The layperson’s unofficial, unauthorized FBI fingerprint protocol playbook**

**and the ways in which Ronald Tammen’s case was treated as an exception to the rule

The year that fingerprints first became part of J. Edgar Hoover’s tactical toolkit was 1924, the same year Hoover was named director of the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, and also the year in which the Identification Division was created. The technology itself has changed since then, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was occupying the White House, the Charleston was all the rage, and “23 skidoo” was something people would actually say to one another to appear street smart and hip. It was a very long time ago.

And yet, change didn’t come quickly for the folks in the Identification Division—or Ident as they were known to their fellow employees. For decades, the FBI was collecting fingerprints with the same tried-and-true method that they’d used since 1924—rolling black inky fingers onto white cardstock—and training thousands of employees the art of eyeballing one card against another to assess whether they came from the same set of fingers. They were using this methodology through 1941, when Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a second grader. They were still using it in 1973, when they fingerprinted the guy at Welco Industries to see if he might be Ron. And they kept on using it for more than a quarter century after that. Not until 1999, after the FBI had changed the division’s name to Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) and later moved the division to West Virginia, did fingerprinting finally go digital.

Millions of cards—Ron’s, the guy from Welco’s, plus all the others—were trucked from FBI Headquarters to the new facility in Clarksburg, WV. So many cards. Enough to go around the world if laid back to back, according to a former employee. Each and every card was scanned into a database, a feat in itself. Initially, that database was the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. IAFIS was a game-changing innovation that could sort through and match fingerprints in a fraction of the time that it would have taken an Ident staffer to do under the manual system. And as skillful as Ident staff were at reading fingerprint cards, no longer would the FBI need to rely on occasional judgment calls, which, much to Hoover’s and his successors’ chagrin, could vary. In 2011, CJIS began incrementally upgrading to the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, a massive database that is even faster and more powerful than IAFIS and incorporates fingerprint technology with all other biometric technologies except DNA. DNA has its own database, called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which we’ve discussed in previous blog posts.

So the process of collecting, sorting, and searching fingerprints has become way faster and more efficient thanks to the digitization of fingerprint data. But the basis of the technology—where the loops, whorls, and arches found on everyone’s fingertips are counted, categorized, and compared—is essentially the same as it was in 1924. And the importance of fingerprints in identifying one individual from another hasn’t changed much either, even today, when DNA reigns supreme.

Speaking of which, you know the meme of the guy who’s walking down the street with his girlfriend while he’s checking out another woman who just passed by?

Distracted boyfriend

Yeah, that one. DNA and the latest biometric tools, such as palm prints, irises, and facial recognition, may be what evokes oohs and aahs from people who like to keep up on the coolest new tech trends, which, to some degree, is most of us. But dollar for dollar, fingerprints continue to be the cute, nice, reliable technology that’s sometimes taken for granted. And yet, even with all the advances that are made in biometrics, it’s a safe bet that fingerprinting will continue to be an important identification tool for years to come. That’s because it’s built on the utterly astounding and never-proven-otherwise premise that no two people’s fingerprints are ever the same, even those of identical twins. And—get this—according to the book The Fingerprint Sourcebook, produced by the National Institute of Justice, of the U.S. Department of Justice, some people in China were using fingerprints as a means of identification as early as 300 BC. Does that blow your mind as much as it blows mine? How could people from 300 BC have known that fingerprints were so special? I’m quite sure that the first person to have used them would be surprised, no stunned, to know that their wild, out-of-the-box idea—their ancient hack to a primitive need—would still be used in 2020 and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong: No one here wants to disparage DNA. DNA is great. DNA is important. DNA technology has improved so much since the early days that even miniscule samples have helped solve cold cases such as the Golden State Killer. And if your DNA is found at a crime scene? Well, you’re probably toast. It’s pretty much attained “smoking gun” status, which isn’t the case for fingerprints. Fingerprints that are left at a crime scene—called latent prints—can be damning too, but, they’re rarely perfect. According to a 2017 study of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they are often refutable, since they’re usually incomplete and, as the AAAS study points out, nearly impossible to match to a single source.

Nevertheless, fingerprints, especially what the FBI calls the “ten print,” non-latent variety, aren’t going away anytime soon. If you want to know the true identity of someone, their fingerprints are better than a name. Better than a Social Security number. Better than a picture ID.

“Fingerprints are considered positive identification, so it’s a much better way to identify people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be identified. And that probably means most of the criminal element,” said one former CJIS employee.

So yeah—fingerprints, baby!

But we aren’t going to be talking about the science of fingerprints anymore on this blog post. No, the topic for today is standard operating procedures—or the bureaucratic maneuverings and machinations that take place once a set of fingerprints has been collected. In essence, we’ll be examining the life and death of a fingerprint, from the moment it’s pressed onto a white card or scanner and entered into the FBI’s system to the day it’s expunged. And friends, I challenge you to find anything on the internet that attempts to do what we’re attempting here. For the first time ever (I’m pretty sure), we’re pulling together information obtained from experts who categorized and analyzed fingerprints for the FBI for many years, a process that was drilled so deeply into their skulls that they could do it in their sleep. Then—when possible—we’re going to compare what the FBI routinely did, and sometimes still does, to what they did in Ronald Tammen’s case. And, spoiler alert: they aren’t the same.

My sources requested anonymity so they could speak openly, and because they no longer officially represent the FBI. We’ll do it like last time, in Q&A fashion. This time, however, I’ll list a question, provide an answer that merges what my sources told me with info from other related resources, and then, when applicable, compare and contrast that summary with the way things were handled for Ron Tammen, which will be printed in blue. Some answers may sound familiar to you, since we’ve discussed them before. Sometimes I added two and two together. You ready? Let’s do this.

Who can submit fingerprints to the FBI?

Only law enforcement agencies or a court can submit fingerprints to the FBI.

How it pertains to Tammen: This jives with Tammen’s case. Evidence indicates that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were taken by the local police in Fairview Park, Ohio, in 1941, when he was a second grader, and they submitted the fingerprints.

 How were fingerprints submitted to the FBI under the manual system?

The FBI generally didn’t accept fingerprint cards from local police departments because they would have been overwhelmed by the numbers. Instead, they had state police bureaus and other channeling agencies. Generally, the local police department would send the prints to the state police bureau and the state bureau would send them to the FBI. Conversely, once the FBI determined whether or not there was a match, they would respond to the state bureau and the state bureau would notify the local police.

How it pertains to Tammen: According to info I have from around that time, the Fairview Park police sent the fingerprints directly to the FBI as opposed to going through a state police bureau. It could be that they’d gotten such an early jump on the FBI’s civil fingerprinting efforts that they didn’t need to involve a middleman. Whatever—this little swerve from the norm isn’t a big deal, in my view.

How are fingerprints submitted now?

It’s still law enforcement types and the courts who can submit fingerprints to the FBI, but they can do so electronically using the NGI system. Police officers can even fingerprint someone using a mobile device in their squad car, hit the send key, and then, in a matter of seconds, receive information on the person’s identity and whether he/she has a criminal record and if there are possible warrants out for their arrest.

How it pertains to Tammen: It doesn’t. It’s just interesting.

What does the FBI number mean?

The FBI number is assigned to fingerprints when they are submitted and placed in a file. It would not be assigned to a “return print,” a civil fingerprint that was going to be returned immediately to a local police department or to someone’s parents. This was the number that the Identification Division would use to track all information pertaining to those fingerprints.

How it pertains to Tammen: Ron had an FBI number (#358 406 B] assigned to his fingerprints, which means that the Identification Division took the time to create a fingerprint jacket for him (the folder where fingerprints were stored). This tells us that the FBI likely retained Ron’s prints from day one, as opposed to sending them back to Fairview Park, and that they also likely had his fingerprints on file the day Ron went missing. Is it weird that the FBI would have kept his prints when every FBI source I’ve spoken with has found this detail most unusual? Yes, it’s weird. But I’m just glad that A) he was fingerprinted at all, and B) the FBI retained the prints. Think about how much less information we’d have on the Tammen case if the FBI hadn’t had a fingerprint file on him. All the strange behaviors during all those critical years (particularly 1967, 1973, and ultimately 2002) wouldn’t have occurred. If my theory of what happened to Tammen bears out, then those fingerprints could be the one detail that his shrewd handlers had no prior knowledge of, and that Tammen had long forgotten about, that could finally bring us some answers.

What information was included in the fingerprint file/jacket?

The fingerprint jacket contained a person’s fingerprint card or cards. In a missing person case, if the Identification Division was fortunate enough to have the missing person’s fingerprints, that’s the only information they would maintain in this file. Other descriptive information would be housed in Records Management. As we all know from the preceding post, there was also an Ident Missing Person File Room, but it didn’t appear to be well known among Ident staff, and it was not part of the usual protocol when handling missing person cases.

How it pertains to Tammen: According to the FBI memo from 5-22-73, there was only one fingerprint card in Ron’s file, which followed protocol. What was unusual were the documents that had been kept—and removed from—the Ident Missing Person File Room, number 1126, in June 1973. I’ve filed several FOIA requests in hopes of figuring out that little side mystery and will keep you posted.

What did the FBI do with the civil print cards they collected?

Most of the civil fingerprint cards that the Identification Division received were treated as “return prints,” which meant that the FBI had no intention of keeping them in their files. Each fingerprint card would be searched manually against the criminal fingerprint file and, if there was no match, it would be stamped on the back: “no criminal record.” The card would then be mailed back to the submitting agency. If the civil fingerprint matched a criminal record, the submitting agency would receive a copy of the criminal record known as “a rap sheet.” (The FBI likely held onto those prints.)

Generally, the only fingerprint cards that would have been permanently retained by the FBI in the civil file would be military personnel and employees of the federal government. However, there was one group in particular whom Hoover encouraged to be fingerprinted, and that was the Boy Scouts of America. The organization, which had developed a merit badge in fingerprinting, would send the scouts’ prints to FBI Headquarters, and, in return, the boys would receive a letter thanking them for helping with the cause. According to MuckRock.com, the Boy Scouts’ prints were maintained in the civil file, though my FBI sources recalled that they had been returned.

How it pertains to Tammen: Every FBI source I’ve spoken with has been both surprised and skeptical that the FBI would have kept Ron’s fingerprints from 1941. Apparently, it was extremely rare for the FBI to retain children’s fingerprints in the civil file back then. However, the FBI clearly had his fingerprints on file at some point because in 2002, they expunged them. The fact that Ron’s fingerprints were assigned an FBI number convinces me that they held onto them as opposed to sending them back to the police or parents and asking them to return them when he went missing. (It doesn’t really matter which scenario happened, to be honest, but we’re going for accuracy here.) If the FBI did keep his fingerprints from childhood, they would have maintained them in the civil file until 1953. Then, when he went missing, they would have moved them to the criminal file since the criminal file is the active file that is always consulted when new prints come in.

What does the FBI do with the criminal prints they collect?

They keep them all. People who’ve been arrested 10 times will have ten sets of fingerprints in their file, ostensibly as a means for identifying latent fingerprints in possible future arrests. For example, if the fingerprint picked up at a crime scene isn’t very good, the FBI could bring up a suspect’s fingerprints from all ten arrests to find if a corresponding section of one of those prints is a match with the latent print. Also, retaining all criminal fingerprints creates a comprehensive history of all the dates the person was arrested.

Under the manual system, the first fingerprint card from the first arrest would be filed in the master criminal file. Fingerprints from any subsequent arrests were filed together in the person’s fingerprint jacket. Likewise, under the digital system, all fingerprint data was also entered into the database for that person.

The criminal file includes the fingerprints of, you guessed it, criminals, such as people who are incarcerated, arrested, or who have warrants out for their arrest. It also includes missing persons as well as some federal employees, such as people who work for the FBI. The latter policy started with—who else?—Hoover, who said, “if any of my employees have any contact with the law, I want to know about it!” Several other federal agencies with law enforcement responsibilities have their fingerprints in the criminal file as well.

How it pertains to Tammen: As you can see, the FBI goes to great lengths to preserve every set of criminal fingerprints that it collects, even in cases where multiple sets of prints for the same person are already on file. However, Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints—of which they only had one set—were expunged in 2002, even though Tammen was ostensibly still missing. We’ll be discussing this development in more detail later, but, for now, let’s try to fully appreciate how inexplicable and bizarre this action seems to be. By that year, Tammen’s single set of fingerprints—the FBI’s only definitive means for identifying him—would have been entered into IAFIS, taking up a negligible amount of digital space and harming virtually no one as they sat there waiting for a potential hit. For what earthly reason would the FBI feel compelled to erase them forever from their vast database? Why would that be in their best interest? I wonder.

Did the FBI ever check the civil file for a match?

According to one knowledgeable source, the only time an Ident staffer would consult the civil file is in the case of an unidentified deceased individual. If a set of fingerprints came in of an unknown person who had died, they’d first search the criminal file, then they’d search the civil file. During the Vietnam War, for example, the fingerprints of unknown soldiers who had died in combat would be sent to the FBI for identification. In such cases, the civil file would always be checked, since that’s where the prints for members of the military were maintained.

How it pertains to Tammen: This would only pertain to Tammen if his fingerprints were in the civil file and he turned up dead. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if either happened.

Do they still keep criminal and civil fingerprints separate in NGI, or are they all lumped together?

According to a 2015 article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all fingerprint data, civil and criminal, are now lumped together under NGI, and searched together thousands of times a day. While individuals found in the criminal file should be used to having their fingerprints searched for matches, this was a new development for people in the law-abiding civil file, and it creates privacy concerns. My FBI sources had retired before this policy was implemented, so they wouldn’t be able to comment. However, the controversy appears to be ongoing.

 How it pertains to Tammen: It doesn’t, since Tammen’s prints were expunged in 2002, nine years before the transition to NGI had begun.

How difficult would it be to compare two sets of fingerprints in 1967: Ron Tammen’s, whose prints were in the criminal file, and a soldier in Vietnam’s, whose prints would have been in the civil file? (Question is in reference to this post.)

On average it used to take an Ident staffer 30 to 60 minutes to manually search an incoming fingerprint card against the criminal file, depending on the complexity of the print. A longtime employee said: “…If there were two sets of prints, one from an individual, one the military, it would be very easy to compare them to see if they were the same individual or not.”

How it pertains to Tammen: When Mr. Tammen wrote J. Edgar Hoover in October 1967 asking if the soldier pictured in an AP photo might be his son, Hoover responded that he didn’t have any more information on Ron’s case and suggested that Mr. Tammen contact the adjutant general of the U.S. Army regarding the soldier. In my opinion, this was a classic attempt at appearing helpful without helping at all.

 Was Hoover’s response flaky? Couldn’t Hoover have found out the soldier’s name and asked his staff to test Ron’s prints against the soldier’s?

Said one expert: “Yes, it was. I thought so too.” Said another: “I am guessing that the Bureau did not have the time or resources to follow up on a newspaper article with a picture.”

How it pertains to Tammen: Let the record show that I consider it flaky—and telling—that Hoover wouldn’t have asked one of his Ident staffers to do this minor task for Mr. Tammen. As for the suggestion that Hoover may have had insufficient time and resources, the Identification Division was one of Hoover’s biggest bragging points, where hefty amounts of resources were devoted to the processing of millions of fingerprint cards each year. In 1964, the year of the FBI’s 40th anniversary, they were averaging 23,000-24,000 incoming fingerprint cards daily. Couldn’t they take some time to look at a couple more? Once Hoover had determined who the soldier was by calling the AP or the adjutant general himself, all he needed to do was ask one of his many Ident employees to spend an hour or less comparing the two cards. If it was a match, he could be a hero. For some reason, he didn’t feel it was worth that small effort.

 What does it mean to expunge fingerprints?

The word expunge is often used in legal situations when referring to a criminal record. If a criminal record is expunged—some indiscretion of youth, for example, for which a judge decides a person has done their penance and, in a sense, lets bygones be bygones—it’s either sealed or wiped clean, as if it never existed. In a missing person case, the preferred terminology is generally to purge the records.

How it pertains to Tammen: According to Stephen Fischer, the CJIS media liaison in 2015, Tammen’s prints were “expunged” in 2002, though no evidence exists to indicate that he had a criminal record. Fischer later referred to the criteria by which fingerprints are “purged,” using the terms interchangeably. From this point on in this post, I’ll use both terms interchangeably as well.

When are fingerprints expunged?

According to Stephen Fischer in 2015, “The FBI purges fingerprint data and records at 110 years of age or 7 years after confirmed death.” In addition, according to other sources, the FBI will purge fingerprint data upon receipt of a court order to do so.

How it pertains to Tammen: Ronald Tammen would have been 68 or 69 in 2002, far younger than the 110 years of age currently required with NGI or even the slightly more youthful 99 years of age that was required with IAFIS. Unless there was a court order (which I’m still attempting to find out), the only other (ostensible) possibility is that the FBI had confirmed Ronald Tammen to be dead. It should be noted, however, that when I asked my FBI sources if they would make the same inference, no one was willing to go out on that limb for reasons that I’ll get into shortly.

How does the FBI know when 7 years/110 years have expired?

Under the manual file system, it would have been more tedious and probably fairly random to keep track of expiration dates. Now, however, my sources concur that it is an automated process, though no one I spoke to was aware of how the system sifts through the file to detect expired records.

How it pertains to Tammen: Unless his fingerprints were purged because of a court order or there’s another possible reason to remove a person’s fingerprints that I’m unaware of, something must have tripped the automated system.

Why would the FBI want to expunge someone’s fingerprints?

In general, this is something they’d prefer *not* to do. The FBI still relies heavily on fingerprints as a means of identifying people, particularly all the standout folks whose prints are in the criminal file. It’s not in the FBI’s best interest to purge those fingerprints without a very good reason. Storage space happens to be one very good reason. Once the FBI digitized its fingerprint data in 1999, beginning with IAFIS, a need arose to free up some storage space on occasion. And with NGI adding biometric data that requires even more space, the need has grown stronger since 2011. That’s why they have the 110/7-year rule. Other reasons for purging involve the legal system—the court ruling we’ve discussed earlier, for example. But according to most of the FBI experts I’ve spoken with, the reasons for purging a fingerprint can be counted on three fingers of one hand.

How it pertains to Tammen: This is the question that keeps me up nights. Ron didn’t make the 110-year age cut, so it’s either that he’s dead, and the FBI knows he’s dead but they don’t want us to know they know he’s dead, or it’s the court order thing. However, one source I spoke with speculated that perhaps someone in CJIS decided to purge Ron’s prints when they noticed that, if alive, he would be a much older adult in 2002, and maybe he didn’t want to be found:

“There were some situations where people were adults that had been reported missing and they weren’t really missing. They didn’t want to be found for some reason. And so, to me, it makes a difference whether you’re a minor child or above the age of 18 or 21, because an individual can choose, for whatever reason, just choose to disappear for their own reasons, for whatever purpose.”

The problem with that theory is that it completely goes against protocol. Nowhere have I read or heard that the FBI would purge a missing person’s fingerprints once a missing youth had reached adulthood. Perhaps an Ident staffer might have been inclined to make that sort of judgment call under the manual system…I don’t know. But, in 2002, when they were relying on the automated IAFIS system? I doubt it. There’s another reason I don’t think someone would have removed his fingerprints simply because he was older. I’ll discuss it in the next question.

What happens if a missing person turns out to be dead?

If an unidentified body was found, the local police could submit their fingerprints to the FBI through the state bureau. If the FBI already had the missing person’s fingerprints on file and they were a match, the submitting agency would have been notified of the match through the state bureau. In addition, a notice would have been placed in the missing person’s file saying that they had been confirmed dead, and, if available, the date they died. Here’s an important point to remember: the FBI doesn’t immediately purge the fingerprints of a missing person who has been proven dead. They just add the note. Even if a person is dead, those prints can still be valuable. They might be useful in helping solve cold cases or for identifying bodies following a disaster. That’s why they have a policy to wait seven years before purging them.

How it pertains to Tammen: If the FBI purged Ron Tammen’s prints in 2002 because he’d been confirmed dead seven years prior, that would mean that he would have died in 1995 at the latest. The FBI was still using its manual system in 1995. They were still using fingerprint jackets, and there should have been a note in the jacket saying that he was dead, and perhaps when he’d died.

As one knowledgeable source said:

“And even if a print had been identified as deceased, in that jacket, there still would have been information written in there by hand that it had been identified as deceased individual such-and-such. So all that would have been automated [after IAFIS was introduced], along with the actual fingerprints themselves that were digitized.”

Ostensibly, no notes have been written claiming that Tammen is deceased. However, it also bears repeating that, even if they’d found Tammen to be dead, it wouldn’t be reason for immediately tossing his fingerprints. They would have waited the seven years. If the FBI doesn’t think it should just toss the prints of a dead person right away, I doubt very much that they’d purge the fingerprints of a missing person who’d managed to evade detection for many years as an adult.

Would the FBI purge a missing person’s prints after they’re found?

Same answer as above. The fact that a missing person was located would be noted in the jacket but the fingerprint card would be retained. A court order would be needed to physically remove the print—which would also include a note saying that the prints had been expunged. Otherwise, they’d wait until that person was 110 years of age or seven years after confirmed death.

How it pertains to Tammen: Again, no explanatory information was in his file—no record of having been located and, as pointed out earlier, no record of his being found dead, and no record of a court-ordered purging. Also, to further drive home this point, if the FBI isn’t willing to purge a missing person’s fingerprints after they’ve been found, why would they remove them while he was still out there, unaccounted for? Answer: they wouldn’t.

How do you fingerprint a dead body?

[Warning: this is gross] If an unknown deceased body was discovered, sometimes the fingerprints would be in bad shape due to decomposition. However, fingerprints have three ridges that penetrate the skin fairly deeply. In such cases, a technician would put on rubber gloves and remove the skin down to a more, um, legible layer, shall we say? Then, they’d roll those prints on a ten print card. According to one former employee, any fingerprint that came from a deceased body was generally of poor quality—too dark or too light. Therefore, it was often difficult to conduct a manual search using a dead person’s fingerprints.

How it pertains to Tammen: Sorry about that. But if Ron Tammen died and the FBI confirmed that he died, they might have had to do that. We don’t know.

What types of records are kept after fingerprints are expunged?

We’re building up to one of our primary take-home messages, and here it is: Fingerprints aren’t supposed to just disappear without some sort of record. Based on information provided by Stephen Fischer in 2015, no other info was available on Tammen other than the fact that his prints were expunged in 2002. But the removal of fingerprints while they were considered still active would require some note of explanation regarding when they were removed and why. And these notes of explanation were all to be digitized as part of IAFIS.

According to FBI protocol back then, the notes were to be printed in the file jacket on sheets called Additional Record Sheets or ARS’s. Not only did the ARS require an employee to provide their employee number and date the sheet any time they removed the file, but they also were required “to record any disseminations of the record, including notations of expungement or purges of record entries, such as deletions of arrests for non-serious offenses.”

And here was their record retention policy after adding these notes to IAFIS:

Hard copy files: DESTROY after verification of a successful scan.

Scanned version: DELETE when the individual has reached 99 years of age, or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.

ARS
Instructions regarding how notations were to be made on the Additional Record Sheets, and later, how the ARS’s were to be digitized when CJIS converted to IAFIS.

You guys, and I’ll put this in bold italics for added emphasis: the information on Tammen’s ARS should theoretically still be available for his expunged fingerprints.

There was an additional record-keeping system that the FBI used to implement between the years 1958 and 1999. When the FBI purged a fingerprint file, they would put those fingerprints on microfilm for archival purposes. However, CJIS stopped making microfilm copies after IAFIS was implemented, which had been in place for roughly three years when Tammen’s prints were purged. Therefore, the microfilm library doesn’t apply to Tammen’s case.

How it pertains to Tammen: In February 2008, when former Butler County, OH, cold case detective Frank Smith requested a “hand search” for Tammen’s fingerprints, CJIS sent this response a couple days later by Fax:

“A SEARCH OF OUR CRIMINAL AND CIVIL FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR YOUR SUBJECT. A COMPLETE SEARCH OF OUR ARCHIVE MICROFILM FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR THIS MISSING SUBJECT AS WELL.”

What the CJIS rep neglected to tell the detective—a member of law enforcement, and therefore a supposedly valued working partner of the FBI’s—was that they’d expunged them in 2002. So, to recap:

  • It appears as if someone in the Identification Division or CJIS didn’t document, didn’t digitize, or flat-out destroyed the ARS notations from Tammen’s manual jacket, including the reason for the expungement of his fingerprints in 2002, which is a clear break with protocol.
  • CJIS also didn’t disclose to the Butler County Sheriff’s Department the full extent of their knowledge about the case, the very least of which would be that they’d expunged Ron’s prints in 2002. This, in my view, is another break in protocol since I would think that members of law enforcement should generally try to be forthcoming with one another. (I’m guessing that, if the FBI had told Smith that they’d expunged the prints, they could anticipate a potential follow-up question that they didn’t feel like answering. Something along the lines of “Oh, really? Why?”)

Does the FBI verify someone’s identity before they expunge their prints?

The FBI will not purge someone’s fingerprints unless they’re certain that the person whose prints they’re purging is who they think he or she is. If the FBI is purging fingerprints because of a court order, the court or submitting agency would have to provide identification to ensure that the FBI was removing the right set of prints. Often, this would involve another set of fingerprints since fingerprints are still one of the best ways to identify someone. Other times, they may get away with simply providing telling details, such as the FBI number, the date of the arrest, and other specifics on the case, but fingerprints are still best. In the case of a deceased person or a missing person’s fingerprints being purged, a source said that it would be based on comparing two sets of fingerprints to make sure they’re the same individual.

How it pertains to Tammen: Think about the above paragraph for a second and maybe read it again, because it says a lot. First, the FBI wouldn’t have purged Ron Tammen’s fingerprints without verifying that they were indeed Ron Tammen’s prints. This helps solve a gnarly little question about the year in which Ron would have supposedly died. If they purged his prints in 2002, that would mean that Ron had probably died around 1995. Well, guess who else died in 1995: Ronald Tammen, Sr., who died on January 10 in Florida. So that was always a possibility. But according to my FBI sources, this likely didn’t happen because they would have verified it. Second, if they purged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 because he’d been dead for seven years, then they would have verified those prints against a second set of prints sometime around 1995. Remember what Stephen Fischer had said about the seven-year rule: “seven years after confirmed death.” That means that they would have confirmed Ron to be dead by comparing his prints against the prints on file, and then waited seven years before the system purged them. That could also mean that they know where his remains are. Third is the question raised by the source who said it could be that someone tossed Ron’s prints because he would now be an adult who doesn’t want to be found. If the FBI ensures that every fingerprint that’s purged needs to be verified, then that rule would nullify this possibility. How could they verify that it’s the correct person if they don’t have a second set of prints with which to compare his to?

Discussion: When a missing person’s records go missing

Are we any closer to being able to say that the FBI knows more than they’re letting on? I think so. It’s clear that the FBI broke protocol at least once, and possibly more than once when dealing with Ron’s fingerprints. Since the last update, I’ve submitted several more FOIAs, one of which has to do with the question about Ron’s father. Although I’m nearly positive that it was Ron Jr.’s fingerprints that were purged in 2002, I’ve submitted a FOIA request asking the FBI to search the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) offline historical database for any files on Mr. Tammen too, including evidence of possible fingerprint files. If they don’t have anything, I think we can safely conclude they were Ron Jr.’s. With this latest post, you can see that there are more FOIA requests to submit, including, for example, an in-depth search of Ron’s digitized Additional Record Sheets.

It’s probably also a good time to raise another possibility with you, a “what if?” that may have been in the back of some readers’ minds throughout this entire blog. What if Ron’s fingerprints weren’t destroyed because he died in 1995 but because someone in a high place decided that, for whatever reason, they needed to be purged—someone who also didn’t want telltale notes getting in the way of “plausible deniability.”  Missing notes and expunged fingerprints aren’t smoking guns. The missing notes could possibly be blamed on anything: a distracted employee, an inadvertent mix-up, a computer glitch, whatever. Or they may have never existed at all. Likewise, it’s extremely tough to explain why fingerprints were expunged when the records that could give the backstory on why they’re missing are also missing.

Most maddening of all is that If I were to lay out my (nonexistent) evidence before an official FBI spokesperson, this is what I’d get:

IDK

That’s essentially what I got when I asked them a while back to comment, yes or no, whether they’d confirmed that Ron was dead. Remember what the spokesperson said? “The FBI has a right to decline requests.”

All along, I’ve been pointing to the FBI’s 2002 purging of Ron’s fingerprints as reason to believe that Tammen is dead. But if the missing documents and destroyed fingerprints tell us anything, it’s that, for whatever reason, the FBI may have made the decision to break protocol in Tammen’s case. And if protocol wasn’t being followed, well, that opens up a whole range of new possibilities, doesn’t it? I mean, could it be that Tammen, who would be 87 on the 23rd of this month, is still alive after all?

 

The Ident files

Tuesday, June 5, 1973, promised to be 90 degrees and sunny in our nation’s capital—the kind of run-of-the-mill day of intense heat and high humidity to which the DC crowd is well-accustomed. Richard Nixon, who had a little over a year remaining in his presidency, would be facing a fully booked schedule of meetings and photo ops that day, topped off by a state dinner and concert honoring Liberia’s president. Just down Constitution Avenue, the Watergate Hearings were in full swing, televised live from the Russell Senate Office Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, roughly two miles away, in a leafy, less ornate area of Capitol Hill, J. Edgar Hoover was still lying in his grave, having succumbed to a heart attack the previous year.

As cataclysmic as Hoover’s death had been for the women and men of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (one former employee joked that they’d half-expected him to return from the dead on the third day), they had since rebounded. They were back to the daily grind of carrying out their mission and raison d’être: “to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” In two more years, they’d be moving to the FBI’s present home—the J. Edgar Hoover Building at Pennsylvania and Ninth Streets NW. But in 1973, some staffers were operating out of the Department of Justice Building, next door to the FBI’s current site, while two major divisions were located in an AC-free building at Second and D Streets in the SW section of the District. (I’ve learned in interviews that Hoover was notorious for not providing air conditioning to his employees because he liked to show legislators how frugal he could be with his budget.) And so it would be here—at this sweltering site, on this sizzling day—that one of the weirder aspects of the Ronald Tammen saga would take place.

The documents we’ll be discussing won’t be new to you. They’re the same old scribbled-on records from my 2010 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. (You can access them here.)

What is new, however, is that, since we’ve last discussed my interactions with the FBI on this blog site, I’ve had the chance to speak with several people who were working in the two relevant divisions at the time that the 1973 incident occurred: Identification and Records Management. Not only did these people help interpret what many of the scribbles mean, but they also shared their views on how normal or not-so-normal it was to treat Tammen’s documents the way they did. In addition, I also spoke with people—some the same, others different—who happened to be working in the Identification Division when Tammen’s fingerprints were destroyed 29 years later, in 2002. I’ll be sharing their thoughts as well—although, I’ve decided to save that synopsis for a future day. (Sorry! There’s too much info here, so I’ve decided to take on each of these topics one at a time.)

Most of these people spoke to me “on background,” which means that I’ll be telling you what they said, but I’ll be protecting their anonymity. I realize that some of you may not appreciate when a source isn’t named, and I apologize for that, but, honestly, sometimes it’s the only way to get someone to talk to me. But trust me, they’re credible sources. Also, I’m tracking down more individuals as we speak. As with everything else on this blog, it won’t be ending here.

Who’s MSL and What are the Ident Files?

Removed from Ident Files

So let’s get back to June 5, 1973. As you may recall, several weeks before that date, a special agent (SA in FBI vernacular) representing the FBI’s Cincinnati field office investigated a possible lead that had been called in about the Tammen case. The caller had suggested that a man who worked at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, OH, was Tammen. The SA, whom I’ve met, and who is incredibly nice and unbelievably helpful, paid a visit to Blue Ash on the same day the FBI received the call. In addition to filing a report, the SA’s boss in Cincinnati sent the Welco guy’s prints to the Identification Division at FBI Headquarters and asked them to compare those prints with Tammen’s fingerprints that they had on file to see if there might be a match. There wasn’t, but, in my view, it was that innocent and responsible act in which an SA and his boss, who were simply following protocol, brought about what happened on the fifth of June. (If you haven’t read the earlier blog post—or even if it’s just been a while since you have—I’d encourage you to reread it, since it supplies a lot of the details.)

What happened on the fifth of June? That was the day that a civil servant with the initials MSL removed documents contained in Ron Tammen’s missing person file from the Identification Division. Yep, that’s right. On that Tuesday, MSL walked over to Ron’s file, made notations that those documents were to be “Removed from Ident files,” jotted his or her initials on nearly every document, and, well…who knows what else. Mind you, I have no beef with MSL. I’m sure MSL was a hard worker and a team player. In fact, if you look closely at the May 22, 1973, response memo to the Cincinnati office from Headquarters, MSL has initialed the line next to the name Thompson in the list of FBI higher-ups. That particular Thompson would have been Fletcher Thompson, who headed up the Identification Division at that time. Therefore, I’m guessing MSL was Thompson’s assistant and just following instructions. For example, that same May 22 memo suggested that “MP placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.” That’s probably what MSL was up to: bringing Ron’s missing person file up to date. [Note: if you or someone you know should happen to be MSL, please contact me. I’m dying to talk to you. Dyyyyyyyyyyiiiiiiiinnnnng.]

A large stamp also stands out on many of these pages. It says “Referred to Records Branch for” and provides two options: “Main File” and “79-1,” the latter of which is the Missing Person classification. Interestingly, Main File is the option they’ve checked. I would have thought they’d go with the other one.

The question I’ve been asking everyone who might have been in the vicinity of the Ident or Records Management Divisions at that time is: Why did they do this? Was it considered normal protocol, even if a missing person hasn’t been found? Was it something that’s done after a person has been missing for, say, 20 years? If the Identification Division is responsible for overseeing missing persons cases for the FBI—and it is—why would a missing person file for someone who was still missing be moved out of Identification?

Before I share with you some of the insights that were provided to me, I need to let you know that things today have obviously changed since 1973. As of 1992, the Identification Division is now known as Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS—pronounced SEE-jis), which is the largest division of the FBI, and located in Clarksburg, WV. CJIS maintains fingerprint data along with other biometric data, and it oversees other high-tech initiatives as well. There aren’t manual files anymore. Also, the missing person program has been rolled into the National Crime Information Center database, or NCIC. NCIC is available to law enforcement representatives across the country, mostly for finding people who are charged with committing a crime, but also for locating missing persons. Although NCIC began on a limited basis in January 1967 and grew from there, missing persons information wasn’t added to the database until 1975, two years after Ron’s file was ostensibly removed from Ident.

Also this: just because someone speaks to me on background doesn’t mean that they’re going to be giving up the family jewels. People are inclined to support the actions of the agency for whom they’ve given the best years of their lives. I get that. Nevertheless, everyone I spoke with tried to answer my questions honestly, and if they didn’t know and were just guessing, they said so. Also, if something didn’t mesh with how they remembered things to work, they said that too.

Included below are excerpts of summaries of discussions I had with three subject matter experts in Q&A fashion. No one is quoted directly here. Two experts had strong ties with the Identification Division and/or CJIS and one was with Records Management for many years.

What information is stored in NCIC?

NCIC is nothing but descriptive data. It might include identifying numbers, the person’s name, aliases, the date of birth, height, weight, color of hair, color of eyes, and descriptions of scars, marks and tattoos, though not pictures. A picture can now be stored, but, at this point, not searched. There are no fingerprints stored in NCIC. There is, however, a link from NCIC to NGI, which is the FBI’s very powerful Next Generation Identification system that includes biometric data, including fingerprints. If a person’s fingerprints are searched with NGI, then NGI can tap into NCIC to see if there’s a warrant on that person or if they’ve been listed as missing.

Would the kinds of documents I obtained through FOIA—the letters between Ron’s parents and Hoover, etc.—be stored in NCIC?

Ron’s missing person documents would not be stored in NCIC. If Ron’s case was entered into NCIC, only the above descriptive information would have been entered.

How can I find out if Ron Tammen was entered into NCIC?

The law enforcement agency that took the initial missing person report would be responsible for entering the case into NCIC. Usually, the submitting entity is local police, however, in Tammen’s case it was the Cleveland office of the FBI, which tends to complicate matters. One expert is doubtful that Tammen’s case was entered into NCIC due to the length of time since his disappearance and he felt it would have been of low priority among all of the other cases they had to enter during the transition to NCIC.

I should note here that, in 2015, I’d filed a FOIA request to the FBI to see if there were any criminal records on Ron in NCIC, and that search came up empty. However, one thing I’ve learned through these discussions is that NCIC has a historical file, which is separate and offline from the NCIC database. It contains nearly all the records that were ever entered into NCIC and that are no longer active. To the best of my knowledge, the historical file has never been checked for Ronald Tammen-related records.

Tell me more about the NCIC historical file.

There are two parts to the historical file. Not only is there a database of virtually every record that was ever in the system but there’s also a database of every transaction that ever went through the system. A transaction is simply a record of an action that was taken, including a search. This means that I could potentially find out if any police department ever ran a search on Ronald Tammen, which is one of the FOIAs I intend to submit. Incidentally, the NCIC historical file seems like a hidden gem/best-kept-secret of the FBI that I think more people need to know about and use. Note that it’s important to specify which of the two databases you’re inquiring about—the historic records or the historic transactions—to help narrow things down.

How long are missing person files normally retained in NCIC?

The records are kept forever unless the submitting entity removes it.

What are the most common reasons for removal of a missing person record from the NCIC database?

By far, the most common reason for removal of an NCIC missing person record is that the missing person has been located, either alive or deceased. There should be a record of the transaction that removed the online record, however it wouldn’t contain information as to the reason for the removal. Records can also be removed by either the state agency that manages the state system or the CJIS staff, but such removals are rare. If the person is found by the agency that took the original missing person report, they could simply cancel the record.

Where would my FOIA docs have been kept?

The missing person record is placed in the General File, which is maintained by the Records Management Division. If there’s a fingerprint, it’s maintained in the fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division. The file will remain with Records Management until it’s destroyed based on the agency’s destruction schedule.

Note that many of the Tammen FOIA documents have a stamp that says in all caps: RETAIN PERMANENTLY IN IDENT JACKET: 358406B, which supports the notion that the fingerprint jacket was in Identification, though it also appears that at least some of the documents (e.g., the ones with the stamp on them) were kept in that jacket as opposed to (or in addition to) Records Management. However, the memo dated May 22, 1973 states at the bottom: “MP, who has been missing since April, 1953, may be ident with FBI # 358 406 B. This record consists of one personal identification fgpt card taken in 1941,” which is consistent with the preceding paragraph.

5-22-73

What do you think was “Removed from Ident” on 6-5-73?

 This question has everyone stumped. My Identification experts have said “the fingerprint card IS the Ident record.” Their interpretation of the statement was that the fingerprints had been removed from Ident in 1973, so they wondered: if the fingerprints were removed in 1973, what did they expunge in 2002, unless there were two sets of prints? Suffice it to say that, at least at this point, I’ve found no one with an inkling of an idea what records MSL was referring to.

Are you aware of any policy by which, once 20 years go by, the FBI is no longer looking for a missing person?

Among these experts, in addition to several others I’ve spoken with, no one can recall a 20-year rule in closing a missing person case. With regards to the NCIC and missing persons, retention is until the entering agency removes it. There is no life cycle for a record in the NCIC system for a missing person.

What can you tell me about the Missing Person File Room?

On some of the FOIA documents, you may have noticed that a stamp has been crossed out, saying: “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room,” followed by a space for the room number. The October 1967 letter from Hoover to Ron’s father regarding whether the soldier in an AP photo could be Ron Jr. contains the stamp and specifies room 1126.

10-11-67

To date, none of the experts I’ve spoken with in Identification or Records Management knows anything about the Ident Missing Person File Room. One person guessed that all civil fingerprints might have been stored in that room, including military prints, but it was just a guess, and that person was outnumbered by everyone else I’ve ever interviewed on the topic. The overwhelming majority of sources have said that there were only two categories of fingerprint files—criminal and civil—and missing person fingerprints were stored with criminal fingerprints since that was the most active file against which to check incoming prints. Just to hammer this point home, do you want to try a fun experiment? Type “Missing Person File Room” into Google, and see what pops up. As of this morning, the only links and images you’ll see will point to this blog site. The phrase isn’t mentioned anywhere else on the web.

Interestingly, the expert in Records Management pointed out a notation on the May 26, 1953, report that had never before registered with me. It said: “Copy of photo filed in 1126 Ident 6-5-73,” and it was signed by our friend MSL. Then, near the bottom, the familiar: “Removed from Ident files 6-5-73,” again, signed by MSL. As I’ve pointed out from another document, room 1126 was the Missing Person File Room. It seemed curious to her that they’d be filing the photo in 1126 if they were removing documents from that same room on the same day.

She’s right—it is curious.

5-26-53

As I was writing this blog post, I was planning to wrap things up at this point, thus putting the finishing touches on perhaps one of the dullest, most disappointing updates ever. But then I remembered a book I have, titled Unlocking the Files of the FBI, by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart. There, in a brief introductory section on “The FBI Record-keeping System,” I found a possible clue about the Missing Person File Room. On page xiii, paragraph 5, it says:

In 1948, Hoover established at FBI headquarters Special File Rooms [emphasis added] to hold “all Files that have an unusually confidential or peculiar background…including all obscene enclosures.” In general, material placed in the Special File Rooms included what was known as June Mail [jw: June Mail is later described as “most sensitive sources”], ELSUR documents [jw: ELSUR was defined as electronic surveillance], informant files, and sensitive records on Bureau employees and prominent people, as well as on undercover operations and foreign-source information. The field offices also have special file rooms for informant and ELSUR materials.

 Wouldn’t it be just like Hoover to create innocuous sounding “File Rooms”—capitalized and pluralized—to hold records that are “unusually confidential or peculiar” or, one of Hoover’s favorite categories, obscene? A File Room for extremely sensitive missing person cases would explain why no one I’ve spoken with had heard of it. I’m sure not everyone was privy to its existence. Someone in Ident probably stumbled upon it at the time they were checking into whether the Welco guy could be Ronald Tammen, and the alarm bells went off. Someone at the top may have asked “What are those hot-potato documents doing in there anyway?” and then barked “Get me MSL on the phone.”

Because I’ve just discovered the existence of the Special File Rooms, I haven’t had time to contact any sources about it. But trust me, come tomorrow morning, I will.

Some closing thoughts…

So where does all this lead us? Here are my main conclusions based on everything I’ve presented here mixed in with a few earlier findings:

–Even though some info on the FOIA documents may suggest otherwise, I believe that there wasn’t anything in the Identification Division’s fingerprint jacket for Ronald Tammen other than Ron’s fingerprint card, submitted in 1941.

–I believe Ron’s fingerprint jacket was initially in the civil file when his prints were first submitted in 1941, but it was added to the criminal file after Ron was listed as a missing person in 1953.

–I think those fingerprints remained in that jacket and were digitized in the 1990s after Ident became CJIS. I believe it was those prints that were purged in 2002.

–I don’t believe there was any such protocol in which the FBI would remove missing person files from Identification after 20 years had passed.

–I believe that the FOIA records I received had been maintained in Records Management from the beginning.

–As far as which documents were “removed from Ident,” I think it must have been whatever was being stored in the Missing Person File Room. Perhaps there were duplicate files of what was in Records Management, but I think there were other documents as well. Based on the 5/9/73 memo, we know that at least one document from 12/19/58 is referenced but missing from my FOIA documents.

–I think that the Missing Person File Room stored files that were somehow sensitive in nature about Ron’s case. I also think that Ron’s case continued to have a file in there, even after documents had been removed. As the expert in Records Management pointed out, even though files were removed from the Missing Person File Room on 6-5-73, a copy of his photo was filed in that room that same day.

–I believe that it was the Cincinnati field office’s request for Ident to compare the Welco employee’s fingerprints with Ron’s prints that triggered Ident to remove whatever was in the Missing Person File Room, thus leading to this clue. (Thank you, Cincinnati!)

For years, I’ve been trying to figure out if there were breaches in protocol regarding how the FBI handled Ron’s missing person case. I think we’ve finally found one. If the Missing Person File Room held potentially sensitive documents concerning Ron’s case, that would elevate it to something far more than just a ho-hum missing person case. And guys, that’s what keeps me going.

 

FOIA follies

(or…how I came to learn about a little-known, upper-tier CIA official through a run-of-the-mill FOIA request)

Top-Secret-glossy

So guys…I’ve been blogging for a little over a year and a half on Ron Tammen, and I think by now most readers would agree that, even though there’s still more information to be revealed, we know a lot more than when we did at the get-go. I think most readers also have a fairly decent idea of how tough it can be to get ahold of some of this information, since not everyone has been forthcoming. Sometimes an embarrassing amount of chutzpah has been required to pry certain bits of info from certain entities’ filing cabinets.

Take the FBI, for example. I’ve already posted several updates that let you know about the kinds of tactics that are employed by their Freedom of Information/Privacy Act (FOIPA) Office. Alas, I’m sorry to say that I’ve developed a hard-shelled cynicism through it all and have come to view many of their responses to my inquiries on Tammen (or Tammen-related topics) as bluffs, smokescreens, or flat-out, um, departures from the truth. My forever goal is to find the crack in whatever tale they’re telling.

Case in point #1: the 1631 pages of documents that they somehow forgot about during my initial FOIA request for the Richard Cox files.

When I first submitted my request for everything the FBI had on Richard Cox’s disappearance, they sent me 24 pages of documents and left it at that. Only when I realized two years later that two other researchers had received tons more documents than I had, and pointed that fact out to them, did the Department of Justice send me three CDs filled with 1631 pages. There was no letter of apology or explanation for their error—just a here-ya-go, I-guess-you-caught-us sort of response. This leads me to ask: If you happen to be a plain old taxpaying citizen on the outside looking in, who doesn’t have a hefty slush fund for the sole purpose of hiring FOIA lawyers, how do you know if what they’re sending you is all that they have? Answer: you don’t (#alwaysappeal).

Case in point #2: their shifting reasons for sending me Ron Tammen’s documents.

As you may recall, a supposedly hard and fast rule of the FBI is that they won’t send you documents concerning another person without proof of death or authorization from that third party. (They do mention a “public interest” caveat, but it’s hard to tell how they define that category, and they never agree with my assertions that anything I’m doing holds any interest for the public.) For some reason, they’d sent me Ron Tammen’s documents without either a proof of death or third-party authorization. When I tried to find out why, a representative of the FBI first conveyed to me through a liaison that they’d sent me Tammen’s documents because “…over the years the FBI had contact with his family who indicated that they believed Mr. Tammen to be deceased given some suspicious facts, namely, that after his disappearance a fish was found in his college bed.” When I pursued that dubious explanation further with the FBI rep by phone, he said it was just a poor attempt at humor and that he’d been referring to a famous scene from The Godfather. I knew I’d caught him in a lie, so my lawyer pressed them on that issue during my lawsuit’s settlement process. We were informed in writing that “The FBI inadvertently accepted plaintiff’s third-party request despite the fact that it is the FBI’s policy not to process third party requests in the absence of a policy waiver, proof of death or a showing of sufficient public notoriety. Based on the administrative records available to us, we have determined that the reason [the Record/Information Dissemination Section] proceeded with this request, despite its deficiencies, is that it treated the request as a request for a missing person investigation.”

I’ll admit that that excuse got by me in 2012, but as I was going through all of the back-and-forth with them in seeking an answer to whether or not they’d already confirmed Tammen to be dead, I revisited their settlement declaration. Not having any idea what a “request for a missing person investigation” was and how that differed from my FOIA request, I asked my lawyer about it. He suggested I do some online research and, if I found nothing, to submit a FOIA request on that question. In September 2016, I submitted a FOIA request seeking “policy documents that describe the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section’s protocol when handling requests from the public pertaining to a ‘missing person investigation.’” Just to make sure we were discussing the same timeframe, I then added: “If the protocol has changed in the recent past, I am interested in the protocol that was in place in 2010.” I didn’t refer to my lawsuit, because I knew what they’d say: We don’t have to address any more questions about your silly little lawsuit. Several weeks later, I received their response: “Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIA.” Yeah, I didn’t think they would.

Yet, the FBI has been a cup of honey-sweetened chamomile tea when compared to dealing with the CIA. Many of you who have predicted some sort of CIA connection in Tammen’s disappearance will be pleased to know that I’ve been submitting FOIA requests to them since I began my research, and more earnestly beginning in 2014. I get it—they have a lot of secrets they need to keep to protect our national security. But I also think that they tend to overdo it in the classification department, long after everyone involved has died and programs have been shelved. I mean, if it takes them 50 years to declassify a high school student’s praline recipe, that just tells me that their rule of thumb with FOIA is to turn over as little as humanly possible.

Occasionally, however, they will send something your way, which brings me to our topic for today’s blog: a little-known CIA employee during the late 1940s and early ’50s by the name of Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. What I’m about to share with you is breaking news. As far as I can tell, the internet has not yet had access to this information. He’s not even mentioned in the CIA’s FOIA Reading Room. However, Williams’ name was provided to me courtesy of the CIA in response to one of my FOIA requests. It carries some degree of intrigue for the Tammen case, particularly given the department he represented, which was the Office of Scientific Intelligence, or OSI. (Fyi, “Cmdr.” is an abbreviation for commander in the U.S. Navy. The Air Force also has a commander rank, but the abbreviation they use is CC.)

I’m posting this information now so that you can see what I’ve been up against for the past several years. The way I view things is: If I can contribute to the greater good by offering up a bit of background information for the Google algorithms to chew on so that this blog post will pop up whenever someone runs a search for Cmdr. Robert J. Williams, then it will be well worth it. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. (The more a term is mentioned on a website, the higher the ranking Google will give it in a keyword search, right?) Cmdr. Robert J. Williams!

So what does this stealth commander have to do with Ronald Tammen? Back in July 2014, I found a CIA memo that I consider pivotal to the Tammen case. On that document are three names—all blacked out—that I would even call the smoking gun regarding what happened to Tammen (or as close to a smoking gun as I’m going to get). I am 100 percent certain of the identity of one of the persons on that memo and 99 percent sure of the second person. (I’ve changed my mind about the third person, but he really doesn’t pertain to our story anyway.) In August of that year, I filed a FOIA request asking that those names be released to the public because the men were deceased, and I sent some obituaries along as proof. They came back and said (and I paraphrase here), no. They did so on the basis of Section 6 of the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, as amended, and Section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended. The latter statute doesn’t say much of anything except for establishing the Central Intelligence Agency. The former statute, however, says this (bold added):

SEC. 6. [50 U.S.C. 403g] In the interests of the security of the foreign intelligence activities of the United States and in order further to implement section 102A(i) of the National Security Act of 1947 that the Director of National Intelligence shall be responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure, the Agency shall be exempted from the provisions of sections 1 and 2, chapter 795 of the Act of August 28, 1935 1 (49 Stat. 956, 957; 5 U.S.C. 654), and the provisions of any other laws which require the publication or disclosure of the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency: Provided, That in furtherance of this section, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall make no reports to the Congress in connection with the Agency under section 607, title VI, chapter 212 of the Act of June 30, 1945, as amended 1 (5 U.S.C. 947(b)).

I’m no lawyer, but this seems to tell me that all three individuals whose names were redacted in the memo had worked for the CIA at some point in their lives. The CIA’s FOIA Office did offer up a consolation prize. They lifted the black bar off of the person in the “To” line of the memo to reveal our friend Cmdr. Robert J. Williams, OSI.

Seriously bummed at my failed attempt, I decided to follow the new lead and submitted a FOIA request to the CIA for Commander Williams’ personal bio plus any personnel/human resources files they had on him. As back-up, I referred to the memo and how I’d recently learned that he was the memo’s recipient. When I received their response—from the same person who sent me the memo with Cmdr. Robert J. Williams’ name unredacted—I had to laugh. Here’s what he said:

“Although you have provided some of the identifying information required, before we can effectively search our files on an individual, we still need additional data before we can begin processing your request. Specifically, we require the individual’s full name, date and place of birth, and date and place of death. Without this data, we may be unable to distinguish between individuals with the same or similar names.”

Now, they knew darn well which Robert J. Williams I was referring to. The one who was a commander in the Navy. The one who was high up in the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence. The one whom they’d just been discussing regarding whether they should release his name or not, and ultimately determined the answer to be OK. But no. They wanted me to try to figure out when and where the guy with the extraordinarily ordinary name of Robert Williams was born and when and where he died. For all I knew, his name wasn’t even real. The CIA gives its undercover operatives fake names, so why not its higher-ups? It even refers to itself as a cryptonym on occasion. (See KUBARK, WOFACT, BKCROWN, PALP, etc.)

I made use of my genealogy resources to find out who this guy might be. The biggest and best clue was a 1948 declassified document that had originally been posted on the website of the nonprofit organization National Security Archive. (Because it was taken down at some point, I’ve made a copy for this site.) The document told me that his middle name wasn’t John or James or any of the typical “J” names I was trying out in my searches. It was Jay, which, thank heavens, isn’t as common. I now knew that his name was Commander Robert Jay Williams.

And with that, I eventually landed on this little gem of an obit in the Danville (VA) Bee:

Robert Jay Williams burial
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Danville (VA) Register & Bee

The obituary listed him as a captain, which would mean that he’d been promoted from commander. It also didn’t provide his birthplace, but that would be easy enough to find now that I had all of the other information. Funny how the CIA wasn’t mentioned anywhere, but that’s probably institutional policy.

That same month, I let the CIA folks know that the Cmdr. Robert J. Williams about whom I was inquiring was the one who was born in Spokane, WA, in 1913 and who died in Bethesda, MD, in 1969, just shy of his 56th birthday.

Here are the specifics:

Name: Robert Jay Williams

Date of birth: 11/12/1913

Place of birth: Spokane, Washington

Date of death: 10/25/1969

Place of death: Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Md.

By then, I’d also discovered that Commander Williams, who also went by R.J. Williams, was one of a handful of individuals who attended an infamous high-level meeting in Montreal in June of 1951. The meeting concerned a “top-secret” CIA program having to do with “all aspects of special interrogation.” A paper by Alfred W. McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, mentions Williams on page 404, in the first paragraph under “Our Man in Montreal.” The entire manuscript is worth devoting some time to, but at the very least, we know that a memo that I believe contains a name that is relevant to the Tammen case is addressed to a high-level CIA official who is interested in “all aspects of special interrogation.” That’s not nothing, right?

And what of the memo? I was told by one of the best lawyers on intelligence matters that it wouldn’t do any good for me to sue the CIA based on the specific exemptions they’re claiming. I had virtually zero chance of winning. Fortunately, as back-up, I’ve found another memo in which I’m relatively certain—probably a 50/50 mix of confidence and hope—that my person of interest’s name is on it, though it’s also heavily redacted. I’m currently seeking the release of his and another person’s name, although this time, I’m employing a different mechanism than FOIA. FOIA has failed me far too many times. We’ll discuss the alternative mechanism on another day.

In the meantime, for researchers who have landed on this page because you’re interested in learning more about Commander Robert Jay Williams, here are some newly released documents for you to peruse.

Also, I’m including a link to this article from The Onion once again, because I think it’s hilarious and totally apropos.

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

The floor is now open for comments. Please be aware that comments will be reviewed and posted as soon as I’m able, though there may be a wait.

Also, if you’d like to comment on the preceding post on Ron Tammen’s sexual orientation, here are my ground rules: I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the evidence I presented or other related musings you’ve had that pertain to the topic. But please, no divisive language and no grandstanding on religion, your views on morality, and the like. Oh, and let’s not get into a nature/nurture debate, OK? Let’s keep comments focused on Ron. Lastly, please try to use terminology that doesn’t offend. Just fyi, here’s the latest guidance from GLAAD. Thanks!

A dead body in Georgia

(and other perfectly good clues that were ignored by investigators)

blank headstone
Photo credit: Matthias Zomer at Pexels (cropped image)

By now, I think you should have a pretty good indication of how (in my opinion) the city of Oxford, Ohio, and Miami University conducted their investigations into Tammen’s disappearance. I’ll say it here plainly, just so there’s no confusion: They did a really bad job.

Time and again, investigators would lament in the news about what few clues they had to go on after Tammen disappeared. Sure, they’d received some early tips about several area hitchhikers and an apartment dweller in Cincinnati, but none of those panned out. Then, Clara Spivey came forward with her alleged late-night Ron sighting in Seven Mile, and they finally felt as if they had a true lead. (In response to one reader’s request, we’ll be discussing Mrs. Spivey’s story in more detail in another post that I’m planning for Tuesday, November 6. You’ll have a chance to vote on whether you believe the person who appeared at her door was Ron or not.**)

After Mrs. Spivey’s call in late June 1953, investigators hit another dry spell clue-wise, which supposedly lasted 20 long years. In 1973, the drought ended, at least for the interested public, when reporter Joe Cella revealed that Ronald Tammen had visited Dr. Garret Boone’s office five months before he disappeared to have his blood type tested. We also learned that university officials had already known about the doctor’s visit shortly after Tammen went missing. They just didn’t view it as a clue.

So, Mrs. Spivey’s story? Definite clue.

Dr. Boone’s? Not so much.

When it came to determining whether something was a potential clue or not, these guys were (again, my opinion) clueless.

We’ve already covered some additional details about Tammen’s disappearance that I would categorize as clues. Some of the most significant ones include:

  • Song practice

    Ron is alleged to have been to song practice at the Delt house the night he disappeared and had walked back to the dorms with two other guys at around 10:30 p.m. If true, Ron disappeared more than two hours later than what was widely reported.

  • The fight

    Ron allegedly had a fight with his younger brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom of Fisher Hall the night he disappeared.

  • The woman from Hamilton

    Ron was supposedly seen seated in a car with a woman from Hamilton for a long time and then driving away with her late that night.

  • The psych book

    Ron had been reported reading his psychology book the afternoon that he disappeared, and his psychology book was left open on his desk, even though he’d dropped his psychology course earlier that semester.

  • The things in Ron’s background

    Ron Tammen might have had “things in his background” that were consistent with his having experienced dissociation (amnesia).

  • The dead fish

    Ron likely hadn’t slept in his bed at least one night, and possibly two, before his disappearance. We know this because Dick Titus had put the fish in Ron’s bed after class on Saturday or perhaps even Friday.

All of the above (and probably more) were known by university officials and Oxford police. If they viewed these details as clues, they chose not to make them public. But from what I can tell, they didn’t do much more than the most perfunctory of probes either. In particular, they could have pursued the rumor about the woman from Hamilton more enthusiastically, enlisting the news media for help. The Journal-News could have run the headline “Tammen allegedly last seen in car with woman from Hamilton,” and the accompanying article could have closed with “Anyone with information is asked to call this number.” But, nah.

And, let’s not forget Heber Hiram (H.H.) Stephenson, the housing official who swore up and down that he’d seen Tammen sitting in a hotel restaurant with a small group of men in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. Stephenson had shared this information with university officials immediately upon his return—the next day, he said—and we see the cryptic “H.H.S., Aug. 5, 1953, Wellsville, New York” in Knox’s notes to confirm that a conversation had indeed taken place. Again, if it hadn’t been for Joe Cella revealing the detail in 1976, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now.

HHS Note

So I have to ask: If the potential sighting by Mrs. Spivey was such a promising clue back on June 29, 1953, when it was first reported in the news, why wouldn’t H.H. Stephenson’s potential sighting have been considered just as promising when he reported it on August 6, about five weeks later? Hi Stephenson knew Ron. Clara Spivey didn’t.

And I have to follow with this question: Did university officials even think to alert the FBI about Stephenson’s story? On May 26, 1953, the FBI had a missing person file on Tammen, and roughly one week earlier, Carl Knox had informed Tammen’s parents that the FBI had been attending faculty conferences. Also, by July 27, 1953, Ron was listed as delinquent for his draft board physical, and therefore, in violation of the Selective Service Act. Carl Knox should have called them—immediately—and reported that an acquaintance of Ronald Tammen’s was quite sure he’d spotted him at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, the previous day. The FBI could have summoned their Buffalo office to check things out, and the Buffalo agents, in turn, could have shown the proprietor Ron’s picture and asked if anyone had seen him. They could have checked the hotel’s registry for the names of the young men. They could have asked if anyone had spoken with them, and if so, why were they there? Where were they going? Heck, if Knox had told them soon enough, the FBI could have possibly even dusted the lookalike’s chair for fingerprints, or, if he’d stayed overnight, the furniture in his room. But judging from the Stephenson quote in Joe Cella’s article, he was never approached again. Here’s what he told Cella: “I was under the impression all these years that my story was generally known by everyone, since Dr. Knox knew about it and was handling the investigation for the university. I am amazed to hear that this information was not known until now.” There’s nothing in the FBI files to indicate such a report was called in either.

So, again, Mrs. Spivey? Clue!

H.H. Stephenson? Better luck next time!

Which brings us to the spring of 1955, two years after Ronald Tammen’s disappearance, when Miami University received yet another potential clue in the Tammen case. Again, by all indications, officials promptly chose to sweep it under the rug.

The clue came in the form of a letter dated May 10, 1955, and addressed to: “Dean of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.” As vaguely worded as that was, it must have found its way to Carl Knox, who was still dean of men at that time, and several copies can be found in the Tammen materials at University Archives. The letter was signed by Major Delmar Jones, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Major Jones told of a dead body that had been found near LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953. The GBI, having received a news clipping about Tammen, was wondering if the body might have been Ron’s.

Here’s what the letter said:

Dear Sir:

A newspaper clipping was turned over to this Bureau several days ago by Mr. Hill Pope, the coroner of Walker County, Georgia. We do not know from whom this clipping came but it has reference to a young man by the name of RONALD TAMMEN, a nineteen year old sophomore who disappeared from your institution approximately two years ago.

Someone had evidently secured knowledge whereby we were trying to identify a badly decomposed body that was found on the outskirts of LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953.

This investigation is still pending, and we are still endeavoring to ascertain the identification of this body.

It will be appreciated very much if you will give us the full details and complete description of Ronald Tammen so that we may compare them with the identification of the unidentified body.

Your response to this communication will be appreciated very much and we will do everything in our power to assist in locating the subject Ronald Tammen if he should be in our territory.

Yours very truly,

Delmar Jones, Major – Director

GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

[View a copy of the original.]

Delmar Jones was Georgia’s number one law enforcement official from 1948 to 1962, and not someone to be taken lightly. (In 1962, he was demoted to trooper by the governor for campaigning for the former governor in a primary election, which, I suppose, was a risk he’d been willing to take.) Granted, H.H. Stephenson and Garret Boone weren’t slouches either. But you’d have to think that a letter from Georgia’s version of J. Edgar Hoover would have elicited some sort of response from the university.

I have no idea if Carl Knox or anyone else got back to Major Jones. In Miami’s archives, there are no carbon copies of letters mailed in reply. Perhaps Dean Knox placed a phone call to Major Jones, suggesting that the GBI contact the FBI, although no surviving FOIA documents indicate that contact had been made. (As a side note, Ron’s Selective Service case with the FBI was closed on April 29, 1955, 11 days before the GBI letter was written.) Or maybe officials called Major Jones and provided a full accounting of the case over the phone, but the GBI ruled Ron out for some reason and didn’t follow up with anyone. By all accounts, no one seemed to mention the letter to Joe Cella, Gil Wright, or Murray Seeger, since there are no news reports about a dead body in Georgia being possibly tied to Tammen’s case. I don’t even think the university bothered to tell the Oxford police. When I asked my friend Ralph (not his real name), the former cop who was still with the Oxford PD that year and several years after, he was surprised—stunned, actually—to hear about the letter.

So, once more: Confused guy on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared?

👍👍👍

Dead body found in ditch 400 miles south of Oxford two months later?

👎

Here’s what we can safely assume: no one went to the lengths that officials went to in late 2007 and early 2008 when, on their own, without even initially knowing about Delmar Jones’ letter, the Walker County, Georgia’s, Sheriff’s Office hypothesized that the two cold cases might be related.

It happened like this:

Mike Freeman, the cold case detective for Walker County, was conducting an end-of-the-year review of unsolved cases in his portfolio when his boss, Sheriff Steve Wilson, posed a question to him.

“What about that dead body found in a ravine back in 1953?” Wilson asked him (or something along those lines). Wilson wasn’t around when the dead body was discovered—he was born several years later—but his dad used to tell him about it, and he can point out the location to anyone who asks. To this day, people in the area refer to the site as Dead Man’s Hollow.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_70b
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson stands next to the site where the dead body was found in 1953.

Freeman didn’t know anything about the case, but the story intrigued him. The department no longer had a file, so, for starters, he headed to the local library (which, conveniently, is just a few buildings away from the sheriff’s department) and found news articles that ran at the time the body was found. Based on information found in the articles, he learned that an autopsy was conducted by the state medical examiner’s office, which, thankfully, he was able to obtain. [Read the full autopsy report here.]

The details, provided in news accounts and the autopsy, aren’t pretty. The body was found in a highly decomposed state in a wooded ravine off Rogers Road, five miles south of LaFayette, on June 24, 1953. According to Dr. Herman Jones, director of the GBI crime lab (and probably no relation to Delmar, but who really knows?), it was “heavily infested from head to foot with maggots and other worms,” a sure sign that the man had been dead for a while. What was left of his face (which, by that point, was devoid of soft tissue and therefore any recognizable features) was angled upward, toward the sky, and his arms and legs were fully extended, kind of like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

Some features were still discernible. His hair was dark brown to black, his height was 5’9,” and, when he was alive, and still had all of his internal organs and tissues in place, his weight would have been around 150 pounds. He had long arms and long slender fingers from which extended nails that were also long and “apparently well kept,” according to Dr. Jones, who’d conducted the autopsy on the same day the body was found. The decedent’s teeth weren’t as well cared for as his nails. Two lower back molars had large cavities in them and several teeth had been extracted. “No dental work done,” Dr. Jones reported, which could be interpreted to mean that he didn’t have any fillings or crowns. There was no evidence that any of the bones in his body had been broken, either recently or in the past. He was estimated to be between 25 and 30 years of age.

The man was wearing only a white T-shirt, size 38, with four round holes in it, and boxer shorts, size 32, the kind with buttons up the fly and a drawstring around the waist. Two khaki-colored wool socks lay at his feet. One sock lay near where his left foot should have been—it was missing, as were the toes on his right foot—and the other sock lay between his straddled legs. (Dr. Jones blamed an animal for the missing foot.) The shorts and socks were military-issue—U.S. Army. A quarter-inch-wide rubber band encircled each ankle, most likely to blouse the bottom of each pant leg, a common practice of G.I.s so that the full boot shows underneath. As for the man’s boots and pants, they were nowhere to be found, but, based on the items that had been left behind, it was clear that he was probably a soldier. What wasn’t clear was how the man died, though officials presumed it was a homicide. According to the sheriff at that time, the holes in his T-shirt were about the size of .38-caliber bullets, however Dr. Jones found no broken bones or skull damage and no evidence of foreign bodies.

The GBI also conducted an investigation (hence Delmar Jones’ letter), and they exhumed the body a second time after the autopsy for additional analysis, including obtaining fingerprints. The Army conducted an investigation as well. Unfortunately, neither have been able to produce records on the case.

Freeman went on the internet—something they obviously didn’t have in 1953—and searched for missing persons from that year. He immediately discovered the treasure trove of websites discussing the Tammen case (except, alas, for this one, which obviously came later). Freeman noted that both LaFayette and Oxford were on U.S. Route 27, and, in fact, the dead soldier was discovered only about 200 yards away from the highway. If Ron had been hitchhiking to Florida, he thought, it was the best possible route to take, since there was no interstate system back then. Ron’s height, weight, and hair color seemed to be in the ballpark too, and his age wasn’t too far off. Ron wasn’t in the Army, but who’s to say that he didn’t enlist after he left Miami? It was worth a shot.

Freeman contacted Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective at that time, and the two decided to make use of another new technology—DNA testing—to determine if the dead man was Tammen. On February 8, 2008, Freeman, Wilson, and Smith, along with Georgia’s chief medical examiner, GBI’s forensic anthropologist, Walker County’s coroner, members of the media, and curious onlookers witnessed the exhumation of remains buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 206 , Block A, in LaFayette Cemetery. The few bone remnants they obtained were forwarded to the FBI and other facilities for DNA testing. The results would be compared with a DNA sample that had been submitted a couple weeks prior by Tammen’s sister Marcia.

The following June, they got their answer: there was no match. The soldier wasn’t Tammen. It was a big disappointment, but cold case detectives probably get used to these sorts of let-downs. Interestingly, I arrived at the same conclusion in another, more roundabout way. In August 1958, human bones had been found in a gravel pit in Preble County, Ohio, which is about 25 miles north of Oxford. Authorities there had sent bone and teeth samples to Ohio’s Bureau of Identification and Investigation, in New London, for analysis to see if the remains might be Ron’s. (Before DNA testing, dental records were the primary method for identifying unknown victims and they’re still valuable today.)

According to an article in the August 17, 1958, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Preble County sheriff had said that no dental work had been performed on the teeth that they’d unearthed, though, admittedly, the set was incomplete.

The article continued:

 Ronald’s mother, when informed of the find, said that her son had several teeth filled.

“Also, his upper teeth lapped,” she continued, “and he had planned to have them straightened.”

“Furthermore, he had a couple of broken bones that could be identified. When he was three, he got a broken collarbone jumping off a bed. Later, playing football in the street, he broke one of the small bones in one of his hands.”

As you’ll recall, the dead soldier in Georgia appeared to have had no dental work and no evidence of having broken any bones. Plus, there was no mention of an overlap of the front teeth. Based on the fact that Ron had had several fillings plus the overlap plus a couple broken bones, it’s obvious that, even before the DNA test, the person buried in Walker County, Georgia, wasn’t Tammen. The DNA evidence sealed the deal.

Miami and Oxford officials couldn’t have stated the above so unequivocally. In fact, it almost seems as if they’d given up looking for Tammen not long after he disappeared. Did someone in a position of authority tell them to stop their investigation? I wonder.

*******

Oh, and P.S. As for the dead guy in Georgia, could it have been Richard Cox? I wonder about that sometimes too…

**NOTE: For those who prefer to vote early, the Mrs. Spivey post is now up! You can find it here: https://ronaldtammen.com/2018/11/01/a-late-night-knock-at-the-door/.

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

 

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

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

Why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a child?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the relevant section here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Welco brass plate
Photo credit: Government Liquidation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The memo ends with this:

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

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

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

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

Removed from Ident files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, Nov. 22, 1963

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

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963

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

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963

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

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

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

Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1963

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

Thursday, Nov. 28, 1963Thanksgiving

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

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

Friday, Nov. 29, 1963

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

August 25, 1955

October 1, 1957

November 16, 1959

October 30, 1961

November 29, 1963

January 19, 1967

October 1, 1970

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

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

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

 

 

The dog handler, the dad, and the director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the photo:

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

 And here’s the caption that ran beneath it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Ronald Tammen cross paths with Richard Colvin Cox?

Richard Cox
Richard C. Cox

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

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

Personal/Family Characteristics

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

Conditions of Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI report
For closer view, click on link

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

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

Page 1:

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

Page 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does their story tell you?

The missing fingerprints, part 4*

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

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

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

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

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

Background:

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

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

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

Questions for Comment:

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

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

IF YES:

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

IF NO:

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

IF YES:

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

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

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

Instead, I received this email:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It opened like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://charleyproject.org/case/ronald-henry-tammen-jr

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Fred?”

“Yeah, Barney?”

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

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

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

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

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

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