The tinderbox and the match: the honest truth about the St. Louis fire of 1973

The 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO

Today, we’re going to take a break from my Ronald Tammen updates to discuss a topic that many of us have run into when seeking a person’s military records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO. Perhaps you’re one of the unlucky persons who has tried to locate a family member’s records and received a letter that opens with these discouraging words:

“Thank you for contacting the National Personnel Records Center. The complete Official Military Personnel File for the veteran named above is not in our files. If the record were here on July 12, 1973, it would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire on that date and may have been destroyed. The fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel who separated from the service between 1912 and 1959, and records of Air Force personnel with surnames Hubbard through Z who separated between 1947 through 1963.”

More than 22 million files were lost in the fire. Fortunately, staffers in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which oversees the records housed in the NPRC, have been able to reconstruct details of the affected veterans’ time spent while they were serving our country, though those details are likely incomplete. NARA employees are good at what they do, but they’re not magicians.

I’ve always wondered about that fire, which sounded suspicious to me. How did it even start?

Last month, I was submitting a request for Richard Tammen’s (Ron’s younger brother’s) military records—which, alas, I’m afraid may be among those that were destroyed—when I also decided to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI regarding their investigation into the St. Louis fire. Nine hundred digital pages later, the smoke has finally lifted. It took some work—the FBI never makes things easy, and you won’t believe the lengths they went to this time in order to keep the facts hidden. (Spoiler alert: I’m seeing strong signs of a cover-up that reeks of something far worse.) But after sifting through the documents and comparing what seemed to be the most relevant clues, a heartbreakingly human story has emerged. From what I can tell, this story has never been told publicly before. Other people have FOIA’d these same documents—I’m not the first person to do that. But you, Good Man readers—you, the most scholarly bunch of history-slash-mystery buffs I know, will be the first to learn the truth as best as I can tell.

First, let’s have a quick rundown on the fire. It broke out in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 12, 1973—around 12:15. At that time, most of the building’s occupants were custodians and maintenance workers who’d started their shifts at 4 p.m. the previous day and who would be officially off duty at 12:30 a.m. As the workers were winding things up for the night, returning trash carts and tools to the first floor of the building and signing out at the guards’ stations on the first and second floors, they started to smell the smoke. It was primarily traveling downward by way of the elevator shafts from one of the upper floors, though, at the beginning, they couldn’t be sure which one. Some people ventured to higher floors to scope things out, but the walls of smoke quickly drove them back.

As workers exited the building, some to their cars and others to the fenced-in area surrounding the building, their vantage points improved. Glowing flames were visible through the windows at the south end of the sixth floor—the uppermost floor of the building. Someone called the fire department and minutes later, the first firetruck arrived at the scene. Over the next five days, 42 fire departments would help battle the blaze.

Remarkably, the fire had grown so intense so quickly that firefighters couldn’t put it out until the sixth floor was in ashes and the concrete roof had collapsed upon it.

What’s more, no one would be able to officially pinpoint the fire’s cause, at least not from the physical evidence. Neither the fire marshal nor the FBI laboratory staff who flew in from D.C. to investigate would be able to safely explore the sixth floor before the roof caved in. The FBI’s ongoing talking point was that there were no signs of arson, but how could they know without having been on the sixth floor? Any possible signs of arson would have been buried under concrete rubble.

But make no mistake: arson was always the primary suspect. Building representatives and the FBI would occasionally speculate about faulty wiring or spontaneous combustion when speaking with news reporters, but the question in the front of their minds was always: who set this fire and why? Because for some reason, people were always lighting fires in that building. In the two years prior, a dozen or so fires had been discovered in rest room trash cans, custodial closets, and other areas. Some were reported to authorities. Other fires discovered in the nick of time were extinguished and quietly forgotten.

Also, the building, which was ballyhooed as being fireproof, was a proverbial tinderbox. Paper documents numbering in the tens of millions were tightly packed in cardboard boxes on metal shelves. As a cost-saving measure, someone from the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversaw the facility and the staff who maintained it, had made the decision to install sprinklers and fire alarms only on the first and part of the second floors. The upper floors, where the majority of the files were stored, went without. Another money-saving decision was to turn off air conditioners at 5 p.m. every night throughout most of the building, including the file areas. Custodians steered clear of the files as much as possible, though occasionally, someone would go there for a quick smoke , even though smoking was forbidden in those areas. They would brave the unbearable for some privacy and a nicotine buzz.

In addition to housing the military records, the NPRC served as an annex of sorts to the St. Louis field office of the FBI. Agents stationed on the second floor of the building could easily conduct background checks for persons who’d served in the various branches of the military. 

Even though FBI investigators couldn’t look through the physical evidence on the sixth floor, they still had access to the next best thing: people. On July 12, they began to interview as many workers as possible who might be able to share information about the fire’s origin, especially anyone who was working in the building the previous night. If they were working on or near the sixth floor, that was all the better. “Did you see anything or anyone unusual?” would have been one of their go-to questions.

One custodian who was interviewed twice—first on July 12, and later on the 16th—had told investigators that he’d been working on the sixth floor for part of his shift but then went downstairs at around 10:30-10:45 p.m. During his second interview, this additional detail was written in the summary: “There was a crew of possibly three people who were buffing the floors on the sixth floor after he left.”

A custodian who’d been waxing the floors that night (likely on the sixth floor, although that detail has been redacted), was interviewed on July 13. We’ll discuss his comments in a few minutes.

On Tuesday, July 17, another night custodian, Terry Gene Davis, was interviewed. Davis was a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran, formerly with the U.S. Coast Guard. He’d also attended Meramec Junior College for a time. He’d been working as a custodian at NPRC since June of the previous year.

Davis didn’t work on the sixth floor—he was mainly stationed on floors four and five. However, he was one of only a few people who’d gone upstairs after the fire had started to see if he could find the source. On his own initiative, he took the stairwell all the way to the sixth floor to have a look around.

Davis walked to the southern part of the building and reported that the “west one-third of the building on the sixth floor in the file section was not on fire and was relatively clear of smoke.” It was when he started walking eastward, however, that “he ran into a solid wall of heavy dense, grayish-black smoke.” 

Click on image for closer view
Click on image for a closer view

More than 80 individuals were interviewed in the ensuing days, offering up whatever details they could think of that might be of help. Nevertheless, it didn’t appear as if the FBI was getting any closer to finding the source of the fire.

That all changed on October 12, when a male custodian signed a confession stating that he’d been smoking a cigarette near the files on the sixth floor at roughly 11 p.m. on July 11. He couldn’t recall his exact location, but said that it was at the south end of the building, toward the western side. The person, whose name is redacted, recalled discarding the match on the floor, and then snuffing out the cigarette in a screw hole in one of the metal shelves. 

“It has been on my mind and I have been worried about the fire because I did not intend for it to happen,” he said. 

Then he addressed a point that the special agents who were grilling him had undoubtedly asked about. Five employees had first-hand knowledge of him stating that he’d set the fire on purpose.

“I told some people that I threw matches in the files but I was only running off at the mouth,” he said. “I lit one match for my cigarette and I shook it out and threw it down. I don’t know where it landed but I think it landed on the floor.”

He signed the statement, and then two special agents added their signatures as well as the smoker’s identifying information.

Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view

With this new development, U.S. Attorney Donald Stohr instructed the FBI to interview the five coworkers concerning the sixth-floor smoker’s remarks. They said that they recalled him saying things about starting the fire, but they didn’t take him too seriously. The smoker on the sixth floor was known as an attention-seeker, they said. But as the months wore on, his claims grew bolder. He was saying that the fire was intentional—that he’d pulled out a box of files and lit it with his matches. A couple people warned him to be cool and to stop talking. They actually started to believe him. He was also beginning to show signs of worry, wondering what they would do to the person who set the fire. The fire was beginning to consume him. 

“It was obvious that he felt things more deeply than he let on,” one of them said.

Their statements are included here:

Stohr also asked that the FBI check with the smoker’s school and doctor for possible background info. We don’t get to see much of anything that they said, but I’ll include those heavily redacted summaries anyway:

School records of the sixth-floor smoker; click on image for a closer view
Doctor’s records of the sixth-floor smoker; click on image for a closer view

They also checked with the local police, who had nothing on him:

Police records (or lack thereof) of the sixth-floor smoker; click on image for a closer view

Stohr didn’t think that they had enough evidence to prosecute the sixth-floor smoker. A remorseful confession plus hearsay repeated by five coworkers didn’t sound like a slam-dunk to him. He said that they had two choices: turn matters over to the GSA, the smoker’s employer, and let them deal with him as they see fit. Or, they could present their evidence to the Federal Grand Jury in the Eastern District of Missouri to see if they had enough to initiate criminal proceedings. Stohr and others elected to do the latter and they argued their case on October 31, 1973. That same day, the Grand Jury returned a “no true bill,” which means that they didn’t feel that the U.S. Attorney had enough evidence to prosecute the case. The case was closed.

The next day, Terry Gene Davis shot himself in the head and died. Or at least that’s the official date that’s on the books. He hadn’t reported to work since October 30, and his body wasn’t discovered until November 5, when a concerned coworker who lived next door checked on him. The coroner said that, based on the state of decomposition of his body and the most recent sightings, he died on November 1. 

Here’s the note that Terry Gene left behind, which has been lightly censored by someone at the FBI. I have no idea what the three asterisks mean, but I’m pretty sure I know what the two blank lines represent, and I agree with him on that point 100 percent.

“There just isn’t any point to any of this. Nobody gives a damn and never has. Blame it on dope. Blame it on parents. But people *** are the cause of all the _______   _______ in the world. All I ever needed was to know somebody gave a damn about anything to do with me.

“Where is truth? Where is love? Where is anything that is real? Thank you KADI. Thank you KSHE. Thank you humanity.”

The FBI summary noted that KADI and KSHE were local rock stations and that “Davis’ main ambition in the world was to become a star rock and roll performer.” It also said that he had been given an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard due to “psychiatric difficulties involving depression and anxiety.” Recently, he’d been having troubles with his parents and his girlfriend had just left him. He’d also had a minor car crash and had been arrested for riding his motorcycle through a prohibited area.

Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view
Click on image for a closer view

The article that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 9 shows no mercy: “Drug User Kills Self; ‘Nobody Gave a Damn,’” it said.

I’d like to request a do-over. I have no idea who Terry Gene Davis was. His name is way too common for me to feel confident about my search results on genealogy websites. Did he go by Terry? Gene? TG? Or did friends and family call him by both names, like a Jim Bob or a Tommy Lee? Here’s what we know: he was born on July 29, 1950, and he died November 1, 1973. He was just getting his sea legs, doing what budding adults do. He attended a junior college. He joined the service. He valued love, truth, and humanity. Even though I didn’t know him, I think I can also safely say this: If Terry Gene Davis had anything to do with the NPRC fire, I’m quite sure that he was FREAKING OUT in the days before he died. 

We’ve all managed to eff things up on the job at least once or twice in our lives, am I right? Oh my God, I’ve done some cockamamie things while I was on the clock. Have I accidentally burned down the entire floor of a federal building? Well, no. I’ll admit, that was pretty huge. But I also think that it could have been worse. The loss was less monumental than first realized and although there were injuries among firefighters, no one died in the fire. Also, as mentioned earlier, NARA has been able to reconstruct many of the destroyed records.

I’m going to go ahead and say it: I think Terry Gene Davis was the smoker on the sixth floor. And if Terry Gene did it, I think he regretted it terribly. On the night it happened, who walked up to the sixth floor to the very place where the fire was thought to have originated? Terry Gene. That sounds like something I might have done if I wanted to make sure I hadn’t caused the fire, just to put my mind at ease.

I know, I know. The identifying info under the smoker’s confession doesn’t match Terry Gene at all—not his height, not his weight, not even his race. (Apologies for the obsolete and offensive term used by the 1973 FBI.) His confession also says that the smoker cleaned the escalators on all six floors and worked as a custodian at NPRC for three years. In October 1973, Terry Gene had only been there a year and four months.

Terry Gene’s description:

Click on image for a closer view

Sixth-floor smoker’s description:

Click on image for a closer view

But is it possible—hear me out—is it remotely feasible that the FBI altered the identifying details of the sixth-floor smoker to throw everyone off? 

As you know, I’m usually a big believer in archival documents. I often look to them as touchstones of truth we can all rely upon. Could it be that at least one or more members of the St. Louis FBI felt differently? Could someone have viewed the smoker’s signed confession as an opportunity to manufacture a new reality? Tweak a few details, and bada bing, bada boom…you have an edited version that’s more pleasing to the powers that be, for whatever reason.

Coincidentally, the special agent in charge of the St. Louis field office had some history with that very thing. His name was Robert G. Kunkel, and he’d recently been publicly demoted by Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray in 1972 for writing a false report to Gray about the D.C. field office that Kunkel oversaw. The report had to do with the actions of Kunkel’s special agents at an antiwar protest, and he doctored the report to present a more favorable account of what had transpired. In a Washington Post article, sources had said that they felt “that Kunkel’s report had been motivated by a long-standing ‘don’t embarrass the bureau’ syndrome.” By the time of the fire, Gray was gone, and Clarence Kelly was the new FBI director. Did Kunkel or his special agents feel more empowered under Kelly, a fellow Missourian, to reinstate past editorial protocols? 

Here’s why I believe Terry Gene Davis was the sixth-floor smoker:

  • A floor waxer mentioned a white male Vietnam veteran in his early 20s
    As I mentioned earlier, on July 13, the FBI had interviewed a custodian who’d been waxing floors the night of the fire, likely on the sixth floor, though the floor number is redacted. During that interview, the custodian had passed along various names and background info, most of which were redacted. The exception was when he described one—possibly two—white male Vietnam veterans in their early 20s. 

    Another custodian had said that the sixth-floor custodians were waxing floors around 10:30-10:45 p.m. If so, then the floor waxer could have seen the sixth-floor smoker at 11 p.m., and the smoker may have been one of the Vietnam vets that he’d mentioned to the FBI.
  • The sixth-floor smoker’s school and medical records were requested by US Attorney Stohr
    Stohr had requested school and medical records for the sixth-floor smoker. Although the words are redacted, we can see that his school record is a couple inches in length, which is likely to include more than his K-12 years. In the smoker’s confession, he said that before he started working for NPRC, he “attended” BLANK, which was redacted. So it seems as though the person attended some type of college after high school. Terry Gene had attended Meramec Junior College.

    As for medical records, I don’t think Stohr would have been interested in hearing from the sixth-floor smoker’s GP. Stohr was considering a possible arson case, so it makes more sense that the doctor who Stohr wanted to consult would have had direct knowledge of the smoker’s mental health. We know that Terry Gene experienced depression and anxiety in Vietnam, so much so that he received an honorable discharge on that basis. I’m no expert, but it sounds as if Terry Gene may have been suffering from PTSD, which has afflicted many Vietnam veterans. If Terry Gene was being treated by a Veterans Affairs–appointed psychiatrist, which is a reasonable hypothesis, and if he was the sixth-floor smoker, Stohr would have wanted to hear his psychiatrist’s opinion.
  • The sixth-floor smoker’s whereabouts and comments after the fire started match those of Terry Gene
    One of the five coworkers (coworker 4) recalled that the sixth-floor smoker had been on the sixth floor after the fire started and that he’d noticed no flames toward the west end. (Page 7 of the coworkers’ statements: paragraph 3, last sentence.)

    Based on Terry Gene’s 7/17/73 interview, he was on the sixth floor after the fire started. He also said the following: “He walked over to the south side of the building where the windows are located and said that the west one-third of the building on the sixth floor in the file section was not on fire and was relatively clear of smoke.” 
  • Terry Gene Davis killed himself one day after the Grand Jury ruling
    In the FBI report of Terry Gene’s suicide, we’re told about all the things that had been going badly in his life—his relationship with his parents, his girlfriend’s decision to leave him, his car accident, his arrest. If Terry Gene was responsible for the NPRC fire, then all of the above could have been the result of the stress he was under because of the fire. Stress can heat up our emotions. It can break up our relationships. It can make us prone to bad decisions. 

    The coroner said Terry Gene had died on November 1, a detail I can’t dispute. However, if Terry Gene was the sixth-floor smoker, is it possible that he hadn’t been made aware of the Grand Jury’s decision? No one mentioned calling him on October 31st, for whatever reason—they simply said that he hadn’t been to work since October 30. If Terry Gene was the sixth-floor smoker, then perhaps he didn’t even know that he wouldn’t be facing prosecution by the federal government, which probably would have been a huge relief to him. 
  • A handwritten note on the FBI report of Davis’ suicide refers to the “no bill” ruling that was returned by the U.S. Fed. Grand Jury for the sixth-floor smoker
    At the bottom of the FBI report on Terry Gene’s suicide, dated 11/6/73, someone has jotted the following note. As best as I can determine, it says [with question marks added where I’m unsure]: 

    ASAC Devic
    Advised 9:15 11/16[?]/73
    What[?] Co Report
    Submitted 11/5/73
    Reflecting no bill at U.S. Fed. Grand Jury

    The words “ASAC Devic” refer to the assistant special agent in charge of the St. Louis field officeThe next two lines are more cryptic. Perhaps that’s the date and time that someone had been advised of Terry Gene’s suicide, though it’s too difficult to say. The bottom two lines are easier to decipher. I believe they refer to the 11/5/73 FBI report that notified the US Attorney and the GSA about the “no bill” ruling for the sixth-floor smoker. Whoever wrote the note felt that the Grand Jury ruling on the sixth-floor smoker somehow pertained to Terry Gene Davis, who’d committed suicide one day after the Grand Jury’s ruling.
Handwritten notation refers to the “no bill” ruling by the Grand Jury for the sixth-floor smoker on the memo about Terry Gene Davis’ suicide; click on image for a closer view
  • The 11/6/73 memo on Terry Gene’s suicide says that Terry Gene furnished “strongest information implicating” the sixth-floor smoker 
    In the FBI’s response to my FOIA request, they supplied me with two versions of the same memo announcing Terry Gene’s suicide. The memo pertained to a report submitted by one of the special agents dated 10/17/73. That report included the sixth-floor smoker’s signed confession and the statements of the five coworkers who’d heard the smoker talk about starting the fire.
Click on image for a closer view

In one version of the memo (excerpt directly above), the first sentence reads “For information of Bureau, TERRY GENE DAVIS, who in interview set forth in referenced report furnished strongest information implicating REDACTED in captioned fire, discovered dead 8:30 PM, 11/5/73.” The words “strongest information implicating” are visible in that version but they’re redacted in the other version, which is shown with the handwritten notation under the preceding bullet. Bar none, the strongest information implicating the sixth-floor smoker was the signed confession, which tells me that, if the author of the memo is being truthful, Terry Gene furnished the signed confession.

The referenced report also included the statements of the five coworkers. Could one of those individuals have been Terry Gene? No, not based on the identifying characteristics that are provided. Not one person in the report has the same identifying characteristics as those supposedly belonging to Terry Gene Davis, as presented after his 7/17 interview. In other words, if Terry Gene’s information was so incredibly strong in implicating the sixth-floor smoker, where was he in the report?

Coworker 1

Coworker 2

Coworker 3

Coworker 4

Coworker 5

In July 1974, Ted Gest, of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote an article on the probable cause of the fire, quoting US Attorney Stohr. The article said that the fire was due to an employee’s careless smoking in a nonsmoking area. I’m including Stohr’s quotes below because they’re especially interesting when they’re applied to the deceased Terry Gene Davis:

  • “Stohr said his office had concluded that the suspected smoker ‘is not prosecutable criminally.’” 
  • “Stohr said the suspect no longer worked for the government.” 
  • “Because he was ‘employed under a program for handicapped persons,’ no public identification will be made, Stohr said.”
  • “Stohr said of the suspected cigarette smoker that ‘there would appear to be very little merit in endeavoring to recover any damages in a civil proceeding because of (his) personal circumstances.’”

You may be wondering why the FBI and U.S. Attorney Stohr didn’t come clean about the person who caused the fire, be it Terry Gene Davis or someone else. Was the secrecy to protect the person responsible? I doubt it.

Here’s my guess regarding the reason: Typed on a sheet behind the sixth-floor smoker’s confession is a short, heavily redacted paragraph in which one of the FBI’s special agents who worked in the NPRC says that he loaned a cigarette to REDACTED on the night of the fire. 

Click on image for a closer view

A follow-up memo said that it happened at around 11 p.m. the night of the fire and that the cigarette-lending special agent also provided a light to the suspect. Unfortunately, the memo goes on to say that they aren’t able to get the SA and the suspect in the same room for an ID since one of them was on administrative leave.

Click on image for a closer view

If an FBI special agent was the source of the cigarette that burned through 22 million veterans’ personnel records, that’d be bad. If Terry Gene Davis was the sixth-floor smoker and the FBI covered it up to hide their possible culpability, that’d be worse. And if, as part of their cover-up, they decided to say that the sixth-floor smoker was Black when he was white, that’s morally repugnant and racist as hell.

Terry Gene was right. “Where is anything that is real?”

**************************

If you’re interested in obtaining a family member’s military records, go to this website and follow the instructions. Even if the record was destroyed in the fire, NARA personnel have been incredibly helpful in piecing together at least some pertinent information. They did it for me.

**************************

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 800-273-8255.

Help is available 24/7.

Zeroing in on Ron’s ‘zero’ file

Cincinnati Field Office, image credit: FBI.gov

On or about May 17, 2008, someone in the Cincinnati field office of the FBI discarded a document on Ron Tammen. The document was located in their Classification 190 files, right up front, in the file labeled “0”—known as the zero file. Classification 190 files have to do with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Privacy Act. As for the 0 files, here’s what the National Archives and Records Administration has said about them: used for administrative and logistical matters but mostly were used for citizen correspondence related to a classification, routine request for information, and general reference materials.

As you may recall, I was a little bemused when I learned that Ron’s 0 record had been destroyed in May 2008, since I also knew that Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective, had reopened the case roughly five months earlier, in January. Butler County is in the Cincinnati field office’s jurisdiction. Why would the FBI have destroyed Ron’s record when they knew the case had been reopened? And did they ever pass along whatever was in the 0 file to Det. Smith? And if the document had to do with the Privacy Act, could it be that Ron Tammen himself had requested that his fingerprints be expunged? That seems…oh, I dunno…significant.

As I mentioned in The Cincy file, I wanted to know more. As you can see in the above graphic, Ron’s now nonexistent document was identified with the ending label “Serial 967,” which means that his was document number 967 within the 0 file, behind number 966 and ahead of 968. I wanted to see who Ron’s neighbors were in the file, so I submitted a FOIA request for all documents numbered between 900 and 999. For example, if the surrounding documents were all fingerprint expungement requests, then I’d be willing to bet that Ron’s now obliterated document was a fingerprint expungement request as well. Today I received 39 documents, which you can review here.

There’s not a lot of information to be gleaned from these documents. Only the titles are provided, which offer at least a glimpse into the 0 file’s contents. Some of the documents are administrative. Some have to do with expungement requests from various people whose names—and all other pertinent information—have been redacted. Some have to do with requests for documents, most likely from people who wanted to review whatever documents that the FBI has on them. And then there’s the beloved redacted category. Here’s a breakdown by subject and the number of documents having to do with each. (Note that I was conservative in my groupings.)

SUBJECTNUMBER OF DOCS
[Redacted]4
Inmates rights1
Copy of inmates rights1
Application to DEA (*Drug Enforcement Administration, I believe)1
Expungement5
Court orders re expungement should go to BCII (*Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, I believe)1
Proof of death1
Request all documents5
Imperfected request, notary needed1
Entry ordering expungement1
Extry (*?) ordering expungement1
ELSUR (Electronic Surveillance) [redacted]1
CJIS instructions re expungement1
Proper submission of expungement1
Order sealing conviction1
Returning order sealing conviction1
Disposition of case1
Return disposition sheet—referred to DEA1
Third-party request require privacy waiver or proof of death2
Enclosing copy of certified judgment order expunging record1
Returning enclosures1
Inquiry re [redacted] Ident record1
Return judgment entry with Ohio instructions from CJIS1
CJIS and need for fingerprints1
Copy of Attorney General order 556-731
ELSUR check for [redacted] inmate1
Corrections on rapsheet1

It is what it is—generally, a hodgepodge of requests from a bunch of random people plus some administrative guidance from Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) on expungement and other noteworthy topics. I’m actually a little baffled by the 0 file’s lack of specificity. They couldn’t create separate files for expungement requests versus FOIA requests versus administrative guidelines under Classification 190? They had to toss them all into the same gigantic file?

But let’s not give up just yet. I’ve also come to learn a few additional facts about the Cincinnati file:

  • Just because the document number has a “CI” in front of it doesn’t mean that it originated in the Cincinnati office per se. The FBI’s Cincinnati field office encompasses 48 counties in southern Ohio. (Cleveland’s field office has jurisdiction over the remaining 40 counties in northern Ohio.) The Cincinnati field office also comprises resident agencies, which are located in other cities, such as Dayton and Columbus. Ron’s document could have originated in any one of Cincinnati’s resident agencies—we can’t be sure of which one. However, we can be sure that it originated in southern Ohio.
  • The Classification 190 files are overseen by the chief division counsel—a lawyer. This person reports directly to the special agent in charge, or the SAC. The SAC heads up the entire Cincinnati field office. 
  • The destruction of files is overseen by the administrative officer, and he or she does so on the basis of the document retention schedules we’ve discussed in past blog posts, generally years later. This person also reports directly to the SAC.
  • Ever since the FBI automated its files, agents can enter a name and pop up a number of files in which that name appears, regardless of the file’s origin. When the agent working with Det. Frank Smith was conducting his or her search on Tammen in January 2008, all of the relevant files appeared on screen, including Tammen’s Classification 190 record.
  • Detective Smith’s file on the Tammen case was given to me by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after Smith retired. His file contains all of the same FBI documents that I received from FBI Headquarters, with the exception that some portions of his documents had been unredacted (alas, nothing useful concerning Tammen, unfortunately). From what I can tell, he did not receive the 190-CI-0, Serial 967 document on Tammen.

One question I’ve had was whether the 190-CI-0, Serial 967 document was simply Det. Smith’s FOIA request to the Cincinnati office for Tammen’s documents. According to the FBI’s printout (above) of Tammen documents, which I’d obtained from my lawsuit, we don’t know the original date of the document that was destroyed in May 2008. Perhaps the FBI special agent whom Det. Smith was working with had created a record concerning Smith’s request  and he or she didn’t feel the need to send that to Smith as well. But I’ve discounted that theory, since the record was destroyed only five months later, far earlier than normal retention schedules would permit. 

Here’s where my head is at the moment: Document number 190-CI-0, Serial 967 could have been a boring old FOIA request from anyone seeking FBI documents on Ronald Tammen. Perhaps the agent working with Smith saw it and decided it was useless information for Smith’s purposes. (I can’t imagine who the FOIA requester would have been, though. I didn’t submit my FOIA request until 2010 and I think I preceded most others in the Tammen-obsessed public. For anyone reading this who may have submitted a FOIA request on Tammen to the Cincinnati FBI before 2008, please let me know.) Regardless, I’d think that the agent still would have passed the document to Smith. Who knows, the inquirer might have been relevant to Smith’s search. It’s tough to say without a date of origin.

It’s also feasible that Ron Tammen submitted a request to the FBI’s Cincinnati field office (or its resident agencies) to expunge his fingerprints, or, alternatively, that he submitted an information request to the FBI and that’s how he discovered that they’d had his prints. Either way, someone within the FBI may have felt the need to destroy that request in May 2008, five months after they found out that Butler County had decided to reopen his cold case.

Rest assured that Cincinnati hasn’t heard the last of me.

The Cincy file

Bridge into Cincinnati; Photo by David Lundgren on Unsplash

One question I’ve been mulling over lately is how in blue blazes did a document with Ronald Tammen’s name on it housed in the FBI’s Cincinnati office find its way into the agency’s “circular file” mere months after Detective Frank J. Smith of the Butler County Sheriff’s Office had reopened an investigation into Tammen’s disappearance? 

After all, Butler County is in the Cincinnati office’s jurisdiction. If a Butler County detective is actively working the case, you’d think those folks would realize that the record might be of interest. Also, it wasn’t as if the FBI didn’t know that the case had been reopened. They were supposedly providing assistance to Butler County and their counterparts in Walker County, Georgia, as the two offices had joined forces to determine if the remains of a John Doe buried in Lafayette, Georgia, happened to be Tammen.

Their timing seems…oh, I dunno…questionable?

And so, as per yoozh, I needed to investigate.

As we’ve discussed previously, the record in question is #190-CI-0, Serial 967. According to the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, it was “destroyed on or about 5/17/2008,” five months after Detective Smith and his Georgia counterpart, Mike Freeman, decided to reopen their respective cold cases.So why (again, in blue blazes) did the Cincinnati office feel that the time was ripe to destroy that particular document THEN? 

Click on image for a closer view

Because they’d been so helpful in the past, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), asking them for the Standard Form 115 (SF 115) that substantiated the FBI’s destruction of #190-CI-0, Serial 967.

Their FOIA specialist got back to me the next day. You heard me right. He got back to me—with an actual response—on the very next day that I submitted my FOIA request. When it comes to FOIA, NARA is the biggest, baddest bunch of rock stars ever in comparison to all the other federal agencies. They’re the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Aretha, Bruce, I’m gonna say Dire Straits but that’s just me, [fill in name of your all-time favorite artist/band], and James Brown all rolled into one. Put simply, dealing with NARA’s FOIA office is a feel-good experience.

And where do our friends at the FBI and CIA fall on the rock spectrum? I’d say that one could be likened to Milli and the other to Vanilli. (It makes no difference which is which.) They’re usually just mouthing some words, giving us some lip service. If there’s a document they don’t want the public to see, they’ll find a way to withhold it, regardless of whether their reason is justifiable or not, and they’ll stall for as long as humanly possible. It has to do with r-e-s-p-e-c-t. NARA respects FOIA and the public it serves. The FBI and CIA, um, don’t. Strong words, I know, but girl, you know it’s true. (P.S. The Milli Vanilli analogy doesn’t extend to the musicians and singers who backed them up, especially the drummer, who was playing his heart out in the above video. I have more to say about the drummer near the end of this post.)

Here’s what NARA’s FOIA representative told me: 

Agencies do not submit documentation to NARA to substantiate destruction of records. They use approved records schedules to determine the disposition of the records.

Oops. I should’ve checked the online records schedule before submitting my FOIA. But, truth be told, this stuff is confusing and sometimes I need to have things spelled out for me. Also, even if I’d consulted the records schedule first and it had said “Discard after such-and-such timeframe,” I couldn’t imagine that it would have applied to this scenario—during a newly reopened cold case investigation. Surely, there must be a clause that states: “If a document scheduled for destruction is potentially relevant to a newly reopened cold case, of course you should hang onto said document. Good Lord, did you even have to ask?” Or something to that effect.

The NARA rep then explained the file’s numbering system.

FBI File #190-CI-0 is as follows:
1. Classification 190 – Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Acts
2. CI – stands for the field office, Cincinnati, OH
3. “0” – the 0 files were used for administrative and logistical matters but mostly were used for citizen correspondence related to a classification, routine request for information, and general reference materials.

Allow me to interject here that one key difference between the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act is that, with a FOIA request, you’re generally seeking information about someone other than yourself or a specific government program. With a Privacy Act request, you’re seeking information about yourself. OK, carry on, NARA FOIA rep. 

NARA FOIA rep then added:

Classification 190 files do not include the underlying records. 

What he means by this is that the record being requested under FOIA or the Privacy Act—like a fingerprint record, for example—wouldn’t be part of the Classification 190 file. But correspondence that pertains to that record—e.g., “Dear Sir or Madam: Please expunge my fingerprints because blah blah blah and OH MY GOD CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE HOW A SENTENCE LIKE THAT MIGHT HAVE ENDED?!”—would. That’s just an example off the top of my head, mind you. We’ll never know what Ronald Tammen’s document actually said because, as I believe I’ve pointed out several times already, the FBI’s Cincinnati office destroyed it in the middle of Butler County’s reopened investigation.

NARA’s FOIA representative then sent me a link to the FBI’s applicable records schedule, N1-065-82-04,and he referred me to the pages having to do with field offices, which was Parts C and D. There’s a lot of overlap and plenty of room for judgment calls. Also, this is the honor system, an idyllic system of hope and trust whereby doing the right thing is expected and doing the wrong thing, well, I suppose that can happen too.

What Part C says

Of all the parts of the 309-page records schedule, Part C is the shortest and friendliest, offering up just three pages of general guidelines for FBI field offices regarding what to do with their aging records. I’m posting all three pages for you here.

At the top of page one, it says:

“These authorities apply regardless of the classification” but then they have some caveats concerning what might be discussed in other parts (e.g., Parts D or E), with this important NOTE: “Care must be taken to insure that records designated for permanent retention by other items in this schedule are not erroneously destroyed using authorities in this part.”

Translation: field offices should do what’s in Part C, regardless of classification, but if other parts of the schedule say that you need to do something else, do that. And most importantly, when in doubt, don’t throw it out.

Actually, that reminds me of a story someone told me. When J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI, he didn’t want to let go of anything. For decades, the FBI hoarded all of their records and wouldn’t even let folks from the National Archives touch their stuff. It wasn’t until after Hoover died that they finally let NARA in the door to work out a disposition schedule. The FBI changed their policy in part because they were getting a new building in Washington, D.C., so they used that opportunity to get permission from NARA to destroy a lot of their records. (Incidentally, the FBI still isn’t 100 percent onboard with NARA and FOIA and the whole public transparency cause. Although they dutifully send their records over to NARA on the agreed-upon timetable, they have yet to send an index to help NARA navigate their FBI holdings and address any subsequent FOIA requests they may receive.)

Back to Part C. Because Ron’s document was in the “0” file, the Cincinnati office was instructed to “DESTROY” it when it was 3 years old or “when all administrative needs have been met, whichever is later.” 

I suppose it’s possible that the document had coincidentally reached its three-year mark in May 2008. However, even if that were the case (which I don’t believe for one second) I can’t imagine that whoever destroyed it then had determined that all administrative needs had been met when, you know, a cold case investigation had been reopened the next county over. I know at least one detective who might have had an administrative need or two for that document.

There’s another item in Part C that might apply as well. Because Ron’s document is in the Classification 190 category, we know that it had to do with FOIA or the Privacy Act (most likely the latter). Item #9 deals specifically with cases in which the subject requests disposal because “continued maintenance would conflict with provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974.” If that were the reason for destroying the document, then Cincinnati ostensibly should have submitted an SF 115 to NARA beforehand. However, if they’d submitted one, I’m pretty sure I would have received it from NARA when I’d FOIA’d them. (NARA’s FOIA rep’s exact words were: “There are no other records responsive to your request.”) Either item #9 didn’t pertain or, well… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Confused? Stay with me. You’re doing great.

There’s a chance that the folks in Cincinnati also consulted Part D, the guidelines for each of the individual classifications for field offices. This is where things really get complicated. Under Classification 190, we’re told to “See Part C (which we’ve already seen), except for those cases where disposition is governed by General Records Schedule 14.” 

Part D, Classification 190

Oh, good, a new records schedule. It’s as if they knew I was growing tired of the first one.

When you go online to find General Records Schedule (GRS) 14, you’ll soon learn that in 2017, it was superseded by General Schedules 4.2, 6.4 and 6.5. However, back in May 2008, federal agencies were still doing things according to the 1998 version of GRS 14.

And if you take a gander at that schedule, you’ll soon be presented with a menu of very strict and specific instructions that depend on what the record is—which, alas, we don’t know because the FBI’s Cincinnati office destroyed it.

But wait. Maybe we can figure out what kind of document it was based on the two dates we already know. We know that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in June 2002 due to the Privacy Act or a court order, most likely the former. And we also know that in May 2008, the Cincinnati office destroyed a Tammen-related document having to do with FOIA or the Privacy Act, most likely the latter—though we’re less certain about that one. If both actions were due to the Privacy Act, they could be related, with a difference of six years between them. And if we look at the 1998 version of GRS 14, only one Privacy Act-related document specifies waiting six years before it can be destroyed. It’s this one:

  • Erroneous release records—files relating to the inadvertent release of privileged information to unauthorized parties, containing information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Maybe that’s the reason they destroyed Ron’s record? It’s impossible to say. But honestly, as I’m wading through the bureaucratic jargonistic blather that is today’s post, annoyed and discouraged and bored out of my mind, I don’t think it matters if the Cincinnati field office was operating under Part C or Part D (or even Part E, the catch-all “Miscellaneous” category for files kept elsewhere) or the old GRS 14—whatever—I still believe they could have turned over Ron’s “0” file document to their law-enforcement partners in Butler County when they had the chance. And make no mistake about it, they had the chance. I’ll tell you why shortly.

Serial 967

There’s one part of Ron’s record that we haven’t discussed the meaning of yet—the number at the end, Serial 967. Serial 967 is what identifies Ron Tammen’s record from everyone else’s in the “0” file. To help you visualize things, picture a metal filing cabinet with a bunch of drawers in it and Classification 190 occupying one of those drawers. (I’m sure it occupies more space than that, but this is just to help us understand the organization.) Now picture the “0” file as a folder inside that drawer in front of all the other folders. The “0” folder holds a large number of documents, and each document has its own serial number, which are arranged in numerical order. When Cincinnati still had Ron’s record, it would have been located pretty far back, between serial numbers 966 and 968.

I have no idea what kinds of documents shared a folder with Ron Tammen’s document, but it might be interesting to find out, mightn’t it? For this reason, I’ve submitted a FOIA request for the documents that surrounded Ron’s—beginning with serial number 900 and ending with number 999. Today, I received a letter of acknowledgement from the chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section letting me know that it was an acceptable request and assigning it a number. If I receive anything of interest, I’ll be sure to let you know.

More on Milli Vanilli’s drummer and how he relates to the FBI’s Cincinnati office

Milli Vanilli’s drummer was Mikki Byron, an accomplished musician who not only played the drums really well, but he also played the guitar, saxophone, and keyboard and sang vocals. In addition to his time spent with Milli Vanilli and the Real Milli Vanilli (the true singers behind Milli Vanilli plus band members), he played in a number of bands, including Mikki Byron and The Stroke, Custom Pink, and the L.A. Ratts. Tragically, Mikki died in 2004 at the age of 36. (As for Milli Vanilli, Rob Pilatus, one-half of the duo, also died tragically in 1998. Fab Morvan, the other half, is still performing.)

Whether or not you’re a fan of Mikki’s music, here’s the point I wish to make: Despite sharing a stage with two guys who were fake singing and whose purported dance moves were just plain awkward, Mikki Byron was for real. He had innate talent and he had training, and he brought everything to the stage when he performed. Fans miss him. They still talk about him. There’s a tribute page on Facebook for him. If you didn’t watch the video of Mikki playing the drums when I mentioned it before, please watch it now. You won’t be sorry.

I was hoping that I’d found my own version of Mikki Byron within the FBI—someone in their ranks who’d be willing to break free of all the stonewalling and duplicity and actually answer a couple simple questions truthfully.

This past Saturday, I sent an email to the Cincinnati office’s community outreach specialist. I said:

I’m wondering if you can help me. For a book and blog that I write, I’m interested in learning more about the Cincinnati field office’s protocol with regard to potentially relevant records during reopened cold cases. 

Specifically, if a cold case has been reopened in a county within your jurisdiction, and the FBI has been made aware that the case has been reopened and is providing assistance, what is the Cincinnati field office’s protocol if it possesses one or more potentially relevant records? 

The outreach specialist responded that day and told me they’d forwarded my email to the appropriate person. That person—whom we’ll refer to as Mikki—responded on Monday morning. Mikki’s emails will be in blue to help you keep track.

Thank you for your message. 

For your background, if the FBI is assisting a local law enforcement agency on a case, relevant records can be shared with the investigators of that agency. If this does not fully answer your question, please provide me with additional details and I will try to provide a more specific answer.

Holy crap, right? Perhaps I’ve finally landed someone who’s willing to address my questions about how they handled Ron’s document.

Here’s me again:

Thank you so much for your quick response. I really do appreciate it. What I’m trying to understand is why the Cincinnati field office destroyed document #190-CI-0, Serial 967 in May 2008 (see attached) when the Butler County Sheriff’s Office had reopened a cold case investigation into the subject of that document, Ronald Tammen, in January 2008 and the investigation was ongoing. It’s my understanding that the records retention schedule for “0” files in field offices appears to allow flexibility for document retention for administrative needs, which I’d think would apply in this case. From what I can tell, it doesn’t appear as if the document was shared with Butler County before it was destroyed, unless you can determine otherwise.

Any information you can offer would be truly appreciated.

And back to Mikki:

Thank you for the added details. My previous response was very general in nature and not pertaining to any specific case or investigation.

Since you are interested in specific case information, it would be best to submit a FOIA request (which you may have already done) or contact the National Press Office (npo@fbi.gov) about any records management questions. 

Thank you.

Riiiiiiight. We tossed it, but you’ll need to talk to those helpful folks over at FBI headquarters about why we went ahead and tossed it.

Here’s me again:

OK, will do. Are you able to say whether you shared the document with Butler County? 

And back we go to Mikki: 

Haha, just kidding. It’s been 5 days. Mikki hasn’t responded and I’m quite certain that he won’t.

On second read, maybe I came on too strong with Mikki. He asked for details and I gave him some. I’m afraid that my details drove Mikki away. 

But you guys, if there was nothing to this mystery—if it was a big fat nothingburger, as they say—he could have said something like: “The document had already been destroyed by the time we learned about Butler County’s renewed efforts. We destroyed it on the basis of Part C, item #2, when the document was three years old.” You know…a credible explanation that could have sent me on my way.

Most telling was that he didn’t answer my question about whether they’d shared the document with Butler County, when, under normal protocol, that’s something they would have done.

There are a few things I can still do to try to learn more about the Cincinnati document on Ronald Tammen, and I will do them, though I won’t put the most promising ones into writing at this point. Will I be asking the FBI’s press office about the file? Oh, yeah, I suppose I’ll do that too, just as I told Mikki, but I can’t  imagine that they’ll say anything other than “The FBI has a right to decline requests.” (I’ve heard that one before.)

I also want to make good on a promise I made to you earlier in this post. Some of you may have been wondering to yourselves whether it was possible that Cincinnati had destroyed the Tammen document without ever knowing that Butler County had reopened its cold case on Tammen. I mean, pleading ignorance is a very understandable and forgivable excuse, and Cincinnati is a big city and Butler County is about 35 miles away. Also, you may recall that it was the FBI’s Atlanta office that had opened the “Police Cooperation” matter for the two sheriff’s offices. Is it possible that Cincinnati had no idea that Butler County had reopened its cold case?

Oh, they knew. They so knew. 

Here’s how I know they knew: In August 2010, just as I was getting started with my little book project, I interviewed Butler County Detective Frank Smith about his investigation. I’d submitted my FOIA request to the FBI for Ron Tammen’s documents several months earlier, and I was still waiting for their response. Frank had also obtained Ron’s FBI documents—the same ones that I would eventually receive. But Frank, being with law enforcement, would be able to go another route to get his documents—one that was much quicker. Frank had contacted someone with the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, likely by phone. He told them that he’d restarted the Tammen investigation and asked if they could send him whatever files they might have on Tammen. 

Can I pin down the precise date that it happened? I can. After Frank Smith retired from the sheriff’s office, I obtained his old file on Tammen. He’d created a log of actions and developments complete with dates and times. Frank Smith had obtained his FBI file on January 22, 2008, at 6:30 p.m. to be exact—just as his investigation was getting started and nearly five months before someone within the Cincinnati office decided to destroy its Classification 190 file on Tammen.

The FBI’s plagiarized narrative

A word-by-word comparison of the 2008 FBI narrative to the source from which it was copied

For my last post this weekend, I want to hammer home just how similar the narrative that I received from my 2014 lawsuit settlement is to a write-up on Tammen’s case on The Charley Project website. Because The Charley Project write-up has been edited over the years and now includes information obtained from this blog, let’s time travel back to the halcyon days of 2008, a simpler time when all of us were 13 years younger and perhaps a little more naive, including the folks at the FBI. Who knows, maybe they had no idea back then that the use of another person’s words without attribution is frowned upon.

Thanks to the website Wayback Machine, I’m including a screen shot of the verbiage from The Charley Project’s web page on Tammen from March 23, 2008—an arbitrary date in 2008 for which they had a page capture—as well as a link to that page. I’m also including the two pages of the narrative that the FBI emailed to me in 2014, claiming that I had unprecedented access to such information. The true author of the verbiage is Meaghan Good, who has told me that she first posted the Tammen write-up to The Charley Project website on March 1, 2005. What the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) seem to think I’ve had unprecedented access to has been available to literally every man, woman, and child since 2005. Can you see why I’m bitter?

Screen capture of The Charley Project’s write-up on Ron Tammen, dated March 23, 2008
Page 1 of FBI narrative on Tammen case, ostensibly typed in 2008, based on its case number
Page 2 of FBI narrative on Tammen case

To make things easier on you, I’ve copied the write-up from The Charley Project page, and have inserted in blue the places where the FBI narrative strays from the original. If a word is omitted or a sentence is moved, I indicate that as well. Here you go:

Tammen [*THE VICTIM] was last seen in old Fisher Hall, a former Victorian mental asylum converted to a dormitory at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio on April 19, 1953 [4/19/1953]. He was a resident hall advisor at Fisher Hall, and lived in room 225. At 8:00 p.m., he requested new bedsheets because someone had put a dead fish in his bed.

Sometime around 8:30 p.m., Tammen [*THE VICTIM] apparently heard something outside his room that disturbed him, and went out into the hallway to investigate. He never returned. His roommate came in at 10:00 p.m. and found him gone. The roommate originally assumed Tammen [*THE VICTIM] was spending the night at his Delta Tau Delta fraternity house, and did not report his disappearance until the next day.

There is no indication that Tammen left of his own accord. [*previous sentence moved to end of paragraph] His clothes, car keys, wallet, identification, watch, high school class ring and other personal items were left behind in his dormitory room, and he also left the lights on, the radio playing, and a psychology textbook lying open on his desk. His gold 1938 [*year missing] Chevrolet sedan was not taken from its place in the school parking lot, he left his bass fiddle in the back seat of the car, and he left behind $200 (the equivalent of over $1,300 in today’s money) in his bank account. Tammen is believed to have [*IT IS BELIEVED THE VICTIM] had no more than $10 to $15 on his person the night he disappeared, and [*ALSO, HE] was not wearing a coat. [*first sentence in paragraph moved here;]

However, authorities have not found any indication of foul play in Tammen’s [*HIS] disappearance either. They do not believe he could have been forcibly abducted, as he was large enough and strong enough to defend himself against most attackers. They theorize that he could have developed amnesia and wandered away, but if that was the case he should have been found relatively quickly.

A woman living outside of Oxford, twelve miles east of the Miami University campus, claims that a young man came to her door at 11:00 p.m. the evening Tammen [*THE VICTIM] disappeared and asked what town he was in. Then he asked directions to the bus stop, which she gave him, and he left. However, the bus line had suspended its midnight run, so he could not have gotten on a bus. The witness says the man she spoke to was disheveled and dirty and appeared upset and confused. He was not wearing a coat or hat, although it was a cold night and there was snow on the ground. He was apparently on foot, since the woman did not see or hear a car. The man matched the physical description of Tammen [*THE VICTIM] and was wearing similar clothes, but it has not been confirmed that they were the same person, and Tammen’s [*THE VICTIM’s] brother stated he did not believe the man the witness saw was Tammen [*HIS BROTHER].

Five months to the day before Tammen [*The VICTIM] vanished, he went to the Butler County Coroner’s office in Hamilton, Ohio and asked for a test to have his blood typed. The coroner claims that this was the only such request he ever got in 35 years of practice. It is unknown why Tammen [*THE VICTIM] wanted the test done and why he did not have it conducted in Oxford, where local physicians or the university hospital could have typed his blood for him. Tammen [THE VICTIM] was scheduled for a physical examination by the Selective Service for induction into the army, but inductees did not need to know their blood type in advance of the physical.

Tammen’s [*THE VICTIM’S] parents, who lived in the 21000 block of Hillgrove Avenue in Maple Heights, Ohio in 1953, last saw him a week before he disappeared and say he did not appear to be troubled by anything at the time. He was on the varsity wrestling team in college, played in the school dance band, and was a business major and a good student. He dated at the time that he vanished but did not have a steady girlfriend.

In the decades after Tammen’s [*THE VICTIM’S] disappearance, students at Miami University claimed his ghost haunted Fisher Hall. His parents are now deceased. Fisher Hall was torn down in 1978 and an extensive search was conducted in the rubble for Tammen’s [THE VICTIM’S] remains, but no evidence was located. His case remains unsolved. [*THE VICTIM’S OH DL IS C-779075.]

In running my little comparison, I noticed a few things:

  • The Charley Project write-up is well-written, so I can understand why someone from the FBI thought it provided a good summary of the case in few words. Nevertheless, there are several inaccuracies and areas of conjecture that have accrued by way of other media outlets over time. The FBI, who should have access to the most accurate source information on the case, allowed those inaccuracies to remain in their narrative for law enforcement.
  • Only one detail was omitted from the FBI narrative: the year 1938 in the description of Tammen’s car (actually, his car was a green 1939 Chevy).
  • The only information that the FBI added to its narrative is Ron’s driver’s license number.
  • As we’ve discussed in an earlier post, even though the FBI obviously had new intel from 2002 that led to the expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints, that information didn’t make it into this narrative for law enforcement, which, ostensibly, was written in 2008. Perhaps it and other details were somehow mentioned in the full report, but alas, only law enforcement can access that. Judging by their unwillingness to disclose that information to former Butler Co. cold case detective Frank Smith when he inquired about Tammen’s fingerprints in 2008, I doubt it.

As long as we’re talking about 2008…why did the FBI destroy a file on Tammen in the middle of a reopened investigation?

Hello! Tired of hearing from me so much? My apologies. Sometimes I get gabby. There’s another document I’ve been wanting to mention, but it falls slightly outside of last night’s theme—slightly—though the year 2008 is pertinent. This document was written in 2014 as part of my lawsuit settlement. The intended audience wasn’t law enforcement, just my lawyer and me.

The document is part of a declaration written by the chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS) informing us of all the different places they searched for records on Tammen. The 2002 expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints isn’t mentioned anywhere, but I’m not sure that information is available in document form, which is a criterion of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It has to be a document. (Of course, even if there were a document on the expungement, I’m doubtful that they would have let me know about it if they weren’t willing to tell their friends in law enforcement.)

In the declaration, the RIDS chief created a table that listed search terms, the automated or manual indices searched, and the potentially responsive files. It also included the status of their search, such as “unable to locate” or “located, processed and released X pages” or “destroyed on X date.” One file that leaps out at me is numbered 190-CI-0, Serial 967, which I’ve circled in red.

On or about May 17, 2008—a Saturday—the FBI decided to destroy documents that had originated in the Cincinnati (CI) field office. Because the file number is preceded by the number 190, I believe it had something to do with the Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts. The book Unlocking the Files of the FBI, by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart tells me that. The book goes on to say that “The Bureau established this classification in 1976 to handle citizen requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 as amended and the Privacy Act (PA) of 1974, which together provided for the expungements of records upon the request of an individual.”

Hmm. Those words have a familiar ring, don’t they?

With the case being reopened by Butler County, OH, and Walker County, GA, in 2008, and with the FBI opening a new file on Tammen that same year (not to mention the special file with the plagiarized narrative), doesn’t it seem a little curious that the Cincinnati office—just one county over from Butler County—would destroy a file on Tammen in mid-May of 2008? 

Let’s take a closer look at the timeline, shall we?

January 14, 2008 – The Atlanta office of the FBI is contacted by the Walker County (GA) sheriff’s office to request the “opening of a police cooperation matter.” The Atlanta office was told of Walker Co.’s interest in reopening a cold case having to do with a dead man who was found in a ditch near Lafayette in the summer of 1953. The Walker Co. sheriff’s office wanted to find out if the dead man might be Ron Tammen. According to the resulting FBI report, dated January 29, 2008, Walker Co. was “requesting Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assistance with positive identification and investigation.” The report ends with “In view of the above, it is requested that a Police Cooperation matter be opened and assigned to SA [redacted].”

February 8, 2008 – The remains of the unidentified man are exhumed from Lafayette City Cemetery, in Lafayette, GA, to obtain his DNA. That DNA would be compared with the DNA of Ron Tammen’s sister Marcia to see if it might have been Ron. Representatives of the Butler Co. (OH) and Walker Co. sheriff’s offices, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the media, and other onlookers are present.

February 26, 2008 – Frank Smith, Butler County cold case detective, writes to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) requesting a hand search for Ron’s fingerprint card.

February 28, 2008 – CJIS writes back, saying (and I’m paraphrasing): sorry, we’ve looked everywhere for Tammen’s fingerprints. They’re not here. The author neglects to mention that they’d expunged Tammen’s prints in 2002 in response to a court order or Privacy Act conflict.

March 14, 2008 – The dead man’s remains are received by the FBI Laboratory, DNA Analysis Unit.

May 17, 2008 – File number 190-CI-0, Serial 967 is destroyed in the FBI’s Cincinnati office.

June 2, 2008 – The FBI notifies the two sheriff’s departments that the DNA was not a match.

June 3, 2009 (one year later) – The Atlanta office of the FBI closes the case into the Police Cooperation matter.

So, to put this as simply as I can: a few months after the dead man’s remains had been exhumed, and while the two sheriff’s offices were eagerly awaiting the DNA results and wondering if they’d actually managed to solve both cold cases at once, an FBI file having something to do with Ronald Tammen was destroyed. On a Saturday. Just a short drive from the Butler Co. sheriff’s office, or, come to think of it, Oxford, Ohio. 

Also, the file in question just so happens to concern a possible FOIA or Privacy Act request from an individual. Yeah, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. Nothing to see here.

Have a good weekend, everyone! I’m happy to entertain questions and comments.

Why did subsequent FBI reports fail to mention what officials had learned in 2002?

This is going to be a short post. What I’d like to do is compare several documents that were produced by the FBI after Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002. The first one should be fresh in your mind: it’s the email sent to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by the FBI’s records and information management specialist in April 2021. Even though the email’s language is vague about key details, such as what caused them to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints, it does provide some specifics that the specialist had obtained as she “researched [NARA’s] request for information.” (I wonder where she looked, since I was asking the FBI for everything they had on Tammen since 2010, and didn’t get nearly as much of the juicy stuff that she got.)

So that’s Exhibit A: The email written April 15, 2021, by the FBI’s records and information management specialist.

Exhibit B is the narrative that I received from my lawsuit settlement—you know, the settlement where I signed my life away so that I can never utter the name Ronald Tammen to the FBI ever again? The narrative about Tammen’s case is maintained in a database that members of law enforcement can access all over the country. I’m not allowed to say its name because they’ve told me I’m the first non-law-enforcement type to access anything from that database, which I seriously doubt, but I’ll play by the rules, even though they clearly aren’t.

The narrative contains some inaccuracies, which proved useful, because they led me to its source: The Charley Project, a website dedicated to missing persons. I also learned that the write-up was first posted on March 1, 2005, so it was available to the entire world at that time. Although the Charley Project write-up has since been updated, when I compared it to my narrative in 2014, it was almost a word-for-word match. The case number of the narrative begins with 2008, so I believe that’s the year it was created (i.e., plagiarized) by the FBI, though I couldn’t get confirmation on that. At the bottom of the pages, it says that it was “current as of 10/25/2012.” 

So, in 2002, something of consequence caused the FBI to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of schedule, and whoever typed up this “report” in 2008 didn’t consider it worthwhile to inform fellow law enforcement professionals about what it was. But then, come to think of it, why do you suppose they created this file so late in the game? 

Exhibit C is a fax that was sent from the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) to Frank Smith, former cold case detective for Butler County, Ohio, who had reopened the Tammen case in 2008. Smith had noticed the fingerprint shorthand on Tammen’s FBI files and requested a “hand search to see if any fingerprint cards can be located.” 

The fax, dated February 28, 2008, said “A SEARCH OF OUR CRIMINAL AND CIVIL FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR YOUR SUBJECT. A COMPLETE SEARCH OF OUR ARCHIVE MICROFILM FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR THIS MISSING SUBJECT AS WELL.”

Gosh, if they’d just done what their records and information management specialist had done and looked up Tammen’s name and birth date, they would have immediately discovered that his fingerprints had been expunged in 2002. All of that searching high and low for Tammen’s fingerprints could have been avoided.

Actually, I’m being facetious. I’m quite sure that the author of this memo had looked up Tammen’s name and birth date and knew that his fingerprints had been expunged. The person just elected not to inform Detective Smith—a fellow law enforcement professional—of that information. 

If I had to guess why in 2008 the FBI created the file for law enforcement with the plagiarized narrative, I’d say that it was Detective Smith’s efforts that had motivated them to do that as well. When Smith and his counterparts in Walker County, GA, were asking the FBI to compare the DNA of the dead body in Georgia with Marcia Tammen’s DNA, the FBI may have deemed it necessary to create the file—if for no other reason than for show.

The eager, anguished fingerprint expungement of June 2002

In June 2002, I was living at a place called the Car Barn of Capitol Hill, an old red brick fortress that used to house trolley cars in the northeast section of Washington, DC. Every weekday, I’d step out of the apartment, head right on East Capitol Street, stroll past the dogs and kiddos at Lincoln Park, and then turn up North Carolina Avenue on my way to Eastern Market to take the train to my job as a technical writer for the federal government. I was living my dream—immersed in the historic urban-ness of Capitol Hill, doing work I believed in, and feeling attuned to the inner-workings of our democracy. But, as it turns out, I was also sadly oblivious.

Oblivious, because I had no idea that on one of those June days, the FBI would be expunging the fingerprints of Ronald Tammen, the person who’d famously disappeared from my alma mater in 1953 and who, according to his friends and family, was still very much listed as missing. 

What about you? Where were you in June 2002 when the FBI purposely expunged Tammen’s fingerprints forever and always—gone in a flashno take-backs, no quitsies?

We’ve since learned a little bit about that expungement—namely that it was carried out in accordance with the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA’s) records schedule known as N1-65-88-3, Item 1a, which means that his fingerprints were expunged in response to either a court order or a conflict with the Privacy Act of 1974. If it’s because of the Privacy Act, and the odds are good that it was, then Tammen was likely alive when his fingerprints were expunged. (As you may recall, an expert I spoke with said that the Privacy Act far outweighs the court order as the reason for expungements.)

As much as the above revelations have told us, they’ve also managed to generate more questions. Therefore, I recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NARA. I wanted to see whatever documents the NARA representative was reading when he or she informed me that: “The fingerprints in question were expunged from the FBI system as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a,” and then quickly followed up with “NARA does not have any further information regarding the expungement of this file.”

Specifically, I wanted to get my hands on the relevant Request for Records Disposition Authority form, aka Standard Form 115, aka SF 115, that I believed someone must have filled out before they could expunge Tammen’s fingerprints. (To preserve ink, I’ll be referring to it as the SF 115 from here on out.) I also asked for “any additional documentation associated with the FBI’s action.”

I submitted my FOIA request on June 8 of this year and yesterday, July 6, I received a response. Theirs wasn’t one of those evasive “we can neither confirm nor deny” or “we can’t find anything” sort of responses I get from the CIA or the FBI. It was a responsive response. NARA sent me 24 documents totaling 80 pages. These people are big believers in FOIA and it shows. 

The majority of the documents don’t have anything to do with Tammen’s case per se, but they offer insight into how the FBI was handling its expungement cases before and after the fateful day in June 2002, which offered good background. However, one key document does tell us about Tammen’s case. That’s right. Someone from the FBI actually provided a short synopsis about Tammen’s fingerprints and what led to their being expunged. We’ll get to that synopsis in a second. 

First, let’s discuss some of the things I learned about court-ordered or Privacy Act expungements in general.

Let’s begin with this fun fact: The 1988 SF 115 that’s cited for all Privacy Act/court-ordered expungements was signed by Robert W. Scherrer, who led an interesting life before he was in charge of records at the FBI. He’s kind of famous.

You’ve already seen N1-65-88-3 on this blogsite, however a memo dated 11/30/87 is extremely helpful in describing that records schedule, particularly the meaning of Item 1a. (Don’t ask me what the acronyms at the top of the memo stand for—I’ve been all over NARA’s website, and can’t find a document that spells out NIRM or NIR. Just know that they appear to be in the Records Administration side of NARA and they seem to be charged with the proper disposition of records. If you happen to be from NARA and can solve this puzzle, please let us know in the comments section.)

Click on document for a closer view

Based on that memo, we now know that Item 1a refers to records that were already considered temporary, meaning they were slated to be destroyed after a given retention period had ended. Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were in this category. As you may recall, in my write-up Purged, I discuss at length how Tammen’s prints were expunged at a time when the FBI was operating under the records schedule that required holding onto fingerprints until an individual would have reached 99 years of age. In Tammen’s case, that would have been the year 2032. 

Because Item 1a records have already been approved for disposal (after the person is 99 years old in this case), if the FBI were presented with a court order to expunge or with an expungement request due to a Privacy Law conflict, they would be able to expunge those records immediately.

Here’s the most interesting part of this very helpful memo:

This will obviate the need to submit an SF 115 to NARA for each individual accelerated disposal action, thereby lessening the Bureau’s workload and ours. Also, it will speed the actual disposal of the records by eliminating our processing time and the 45 day waiting period while a job is at the Federal Register. In some cases, this waiting period causes anguish to individuals eager to see their file destroyed. For these reasons, NARA should approve this item. Records already have been appraised as lacking in historical value and there is no problem from the legal rights standpoint since the disposal of records has either been ordered by a court or is being done with the approval of the individual to whom the records pertain.

So to sum things up: for Item 1a records, no additional SF 115 is needed in order to expunge them before their normal retention period is over. Simply recording somewhere that the expungement was conducted on the basis of N1-65-88-3, Item 1a, is all the information the FBI would need to supply to NARA as back-up. As a result, there isn’t a specific SF 115 for Ron Tammen’s fingerprints. 

In contrast, Item 1b refers to files that are permanent or otherwise not scheduled for disposal. If an expungement request should come in, either because of a court order or Privacy Act conflict, 1b files did require an additional SF 115, and they would have to go through the lengthy process described above. Beginning in 2003, however, the FBI began inquiring about whether they needed to continue submitting SF 115s for the expungement of permanent records due to the time element, and they and NARA sought legal guidance on that question. As far as I can tell, in 2011, the FBI stopped sending in SF 115 forms for the expungement of permanent records.

So the question that’s probably on everyone’s mind is: if the FBI didn’t have to submit an SF 115 to expunge Ron Tammen’s fingerprints, what was the NARA rep looking at when he or she sent me an email saying that Tammen’s prints had been expunged as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a? (On second read, if that’s the question that’s on everyone’s mind, my goodness, you are a brilliantly wonky bunch, aren’t you?)

This. NARA had contacted the FBI on April 15, 2021, a couple weeks before I received NARA’s email, and here’s what the FBI’s records and information management specialist had to say about Ron Tammen’s case:

Click on document for a closer view

So, that’s pretty cool, right? Do you think the FBI would have bothered telling me any of this if I’d reached out to them directly? I’d asked them at the outset why they expunged his prints and was told “no other info available,” so I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t have. But I can ask NARA and NARA can ask the FBI, and voila, we have more answers. 

Here are my thoughts regarding the FBI email:

  1. We now know that Ronald Tammen’s parents had given Ron’s fingerprint card to the FBI when he disappeared. This question was always perplexing, since my FBI sources had said that children’s fingerprints were routinely returned to the parents, and it appeared as if the FBI had kept Ron’s prints since 1941. However, it doesn’t answer why they had an FBI number for him when Mrs. Tammen had reported him missing, #358406B. I’d been told that they wouldn’t create FBI numbers for fingerprints that were returned. But so be it.
  2. The FBI records specialist says that Ron’s fingerprints were filed with the civil prints. I’m pretty sure she’s mistaken on that. One, his missing person file had “crim” written on it—short for criminal—next to the fingerprint shorthand, and two, my sources said missing persons were routinely filed in the criminal file, since that was the most active one to check against incoming prints.
  3. The most loaded, convoluted sentence in the email is this one: “The prints in question would have been retained until the subject was 99 years of age had they not been responsive to an expungement initiated in or prior to 2002 with the final action taken in June of 2002.” So, I was right when I guessed that Tammen’s fingerprints should have originally been retained until he was 99. Woohoo! I love when that happens!
  4. As for her remark about an expungement that had been “initiated,” let’s consider the language that’s commonly used when describing the two reasons for expunging under N1-65-88-3. You either have a court order, an order coming from the court, or you have an expungement request, a request coming from an individual that’s decided and acted upon by the FBI. She uses neither word, but her phrasing sounds far more like a Privacy Act expungement where the FBI, not the courts, had control. Here’s what she also doesn’t say: she doesn’t give NARA a benign reason for Tammen’s prints to have been expunged, such as if it were part of a large number of missing persons who were expunged for Privacy Act reasons when the FBI automated their fingerprints. This tells me that Ron’s case is special.
  5. Despite her ambiguous language regarding the timeframe, I strongly suspect they expunged his record immediately. I’m sure it wasn’t a “let’s initiate an expungement sometime in or prior to 2002,” and then wait a few months. Remember why the FBI wanted to do away with submitting SF 115s for the 1b files? Time. They didn’t want to wait around.

I submitted a second FOIA request to NARA in hopes of finding out if there had been a mass expungement sometime between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2002, due to their transition to automation. Namely, I asked for all SF 115s that had been submitted during that period for the expungement of fingerprint records ahead of their retention date. As we now know, I won’t be receiving any SF 115s from the 1a crowd, which I would think are the ones I’m most interested in. I’m not sure if I’ll be seeing anything from the 1b crowd either, but I’ll let you know if I do.

Does the FBI know more about Tammen’s case? Oh, most definitely. Why do you think the records and information management specialist went to great pains to construct such a vague and confusing paragraph? 

As far as how we can find out more about the FBI’s expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints, unfortunately, my FOIA settlement prevents me from requesting any more documents on Tammen from the FBI, and I’m quite sure they’d push back hard on this question. (I’ve come to know them pretty well by now, and something tells me that they feel as though they know me pretty well too. 🥰) If there are other possible sources of information, I will seek them out. However, if anyone reading this now or in the future is interested in submitting their own FOIA request to the FBI concerning the “expungement initiated in or prior to 2002 with the final action taken in June of 2002,” here’s where to go: https://efoia.fbi.gov/#home

I only ask that, if you choose to submit a FOIA request, please don’t do it on my behalf, and please don’t tell me or announce it on this blog.** You’d be doing it out of your own curiosity and interest in knowing the truth. You’re also welcome to use whatever records I’ve posted online as supporting documentation, since it’s public information. That’s how researchers work. We share things.

Of all the documents that NARA sent me, one of my favorites was the 11/30/87 memo, especially where it discusses how a lengthy wait to expunge records “causes anguish to individuals eager to see their file destroyed.” Further down, it notes that expungement due to the Privacy Act is “being done with the approval of the individual to whom the records pertain.” If Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act, and, again, the odds are with us that they were, then it’s my belief that Tammen was likely the eager and possibly even anguished person who was insisting that they be expunged ASAP.

OK, the floor’s now open. I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts!

*************

**If you should decide to submit a FOIA on the June 2002 expungement of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints and you’re successful at obtaining information, by all means, please let us know. However, I’m just not permitted to be part of the FOIA process. Thanks!

If the Privacy Act was the reason that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged, then guess what? Ron was alive in 2002

A sample of someone’s fingerprints from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Aug. 1953

Remember how, back in 2015 and 2016, I kept pestering the FBI to answer, yes-or-no, had they confirmed Ron Tammen to be dead? And remember how they chose not to answer that question despite the fact that a simple “no”—they had not confirmed him to be dead—would have sent me on my way, forlorn and (momentarily) defeated? 

Back then, I took their non-answer to mean that Ron was dead but they just didn’t want to say he was dead. Because Ron’s fingerprints had been expunged long before he’d turn 110 (the age at which a person’s fingerprints are normally expunged, as cited by the FBI’s spokesperson), I figured that was all the evidence I needed to conclude that he was dead and had been dead for at least 7 years (the alternative scenario cited by their spokesperson). But with our recent discovery that the FBI was able to expunge his fingerprints early because of #N1-65-88-3, Item 1a—the National Archives and Record Administration’s (NARA’s) record schedule having to do with a Privacy Act conflict or a court order—I now believe Ron was alive when they expunged his fingerprints. It’s also feasible that he could be alive today, although I don’t think so. 

You guys called it early. When I told you that the FBI was able to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of time due to a Privacy Act conflict or a court order, I think Blue was the first to say that he could have still been alive, and others agreed. Kudos to you, smart people! 

I was a little slower, probably because I was so focused on the “court order” lingo and how I’d heard that term before. A couple of the former FBI staffers I’d spoken with had mentioned it as a possible reason for early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints, while no one had brought up the Privacy Act. Also, among the smattering of documents online that cited N1-65-88-3 for early expungement, they all had to do with a court order. So that’s where my brain was. 

As for the “was he alive?” question, it seemed possible if it had to do with the Privacy Act, which I’d been bumping into with all of my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. That law is literally a question of life or death. If I couldn’t prove a person was dead, I (usually) didn’t get the info. The court order is so much grayer: what was the order and when was the order given and which court would have ordered it—federal or state or even lower? And if I were somehow able to get past all that, could we tell if Ron was still alive?

I knew I needed to talk to someone who was knowledgeable about such matters and who was willing to speak openly. Thankfully I found someone. I won’t be sharing the person’s name or credentials with you because I promised them we would be talking “on background.” (Translation: I can use the information they shared, but I won’t be identifying them.) 

A word of warning: you’ll find that there was a point in our conversation where things went a little…askew. From the start, I’d told my source that the reason the FBI had expunged Ron’s fingerprints was the Privacy Act or a court order—good old N1-65-88-3, Item 1a—and the early part of our discussion reflected that. However, as the conversation progressed, my source began to speculate about a different reason for the expungement. Things became a little uncomfortable as I pushed back. Still, even those moments offer important insights into Ron’s case.

Most responses have been lightly edited or paraphrased to reflect the overall substance of what was said in Q&A fashion. Occasionally I’ve supplied additional background information to help clarify a response. If I have thoughts to add regarding a particular response, those’ll be in blue next to my initials. Here we go!

What are the main reasons that FBI files might be expunged ahead of time because of the Privacy Act?

If a person were to file a FOIA request on themself, and their file had incorrect information in it, they might ask that it be expunged. Or perhaps the information was collected illegally. For example, if a person was exercising his or her First Amendment rights (such as voicing their opposition to a political issue), and the FBI started a file on them, they could request that the file be expunged. Most Privacy Act cases have to do with First Amendment issues.

What happens when an FBI file is expunged based on the Privacy Act or a court order?

According to the Federal Records Act, government records can’t be destroyed without the approval of the head of NARA. In the case of a Privacy Act or court-ordered expungement, however, those take precedence. Once the FBI agrees to expunge a record for either of those reasons, NARA’s role is to simply document the action. 

At my time of involvement, the FBI would write to the National Archives saying “we’re going to destroy file number XYZ under the Privacy Act.” The National Archives would keep that record and write back to the FBI. Then the FBI would destroy the file and replace it with a card saying “file number XYZ has been destroyed under the Privacy Act.”

JW: When I was told by the FBI that Ron’s fingerprints had been expunged in 2002, the spokesperson added “no other info available.” If the 2002 protocol was similar to the one described above, the spokesperson should have been able to tell me why Ron’s prints were expunged. Also, now that we know about NARA’s record schedule, the FBI spokesperson should have had access to that information too. At the risk of sounding naïve, I think the FBI was intentionally keeping it from me.

N1-65-88-3 doesn’t pop up much on Google. How frequently or rarely is this reason cited for the expungement of government records?

I don’t think that it happens a lot. It could be dozens or a hundred times a year, but I don’t think it’s that much.

Do they ever expunge FBI files for people who are deceased based on the Privacy Act?

That I don’t know. Under American law, dead people don’t have the right to privacy. But whether a family member could write it in, I’m not sure they would have the legal standing to make the request.

JW: Upon further reading, the Department of Justice has this to say: “Deceased individuals do not have any Privacy Act rights, nor do executors or next-of-kin.” This tells me that the FBI can’t expunge a file based on a Privacy Act conflict if the person is deceased. The FBI might request the file be expunged for another reason, but not for the Privacy Act. Therefore, if Ron’s file was expunged due to a conflict with the Privacy Act, it’s my belief Ron was alive in 2002.

On the other hand, in 2010, I was able to obtain Ron’s FBI files without providing proof of death or authorization from a third party. For this reason, I think Ron Tammen was deceased by 2010. 

What about the court order? Are these generally for living people?

To be honest, I’ve never heard of an example of a court ordering the destruction of records, although I’m sure it probably happens. I’d say that, by far, the majority of expungements based on either the Privacy Act or a court order are due to the Privacy Act.

Legal questions have come up, one of which is: can a federal judge order something to be kept or destroyed when the Federal Records Act gives that authority to the head of NARA? But I don’t think it happens that often.

JW: It’s telling that our source doesn’t recall ever seeing a court-ordered expungement. Perhaps most useful is our source’s estimation that Privacy Act expungements far outweigh court-ordered expungements. As a result, it seems more likely that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict.

As for the alive-or-dead question, in the few court-ordered expungements I’ve seen online, the person whose records were being expunged was ostensibly alive. I’ve been attempting to find someone who can definitively answer my question, and I’ll continue to look. 

Regarding the early expungement of fingerprint cards, have you heard of that happening before? If so, under what circumstances does that happen in your experience?

If I was thinking in terms of being a practical bureaucrat, if we’re in the process of converting tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of fingerprints to an automated system [which took place in 1999], and we have all these fingerprints that were gathered in World War II from school kids, and figuring they’re probably 70, 80 years old in the ‘90s, they might have simply gotten authority…and I’m not sure how. What they could have done is go to the National Archives with a blanket request saying “We’d like to destroy all fingerprint cards created before 1950 because they’re not relevant now, or we’re getting ready to convert these to the automated system and these will just add to the burden of doing that.”

How would that work?

If it was simply a request for expungement, the FBI would write the request on the Standard Form 115 [the form in which all such requests are written], send it to NARA with a brief explanation of why the records don’t have value to the FBI or anybody else, and describe when they would like to destroy them—when they’re 50 years old, 75 years old, or whatever. Then, one of the Archives staff would review the form and seek permission from the head of NARA. A copy would be returned to the FBI, and they would follow the schedule. 

Would that be the N1-65-88-3—would that be a Privacy Act expungement?

No. The FBI would have submitted something with a different number and it would probably just be a request to destroy fingerprint cards that are X number of years old.

JW: I found an example of one of the more routine “thinning-out” records schedules from the year 2000 (marked 00), which I’m posting here. As our source said, the number is different and doesn’t involve the Privacy Act or a court-ordered expungement. Could this request have been initiated because of the FBI’s move to automation in 1999?

But the person from National Archives cited N1-65-88-3, which tells me that it IS a little different than the switchover to the automated system.

That could be an oversight on NARA’s part. They probably just assumed that it was destroyed under the Privacy Act when it was actually destroyed under the authority of another Standard Form 115.

JW: The NARA rep’s exact words were “The fingerprints in question were expunged from the FBI system as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a. NARA does not have any further information regarding the expungement of this file.” That sounds a lot more certain than someone who is just assuming something. Also, I used to respond to public inquiries with a federal agency. We’d never put anything in writing without double-checking to make sure we had our facts straight.

I’ve submitted a FOIA request to NARA for “the paperwork associated with the FBI’s early expungement of the fingerprints (both paper and electronic) for Ronald H. Tammen, Jr., FBI # 358 406 B. This should include the relevant Standard Form 115…plus any additional documentation associated with the FBI’s action.” Once I have that, I’ll be able to decide if I need to file more FOIAs to determine if there was a mass expungement around 2002 because of a Privacy Act conflict or court order or if Ron’s case was special.

In light of the above, here’s where I’m leaning at the moment:

  • Because Privacy Act or court-ordered expungements circumvent the role of the head of NARA, it imparts a higher level of import and urgency to the removal of Ron’s fingerprints.
  • It’s far more likely that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict than a court order.
  • If Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict, then he was still alive in 2002.
  • Ron’s fingerprints were NOT expunged as part of a mass expungement of obsolete fingerprints (e.g., fingerprints obtained from children before WWII or some other characteristic) to reduce the burden on the FBI’s automated system or any other reason to thin out their records.
  • Whether Ron’s fingerprints were expunged as part of a mass expungement due to the Privacy Act or a court order remains to be seen. 

And you? Where do you lean?

Here it is: the document that allowed the FBI to expunge Ron Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of time

This is just a quick update, but it’s significant, so I thought it was worthy of being an official blog post.

I was getting ready to FOIA the FBI for their 1988 records schedule–hoping to find the meaning of N1-65-88-3, Item 1 a–when I found myself on a new page for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): the Records Control Schedules. Before that moment, I’d only seen the schedules referred to as Records Schedules, which was how I must have missed this page earlier.

Click on this link for all the records control schedules for the FBI.

Then scroll until you get to N1-065-88-003. Note that they’ve placed zeros before the 65 and the 3, which is probably why it wasn’t turning up in Google.

And here it is, you guys: the document that the FBI (through a NARA spokesperson) cited as its reason for expunging Ron Tammen’s fingerprint file 30 years ahead of time.

Click on document for a closer view.

We’ve seen this language before in similar documents. As Item 1 reads:

Case files or any portion of their contents, including specific information within documents, whose continued maintenance by the FBI may conflict with the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a, as amended, or whose destruction is mandated by court order.

Note that Ron’s scenario is described in Item 1 A, which ends with this fateful decree: DESTROY immediately.

That’s so interesting that the FBI may have felt that continued maintenance of the fingerprints of a person who’d been missing since 1953 might have been in conflict with the provisions of the Privacy Act. I wonder: Did they feel the need to expunge all missing persons’ fingerprints for the same reason?

Lately, I’ve been reading up on the Privacy Act and things of that ilk. Someday, we may have a longer discussion on the topic, once I’ve had all my questions answered. However, at this stage, I can say this: I’ve been living under the Privacy Act rules for the past 11 years as I’ve been filing FOIA request after FOIA request. And this question stands out:

Q: When does a person’s privacy protections pretty much go out the window (with certain caveats, such as with HIPAA and FERPA)? 

A: When they die. Once a person has died, a whole world of information opens up to us through FOIA. The ticket for entry is proof of death.

Several of you have said that it sounds more likely that Ron was alive in 2002 in order for them to have reason to expunge his fingerprint records. Although we still can’t rule out the court order, I believe a potential Privacy Act conflict supports this theory. 

**************

I’d like to thank you for your astute questions and observations to date on this topic–you’ve been extremely helpful. The floor is now open.

Finally, an answer: Why Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged and why it makes so much sense

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

I am shaking. Shaking! You’re not going to believe the news I have for you today. After all we’ve been going through over the years trying to find out why the FBI expunged Ron Tammen’s fingerprint record in 2002, I now have an answer for you.

But first: do you know how I came to find the answer? The FBI, you say? Oh, you kidder, you. No, I arrived at the answer thanks to our awesome friends at the National Archives. 

If you’ll recall in the blog post Purged, we learned that if the FBI had been following their own records retention policy in 2002, they should have held on to Ron’s fingerprints until he was at least 99 years of age. And then, near the end of that post, I said that I was planning to tattle to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regarding the FBI’s (alleged) unauthorized disposition of Ron’s fingerprints.

Well guess what? I did that. And guess what else? They got back to me yesterday. In a brief email that arrived at around 4 p.m., and in the most low-key manner imaginable, they explained to me why the FBI was permitted to expunge Ron’s records from their system before the normal period was up. The reason: N1-65-88-3, Item 1a.

I couldn’t believe it—someone actually gave me a reason. 

I spent the next few hours Googling N1-65-88-3 (let’s forget the “Item 1a” part for now). From what I gathered, the “65” refers to the FBI, the “88” refers to the year in which that particular records schedule was first implemented, and the “3”…well, in the few documents online in which a 3 follows the 88, I found only one reason for it to be there: a court order. That’s right—we’re back to the court order explanation. 

This is one of the few documents online that has the same citation as Ron’s: N1-65-88-3 as a reason for expungement. In it the author says: “The records described on it are already covered by Job. No. N1-65-88-3, which authorizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy immediately those temporary files whose destruction is mandated by court order.”

As it turns out, it could be that the number 3 refers to a type of court order. For example, I found that N1-65-88-1 refers to a court order for the destruction of background investigations by a certain year. N1-65-88-2 refers to visa applications, though it doesn’t mention a court order to do so.

As for Ron’s court order, the Federal Register, a daily government publication that announces proposed and final policies of federal agencies, has cited N1-65-88-3 only four times since the year 1994. And when they did so, it was to describe a court order for the “Federal Pre-Trial Diversion Program.” What’s the federal pre-trial diversion program, you ask? Apparently, it’s when the government decides not to prosecute someone—a first-time offender, for example—but enrolls them in a supervised program of some sort. So someone commits a crime, they’re enrolled in the program, and then, if they’re successful, the charges are dismissed and their fingerprints are expunged. I have no idea if this applies to Ron’s situation. I’m only saying that the same number they used for Ron was used to explain an expungement four other times in the Federal Register. Interestingly, another records disposition authority request cites N1-65-88-3 and the Federal Pre-Trial Diversion Program as the reason for the expungement of documents. (Note that it also references Item 1B. I have yet to see an Item 1a. )

Last night, I sent a follow-up email to a department of the National Archives that handles questions about records schedules. In it, I ran through my definition of each number—the 65, 88, and 3—and then asked them what “Item 1a” referred to.

Here’s the lion’s share of their response: 

“Thanks for your question. The FBI Records Officer and/or FOIA officer are your best resource for questions concerning records expunging. The schedule provides the authority to dispose of the records, but more detailed information on specific records can only be answered by the FBI. The schedule allows the FBI to dispose of already scheduled temporary records earlier when there is a court order or a privacy act conflict…”

Frankly, a privacy act conflict for a guy who went missing in 1953 would be fascinating too. But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to hold off on writing the FBI right now. As you know, the FBI and I have a rather (ahem) strained relationship, and I’ll need to figure out the best way to approach them, especially since the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is looking into my other FOIA request with them for Ron’s Additional Record Sheets. I need to mull over my strategy. There are other avenues I can take as well.

In the meantime, let’s look at what we do know and how this new revelation makes so much sense. 

The word “expunge” fits.

First, the word “expunge” carries legal implications that the word purge does not. It means to delete records as if they never existed—as in the expunging of criminal records. If there was a court order to erase Ron’s fingerprints from existence, then I believe the word we want to use from here on out is most definitely expunge. As you may recall, this was the word choice used by the FBI’s spokesperson the first time he told me that Ron’s fingerprints were removed from their system in 2002. Interestingly, the term he didn’t use when explaining the possible reasons for expunging fingerprints was a “court order.”

We’d already ruled out the other two possible reasons.

Again, in Purged, I wrote that it occurred to me that, based on the 2002 records retention protocol, we could no longer presume that Ron was dead. Even if they had confirmed him to be dead, they’d need to keep his fingerprints until he was at least 99 years of age. Therefore, the remaining option would be a court order. This finding supports that conclusion.

Ron’s case is special.

If Ron’s fingerprints were expunged by a court order, potentially due to some special court-approved diversion program, it confirms to us that Ronald Tammen is not your run-of-the-mill missing person. He was special. But, then, we already knew that, didn’t we?

***************

What do you think? Is this the big deal I think it is?