t let go unchallenged. Mr. Brower spoke of how “Ms. Wenger received unprecedented access” and, later, “Ms. Wenger obtained special access” to certain information concerning the Tammen investigation as part of our settlement agreement.

His use of the terms “special” and “unprecedented” to describe my access to information about the Tammen case is, well, slightly overstated. As I’d discovered by then, the information I received is available to any person on the planet with an internet connection. Sure, they tailored it to their liking by rearranging a few sentences, switching out a couple of words, and adding two tidbits of info that took a minimal amount of research, but it was pretty much wholly ripped off from a write-up found on a well-known missing persons website called The Charley Project. The good news is that you won’t have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to access it. I give you, Good Man followers, the source of the FBI information that I received as a result of my settlement:

http://www.charleyproject.org/cases/t/tammen_ronald.html

(If you’re wondering when The Charley Project had posted the original version, I contacted the person who manages the website to find out. She told me she was the author and she posted it on March 1, 2005. I’m thinking some FBI staffer lifted it from the website around the time Frank Smith came calling requesting Ron’s fingerprints in 2008, but that’s just a hunch.)

OK, back to my little saga. I made the above points to my senator’s staffer—that the FBI didn’t address the question at hand, that this wasn’t a FOIA request, and that my access to information from the settlement was neither special nor unprecedented—and, God bless him, he went back to Mr. Brower on my behalf.

Mr. Brower’s response was a lot shorter, and again, he stuck with his original talking points: she sued us, we settled, we don’t have to give her another thing on Ronald Tammen. He closed with this:

“If she has questions about the FBI’s response to her FOIA request, which was resolved by the settlement agreement, she should pursue resolution through the proper legal avenues.”

I thanked my senator and his staffer for their efforts, and decided that the FBI’s wall was impenetrable. I gave up, and moved on to other parts of my research.

Until last week, that is. As I was writing up this blog post, I started mulling over what a database would be like in which the FBI tracks anyone who has been fingerprinted. We already know that fingerprints and other biometric information are kept in a giant database called Next Generation Identification (NGI). Let’s imagine that there’s a field in which information can be entered stating whether or not a person has been confirmed dead, and, if so, the date in which they were confirmed dead. To the best of my knowledge, that information wouldn’t be considered FOIAable. It would be one or two fields in a ginormous database, not a bona fide document. But without such a system, how would they even know when it’s time to purge a confirmed dead person’s fingerprints after seven years—the institutional memories of its employees?

“Hey, Fred?”

“Yeah, Barney?”

“Wasn’t it seven years ago that we finally learned that Mr. Slate had died? You know, the guy from Pahrump whose fingerprints we’ve had on file since the 1970s?”

“Has it been seven years? Well, I’ll be. You’re right!”

“I’d say it’s high time we expunged those prints!”

Methinks not. With a fair amount of trepidation, I decided that I needed to go back to the FBI one more time. This was, after all, a question about departmental protocol. I wasn’t asking them about Ronald Tammen, Lyndal Ashby, or anyone else in particular. I just wanted to know how CJIS knew when it was time to purge fingerprints. Maybe no individual is alerted. Maybe the deadline hits and the fingerprints are expunged automatically. Either way, that would be a hypothetical means in which the FOIA office could retrieve info that stated whether someone listed as missing had been confirmed dead.

Last Tuesday, I sent an email to the public affairs person who’d contacted me before, requesting an answer to that question within the week. No one has responded in time for this post. (Of course, you’ll be the first to know if anyone does.)

At least one point bears repeating, a point that reaffirms my faith in the decency of people. If the FBI hasn’t confirmed Tammen to be dead, “NO” would have been the most obvious and easiest of responses to my question. Instead, some representatives hid behind FOIA, while another used legalese as pushback and even changed the question. If the FBI has confirmed Tammen to be dead, no one lied to me. If someone from that organization knows the answer to be “YES,” perhaps he or she can be convinced that the right thing to do is to come forward and let Tammen’s surviving family members know what happened. You know how to reach me. And I won’t share your name with a soul.