I have a couple pieces of news for you. First, the FBI responded to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Lyndal Ashby’s Additional Record Sheets yesterday.
Lyndal Ashby’s Additional Record Sheets
For those who need some refreshing, Lyndal Ashby is the name of a young man who’d gone missing seven years after Ron Tammen. Ashby was 22 when he’d disappeared in 1960 from Hartford, KY, a town of roughly 2700 people on the western side of the state. His story is different from Ron’s. He was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. According to Ashby’s obituary, after he’d gone missing, it was learned that he’d been living under a new name in California and had died on April 11, 1990. He had a family.
Although Ashby was cremated and his ashes were strewn in the Pacific Ocean, near the Golden Gate Bridge, his family erected a memorial to Lyndal in Walton’s Creek Church Cemetery, in Centertown, KY—the town where he was born and where he’d graduated from high school.
Ashby’s case had nothing to do with the CIA or hypnosis or any of the curious details we’ve discussed regarding Tammen’s case. However, the two cases did have at least two things in common. First, J. Edgar Hoover was very much at the helm of the FBI when both men disappeared. Second, both men had their fingerprints on file with the FBI’s Identification Division when they’d disappeared. Theoretically, the FBI protocol that had initially applied to Ron’s fingerprint records—that they be kept until he was 99 years of age—should have applied to Ashby’s fingerprint records too. Since Ashby was born in 1938, the FBI should have his fingerprint records until at least 2037.
That’s why I submitted a FOIA request for Ashby’s Additional Record Sheets. As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this site, Additional Record Sheets were sheets of paper that were part of a person’s fingerprint jacket, attached to the back of their fingerprint cards with two-pronged fasteners. Identification staff would jot down notes on them whenever they performed an action on the file and then place everything back into the fingerprint jacket. When the fingerprint cards were digitized beginning in 1999, so were the Additional Record Sheets.
Here’s what the FBI sent me.
As happy as I was to receive anything at all from them, it’s not what I was hoping for. I was hoping for the sort of document that’s in this photo, which I’d captured from an FBI video:
I was hoping for scribbles denoting every potential sighting of Ashby as well as the exact moment when the FBI figured out that he’d changed his name and was living in California.
Instead, I received Ashby’s fingerprints from his time in the military.
Do I think the FBI sent me everything in Ashby’s fingerprint jacket? I do not. Am I going to appeal? I will not.
The reason is that I’m a small person of limited means, and I need to prepare myself for bigger battles. Also, I’ve learned enough from what they’ve sent me. By sending me Lyndal Ashby’s fingerprints, the FBI has let me know something valuable: They didn’t expunge them. They didn’t expunge them when they knew he was no longer missing, and they didn’t expunge them after he died almost 32 years ago.
The FBI appears to be abiding by its record retention schedule and holding onto Lyndal Ashby’s fingerprints until at least the year 2037. (The retention period has since been extended to 110 years, so they may be holding them until then.) They ostensibly didn’t even expunge his fingerprints seven years after his confirmed death, which is part of their retention schedule protocol.
Moreover, the fact that they still have Lyndal Ashby’s fingerprints on file, and not Ron Tammen’s, reinforces the notion that the expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints was due to unusual circumstances.
We already know that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002 due to the Privacy Act or a court order. Some readers have wondered if there might have been a mass expungement of fingerprints when the FBI automated its system beginning in 1999—whether to protect the fingerprint owners or to simply thin out the numbers of prints to be digitized. Although, admittedly, Ashby was deceased by then, I don’t know the precise date when the FBI made that discovery. FBI records that I’ve received indicate that they were still conducting DNA testing for his case in February 2011. Therefore, it’s reasonably safe to conclude that there was no mass expungement of missing persons’ fingerprints sometime around 2002 due to the Privacy Act.
Court-ordered expungements in 2002
My second piece of news has to do with court-ordered expungements. You may recall that, in an effort to figure out the precise reason for Ron’s expungement—was it the Privacy Act or was it a court order?—I’d submitted two FOIA requests to the FBI. In the first, I requested documents associated with the early expungement of fingerprints between 1999 and 2002 on the basis of a court order. In the second, I requested documents pertaining to the early expungement of fingerprints for the same time period due to the Privacy Act. Both FOIA requests resulted in the same response: “Unable to identify records responsive to your request.“
I’ve since refined my request having to do with Privacy Act expungements, and I’m eagerly waiting for the FBI to acknowledge that request, which, I might add, is a thing of beauty. As for the one having to do with a court order, I’ve been letting it lie, since I wasn’t sure where to go next.
And then, last weekend, I put two and two together.
You may recall when I was seeking records from the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office in relation to another aspect of the Tammen case. They’d responded by sending a raft of electronic documents with only subject headings, and one of those documents was titled “COURT ORDERS RE EXPUNGMENT [sic] SHOULD GO TO BCII.” Now, I would very much love to see what the entire document has to say on that topic, and I’ve asked them to declassify it, please and thank you. But I was wondering if something can be determined now, in the meantime, from the subject head alone?
For example, exactly who or what is BCII? At first, I thought it might have been part of the FBI or Department of Justice, but I’ve found no evidence of that. What I later discovered was that the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has a Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), which also has an Identification (I) Section. So they have all the necessary letters. Upon further reading, I learned that Ohio’s BCI handles court-ordered expungements for cases throughout the state of Ohio, in care of the Identification Section, and that the people there work closely with the FBI. It makes total sense that the FBI’s field office in Cincinnati would recommend that court-ordered expungements be sent to Ohio’s BCII.
Over the weekend, I’d submitted a public records request to the Ohio Attorney General’s office seeking “all segregable records pertaining to the expungement of fingerprint records that took place in the year 2002 due to a court order.” Again, I was trying to figure out if they had any court-ordered expungements at all that year, and if not, we could be certain that Ron’s expungement was not due to a court order. Of course, there could also have been 10 or 20 or 50 court-ordered expungements in 2002, in which case I’d be back to square one, not knowing if Ron’s case was among them.
Yesterday morning, I’d just gotten back from my run when I checked my phone and saw that someone had left a voicemail. It was from the chief counsel for Ohio’s BCI, and he’d called seeking more information about my request. I returned his call, expecting to be immediately directed to voicemail or at least to have to run through a menu of choices and button-pushes to reach him, but no. Dude picked up on the first ring.
You guys. You know how I think the people from the National Archives and Records Administration are rock stars when it comes to FOIA? Well, move over, NARA, because the people in the Ohio AG’s office have you beat. NARA had responded to one of my requests the next day, which is super impressive. But Ohio’s chief counsel for the BCI responded to my public records request the very same day.
Now, before I tell you what their response was, let me just say that, in our phone conversation, as I was giving him the specifics, he let me know that they don’t maintain court orders by year. But knowing the person in question was helpful, he said, though, again, he wasn’t sure what information he’d be able to provide. I sent him all of Ron’s identifying information. I also pointed out to him that the AG’s web page on missing persons has a page devoted to Ron.
“Who knows…we may be able to solve your missing person case,” I told him.
At around 3 p.m. yesterday, I received the BCI’s response:
BCI has searched its records for “all segregable records pertaining to the expungement of fingerprint records that took place in the year 2002 due to a court order. The records that I’m seeking will document that an expungement of fingerprint records has taken place due to a court order in the year 2002.” Following receipt of your request, I contacted you by telephone to clarify your request and to narrow the focus of BCI’s search of its records.
Upon review of BCI’s records, BCI does not have any records responsive to your specific request. As such, this concludes BCI’s response to your request.
When we consider these two findings together, I think we can say with confidence that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002 because of a conflict with the Privacy Act, and not because of a court order. Also, his conflict with the Privacy Act had nothing to do with a mass expungement during the period in which the FBI was switching to an automated system.
I’m more and more certain of it: Ronald Tammen was alive in 2002 and he himself requested that his fingerprints be expunged from the FBI’s system.
Greetings! Today, I’d like to further discuss the memo that was written on May 9, 1973, by the special agent in charge (SAC) of the Cincinnati Field Office to the acting director of the FBI, who was then William Ruckelshaus. As you probably know by now, the memo concerns the anonymous phone call they’d received claiming that Ron Tammen was working at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, Ohio.
“Oh, geez, that thing again?” some of you may be thinking.
Yeah, that. Sorry, but I still have unresolved issues.
In the last write-up, we discussed how shaky that lead was to begin with. The guy who’d called had refused to provide his name and then he told the FBI rep that a coworker of his might be Ron based on his physical description and “other reasons which he cared not to discuss.” He then “terminated the telephone call,” which sounds as if he hung up in the rep’s ear—a noisy click followed by the long, low waaaaaah of a dial tone. (Hanging up on someone was more dramatic back then.) Apparently, that’s all that was needed for an agent to be assigned to check things out that same day.
Here’s the question that keeps rolling around in my brain: If the FBI didn’t investigate missing person cases, as they claim not to do, why would they have assigned someone to fingerprint the guy at Welco just because some unnamed caller thought he fit Ron’s description? According to an unredacted version of the 1973 memo, the Welco man was an electronic technician from Virginia who’d served his country honorably from 1951 until 1960—a period that covers the time right before Ron entered Miami and extends until seven years after he’d disappeared.
I’d think that the FBI agent would have done his background research on the Welco guy before he made his trip to Blue Ash. The FBI has records on all sorts of people. If a person has a criminal record, they can access it, and they can also access a person’s military service records. Did they do any initial research or did they just pull a surprise pop-in and obtain his bio information there? According to the May 1973 memo, many of the biographical details were provided by the company’s vice president after pulling his employee’s personnel file. Pop-in, it is!
Out of respect for his family, I won’t be sharing the name of the Welco guy who was fingerprinted. His name sounds a little like Ron’s name, which is probably why the anonymous caller thought of him when he read the 20th anniversary article on Tammen’s disappearance and decided to alert the FBI. (I mean, who does that?) And despite whatever physical characteristics the Welco guy had that might have resembled Ron’s, one characteristic stands out that isn’t the least bit similar. It’s also an attribute that is far less likely to change after a person reaches adulthood: his height. The Welco guy was 6 feet 2 ½ inches tall. Ron was roughly 5 feet 9 inches tall. Nevertheless, the special agent fingerprinted the strapping electronic technician from Virginia and a couple weeks later, the Cincinnati Field Office was told that the fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s prints. Not the same guy, said they. (The Identification Division also did some curious things after arriving at their conclusion, which I discuss in the post The Ident Files.)
So there’s that. But the 1973 memo has introduced another small mystery in the Ron Tammen story, and that mystery has to do with the first sentence. It says: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.” The CI stands for Cincinnati Field Office, and an “airtel” was one of the ways in which the FBI communicated internally, especially, I imagine, with its field offices. Think of it as a glorified memo. Most importantly, I wonder if the 12/19/58 airtel is the reason that a special agent was sent to Welco versus ignoring the call altogether, which would have been my inclination had I been on phone duty.
In light of that possibility, the airtel strikes me as important. Unfortunately, there are no 12/19/58 airtels anywhere in the documents I’ve received from the FBI. Back in 2011, I quoted that sentence as a reason for my appeal, when I felt the FBI was withholding documents on Ron. (I still feel that way, by the by.) Even though I won the appeal, I never received a 12/19/58 airtel. I only received documents having to do with DNA testing after Butler County, Ohio, and Walker County, Georgia, reopened their respective cold cases in 2008 to see if a dead body found in the summer of 1953 in Georgia might be Ron.
Although I can’t tell you what the nonexistent memo says, I can deduce a few things about it:
It likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.
Whenever I’ve discussed Ron’s case with retired FBI folks, the issue of Ron’s avoiding the draft has become their go-to hypothesis as to why the FBI would have investigated his case at all. They can’t imagine why the FBI would spend person-hours, car mileage, or long-distance charges on Ron’s missing person case.
But I’m not convinced. First, we’ve learned that the FBI was indeed visiting people in their homes and dorm rooms shortly after Ron went missing, before his draft status had changed, and also that the FBI had been sitting in on faculty conferences at Miami by May 1953. Second, one FBI retiree told me that he or she didn’t think they had the staffing to seriously investigate Selective Service cases. They might have posted a record with the National Crime Information Center, so that, if the person was arrested, the FBI would let law enforcement know that there was a Selective Service violation against him as well. But this person doesn’t remember the FBI actively searching for someone who didn’t report for induction.
So I don’t think that Ron’s Selective Service violation—case #25-381754— was the reason that the FBI investigated Ron’s disappearance, or at least not the sole reason. I also don’t think it’s the topic of the 12/19/58 airtel. Here’s why:
When FBI Headquarters responded on 5/22/73 saying that the Welco guy’s fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s, someone added a note at the bottom, which included this information:
Was a subj of SSA violation in 1953. Canceled in 1955 (USA Cleveland closed case).
Allow me to interpret by writing out all of the words: It says that Ron was the subject of a Selective Service Act violation in 1953, however, his case was canceled, or closed, in 1955 by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland.
I don’t know how weird it is for a U.S. Attorney, who is part of the Department of Justice (DOJ), to request that an SSA case be closed. That’s probably a question for another day. (Actually, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request seeking all SSA cases that were closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland in 1955 to find out how weird it was.)
For now, let’s concentrate on the timeframe. For whatever reason, in 1955, Ron’s case had been closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, which is part of the DOJ, which is the parent agency of the FBI. Because the airtel was written in 1958, three years later, the airtel likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service Act violation.
The 12/19/58 airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati in January 2008.
In May 1973, the Cincinnati Field Office possessed the 12/19/58 airtel. We know this because they referred to it in their memo. And that makes perfect sense. If FBI Headquarters sends you an airtel, you file it somewhere in case you need it, and they needed it in 1973.
But in 2008, the airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati anymore. I think this because I obtained a set of the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after cold case detective Frank Smith had retired. It’s the set that Smith had obtained from the Cincinnati Field Office in January 2008. Just like my FOIA documents, Butler County’s set doesn’t include the 12/19/58 airtel either.
I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking: Perhaps the airtel reached its record retention date, and Cincinnati destroyed it according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records schedule. Thank you for raising this important point. You’ve obviously become experts on the topic of NARA and records retention schedules, thanks to the FBI’s early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints in 2002, 30 years ahead of their normal schedule.
While it’s true that the 1958 airtel may have been destroyed, the FBI hasn’t admitted to destroying very much on Tammen, at least not to me. Through my lawsuit settlement, I was provided with an in-depth declaration of all the places in which the FBI had searched for documents on Tammen. And in that search, they told me the approximate dates when certain documents had been destroyed.
For example, although FBI Headquarters destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file “on or about 2/1/1997,” they also reported that the Cincinnati Field Office destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file in 1964. Ostensibly, the 1958 airtel was not in that file, otherwise Cincinnati’s SAC would not have referenced it in 1973. So that supports our conclusion that the 12/19/58 airtel didn’t have anything to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.
The only other document that the FBI’s declaration claims was destroyed is Ron’s Classification 190 document, which had to do with either the Privacy Act or the Freedom of Information Act and which had originated in the Cincinnati Field Office. That document was destroyed “on or about 5/17/2008”—several months after Smith had reopened his investigation. But no matter what purpose the destroyed document had served when it was still with us on earth, it couldn’t have been the 12/19/58 airtel, since the latter document originated from FBI Headquarters, not Cincinnati.
In their declaration, the FBI also says that one file on Ronald H. Tammen, file #252-IR-C5652, is missing and unable to be located (see top chart). Perhaps the 12/19/58 airtel is in that lost file? I have some thoughts on this question, but I can’t print them here just yet. Based on the file’s number, it has to do with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and/or its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP. It’s important that we not let our imaginations run wild regarding the missing file. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything pertaining to Ron that would be helpful. If there ever comes a time when I’m at liberty to discuss this topic, I will. But I also don’t think it has anything to do with the 12/19/58 airtel, particularly since the center wasn’t started until 1984.
The airtel may not have pertained to Ron specifically.
So where’s the 12/19/58 airtel and what might it have said? You got me. But it occurs to me that the reason neither Frank Smith nor I received the airtel in our FOIA documents could be because it wasn’t stored along with the Tammen documents. Maybe the airtel dealt with a separate topic. For example, perhaps it was an instructional document for how to handle anonymous phone calls.
For this reason, I’ve filed a FOIA request seeking “ALL FBI BUREAU AIRTELS dated 12/19/1958 that were addressed to the Cincinnati Field Office.” I’ll keep you posted.
I’m going to end things here for now. If I should hear back from any of my public records requests over the next week or two, you may hear from me again. Otherwise, I wish you all peaceful and healthy holidays (emphasis on the healthy), including a Belated Healthy Hanukkah, a Healthy Christmas, a Healthy Kwanzaa, and a Healthy New Year, not to mention a Healthy Boxing Day, Winter Solstice, and (of course) Festivus!
At 4 p.m. ET today, a certain football team will be playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game—a team that’s currently ranked number four in the nation and could very well become this year’s national champion. And so…I thought it might be fun once again to focus our attention on the town of Cincinnati, Ohio.
For those of you who aren’t into football, I feel you. I have my own issues with the sport. Like: we’re asking college students who are still in their teens and early 20s—children, really—to inflict pain on one another every Saturday of every fall, why? Also: does it seem to you that the placement of the football by the ref is ridiculously arbitrary especially at those times when only inches are needed for a first down? And: what exactly is clipping, and can anyone truly recognize it if it happens?
This post is written specifically for the people who aren’t 100 percent into football or the Cincinnati Bearcats per se but who want to feel a part of things. The rest of you are welcome too, of course you are, but we’re not going to be talking about football anymore. I used up most of my football knowledge writing that last paragraph. Perhaps it would be best if you get ready for your watch party and come back tomorrow when you’re better able to concentrate. We’ll be here.
Today, for all the others, I give to you…a primer on the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office.
To help refresh your memories, it was in this field office that a document on Ron Tammen had originated, but was summarily destroyed “on or about May 17, 2008,” just a few short months after Butler County cold case detective Frank Smith had reopened the case. The document was located in the Classification 190 files, which means it had something to do with the Privacy Act or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which should ring a bell. As you know, the FBI had expunged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002—30 years ahead of schedule—due to a Privacy Act conflict or a court order (probably the former). What’s more: Butler County is under the Cincinnati office’s jurisdiction and the Cincinnati office was aware that Smith had reopened the investigation. Pretty weird timing to destroy a potentially relevant document, amIright?
Those were, in my view, some major findings which resulted in some additional questions that I’ve been attempting to have answered. For some, I’ve been successful. Others I’m still working on. Here’s where we stand so far, starting with an overview of the FBI’s field office system. As you read this post, please bear in mind that I have no red meat for you today. We’re serving up lentils and leafy greens, folks. Still important in the long haul—maybe more important—but not totally satisfying.
What’s an FBI field office and why do they exist?
As you know, crimes are committed all over the country, including the really bad ones that the FBI deals with. It would be hard for the FBI to do its job of fighting said crimes if all of its agents were located in D.C. For this reason, the FBI has constructed field offices across the country and in Puerto Rico—56 in all. The head of each field office is referred to as the special agent in charge, or the SAC; the second in command is the assistant special agent in charge, or ASAC; and the special agents (SAs) and administrative staff fill out the roster.
The state of Ohio has two field offices. The Cleveland Field Office covers the 40 counties in northern Ohio while the Cincinnati Field Office includes the lower 48 counties. Both field offices have been involved in Ron Tammen’s case. When Ron disappeared, his mother Marjorie had contacted the Cleveland Field Office because the Tammens lived in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights. Therefore, the Cleveland Field Office was the office of origin for Ron’s missing person case. In 1973, an anonymous caller had telephoned the Cincinnati Field Office to say that they thought Ron Tammen was working at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, OH, and an SA from Cincinnati investigated. We’ll discuss more on that visit a little later.
Where is the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office?
The FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office is a 4-minute drive from the Kenwood Towne Center, an upscale shopping mall on the outskirts of the city, near I-71. The current building was completed in 2012 by a design, engineering, and construction team represented by the Molasky Group of Companies, Bayer Becker, and Skanska.
Be advised that the Cincinnati Field Office is undoubtedly a highly secure facility. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone drop by without an invite.
Which counties is the Cincinnati Field Office responsible for?
As mentioned earlier, the Cincinnati Field Office oversees the 48 counties in central and southern Ohio, but this is where things get a little tricky again. As you know, crime happens all over the place—including Ohio’s lower 48 counties. If someone robs a bank in Piqua—in Miami County—it wouldn’t be very convenient for an agent in Cincinnati to drop whatever they’re doing to investigate, particularly when they have bigger cities in Ohio to worry about, like Columbus and Dayton.
Currently, the Cincinnati Field Office will send its agents to investigate bank robberies and other high crimes in six of its counties: Brown, Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Hamilton, and Warren, with Butler County encompassing the towns of Oxford and Hamilton, and Hamilton County including Cincinnati. (Yeah, I know…the whole “Hamilton” thing gets confusing.) The remaining 42 counties in Cincinnati’s domain are divvied up by resident agencies, which are smaller FBI offices situated around the state. The Cincinnati Field Office’s five resident agencies are in Athens, Cambridge, Columbus, Dayton, and Portsmouth. As I’m sure you can imagine, Columbus is the largest resident agency of the bunch—so big, in fact, that it rivals the size of the Cincinnati Field Office. Nevertheless, Cincinnati remains FBI headquarters for southern Ohio, which is why it’s often referred to as Headquarters City by its employees.
I seem to recall that there were more resident agencies in southern Ohio at one time. Or am I mistaken?
Great point! You are not mistaken.
Where were the other resident agencies located?
Based on news accounts, there was an additional resident agency in Middletown during the mid-to-late 1990s, possibly earlier, until at least 2014, which was the timeframe in which Frank Smith would have been inquiring about the Ronald Tammen case. The Middletown office reported directly to the FBI’s Resident Agency in Dayton.
Long before that, in 1971, the Cincinnati Field Office oversaw resident agencies in Athens, Chillicothe, Columbus, Dayton, Hamilton, Portsmouth, Springfield, Steubenville, and Zanesville. Four of these still exist, and the new one in Cambridge was added, though, again, I’m not sure when. But the resident agencies in Chillicothe, Hamilton, Springfield, Steubenville, and Zanesville, are gone. These offices would have been really small…staffed by 1-10 people and residing in borrowed space in a federal building, often a post office.
Why aren’t those resident agencies there anymore?
I’m not sure why the Middletown office was closed—probably cost-cutting measures, but that’s just a guess.
As for the offices that existed in 1971, this is a fun story. Have you heard about the break-in that took place on March 8, 1971, in the FBI’s resident agency in Media, PA, outside Philadelphia? Several antiwar activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the resident agency there and stole over 1,000 classified documents. Through that extremely daring act, they exposed the FBI’s illegal domestic surveillance activities, nicknamed COINTELPRO, to the world. (A 2014 film on the topic, titled 1971, is really good, though I don’t think it’s currently being streamed anywhere. If you can find a streaming service that’s offering it, please let us know in the comments.)
J. Edgar Hoover was furious when the break-in happened. By April 1971, he was publicly threatening to close roughly 100 of the 500 smaller resident agency offices as a means of improving security. Although the FBI was tight-lipped about which ones were being shut down at the time (they didn’t want ruffians taking advantage of the turn of events), I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the offices in Hamilton and elsewhere were part of the collateral damage.
When the anonymous caller telephoned the Cincinnati Field Office in 1973 about the guy at Welco Industries, why did they send someone from the Cincinnati Field Office? Couldn’t they have sent someone from a smaller resident agency?
I was wondering about this too. It has to do with the timing of the call. The smaller resident agencies had been closed by July 1971. The anonymous call was made in April 1973, so there were fewer resident agencies by then. Perhaps Cincinnati handled it because Blue Ash is in Hamilton County and they were closest.
But here’s the rub: an anonymous source called the FBI and provided a few miniscule details about why he or she thought the person in Blue Ash might be Ron and then hung up the phone. Here’s what the report said: “The caller based his opinion upon physical description and ‘other reasons which he cared not to discuss.’ At this point the caller terminated the telephone call.”
Seriously? The FBI claims that they don’t investigate missing persons cases unless there are signs of force or if a person was kidnapped or something. Missing persons are rock bottom on the FBI’s list of priorities. Why did they send anyone at all, let alone someone from Headquarters City on the same day the call was made?
What about in 2008? Did Frank Smith go through the Middletown or Dayton Resident Agency versus the Cincinnati Field Office?
Great question. Through news accounts and the DOJ document I linked to previously, we know that Middletown was in operation from the 1990s through at least 2014, and another news article from 2000 said that the Dayton Resident Agency oversaw 12 counties, which included Butler County. Theoretically, Frank Smith would have gone through the Dayton Resident Agency.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to communicate with Frank regarding these questions. The best I can do is refer to old transcripts. Here’s the most specific exchange I found:
JW: So when you did your FOIA, did you go through Cincinnati, or did you go through [Washington, D.C.] Headquarters?
FS: We actually had an agent who was a dear friend of mine and we actually asked him if he could get a copy, and that’s how we came up with our files.
So, although in my gut I believe that Frank was talking specifically about an agent in Cincinnati, he doesn’t specify on the transcript. (Clever!) But honestly, it doesn’t matter if he was talking about someone in Cincinnati or Dayton or even Middletown. All of the FBI offices that were connected to the Cincinnati Field Office were automated in 2008 and all had access to the same documents.
Do we know whether Ron’s document was a FOIA request or an expungement request?
I’m afraid I haven’t been able to pin that down yet. You may recall that I’d submitted a FOIA request for all the documents that surrounded Ron’s in the Classification 190 “0” file. Since Ron’s serial number was 967, I requested documents 900 through 999. What I received didn’t tell us a lot other than the document titles. The rest of the information was redacted. However, I did notice several documents in which Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) provided guidance on how the Cincinnati Field Office should manage such files. I’ve since filed a FOIA request for the full, unredacted versions of those documents—they’re just administrative documents, so no one’s privacy is at stake—and am still awaiting a response. Once I understand the protocol better, I can submit more FOIA requests.
As for the possibility that Ron’s document was simply a FOIA request submitted by an interested third party like myself, I contacted a source who has always been one of the more avid followers of the Tammen story. He never submitted a FOIA request. One of his students—a Miami journalism major who’d written on Tammen for the Miami Student during her time there—had submitted a FOIA request on Tammen, but she’d submitted hers after I submitted mine in 2010. At this point I know of no one other than Frank Smith who submitted a FOIA request in or before 2008. Also, I’d argue that most FOIA requests go through FBI Headquarters in D.C., and not through a specific field office.
Where did Ron’s Classification 190 document originate from?
The document feasibly could have originated from any of the 48 counties represented by the Cincinnati Field Office or its resident agencies. I find this a little weird, though. I’ve never considered Ron living his dream in one of Ohio’s lower 48. I prefer to think of Ron living in Paris or Morocco or someplace cool like that. I’m afraid that’s still an open question for now.
How is a document added to the Classification 190-0 file?
To the best of my knowledge, in order for a document to be added to the Classification 190-0 file in Cincinnati, it would have been reported within the Cincinnati division—Columbus, Dayton, or anywhere else. Something was reported that didn’t rise to a criminal investigation, otherwise a separate file would have been created.
An agent may have received information and thought, “this doesn’t amount to anything yet, but maybe something will turn up.” They wrote it up in a memo, and they routed it to the supervisor, who would then decide that it should go into the 0 file. It would be indexed—in this case under the name “Ronald Tammen”—which is why it turned up in the automated search.
Can a different FBI office expunge a document that originated with the Cincinnati Field Office?
Because the same documents pop up for every FBI office who searches for Ronald Tammen—whether they’re in Dayton, Cincinnati, or D.C.—it’s feasible that it wasn’t the Cincinnati Field Office who expunged Tammen’s record, but someone else. I’m looking into this question as well.
How can we learn more?
I definitely think there’s more to be learned. Yesterday, on a whim, I wrote to my friends at the Cincinnati Field Office. I understand that the Classification 190 files are managed by the chief division counsel, and so I’ve requested a sit-down with that person to describe their protocol. I assured this person that I would not be asking about Ron’s document—I know it’s long gone. I just would like to understand more about the day-to-day operations regarding the Classification 190 files. So far, I haven’t heard back, but I’ll keep you posted.
As I said—mostly quinoa and kale today.
How are cases assigned in FBI field offices?
Special agents are assigned to a squad, and each squad covers a certain type of crime. One squad may cover civil rights cases, another might cover white-collar crime, another covers organized crime, and so on. It’s like how a news reporter covers a certain beat, be it crime, politics, education, etc.
If a call comes into an FBI field office, it’s assigned to whatever desk covers that violation. The desk supervisor will have a certain number of agents on his or her squad, and he or she will decide who’s going to get the case. As for missing persons, there’s no squad for that.
Things may not have been exactly the same in 1973, but I’ll bet they were similar. So it’s puzzling to me why a desk supervisor back then would think it worthwhile to take one of his/her agents off their normal beat to follow up on an anonymous hang-up call from Blue Ash, Ohio.
Turns out, I guess I’ve been needing to spend a little more time with Ron’s “Ident” files. I’m referring to Ron’s missing person documents that I’d obtained through my 2010 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, someone with the initials MSL had handwritten on many of them that they were removed from the FBI’s Identification Division—called Ident for short—on June 5, 1973. Those same documents also carry a stamp saying that they were routed to the Records Branch. Inexplicably, the sender checked “Main File” as opposed to “79-1,” the classification for missing persons.
Weird, right? The Identification Division was responsible for overseeing missing persons cases. Why would someone from Identification send Ron’s missing person documents somewhere else? As far as Tammen’s family and the rest of the world knew, he was still missing. Yet the FBI was acting like—dare I say it?—he didn’t seem to be missing anymore.
As many of you know, I’d consulted with people who used to work in the Identification Division, which later became Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), to see if they could explain why. Unfortunately, no one could offer an explanation. Neither could my contact from Records Management. I’m not disparaging these individuals. They did their best with the information that was provided to them. There just wasn’t that much information to provide.
I tried seeking more documents. Because MSL appeared to be a subordinate of Fletcher Thompson’s, the head of the Identification Division in 1973, I submitted a FOIA request seeking every piece of correspondence that Thompson had written for the period of May to June 1973, regardless of the subject. My hope was to snag some missive in which Thompson ordered Mary Sue Lipschwitz—or whoever MSL turned out to be—to handle the Tammen situation STAT. Alas, the FBI’s response to me was that it was impossible for them to conduct a search of their indices based on my request. Fine. Be that way. I let it drop for the time being.
I also tried to learn more about the Ident Missing Person File Room, which had been stamped on several of Ron’s documents along with the handwritten room number 1126. None of my sources had ever heard of it. I’d come to believe that it had something to do with the Special File Rooms that J. Edgar Hoover had established for documents that he considered to be of utmost secrecy. I submitted a FOIA request seeking all documents relating to the establishment and protocol of the FBI’s Special File Rooms in general and the Missing Person File Room specifically. I received a couple hundred pages on the former, but nothing on the latter. I appealed. Again, nothing. The FBI claims that they have zero documents—not a one—that refers to a Missing Person File Room. They’d sent me some documents that had ostensibly inhabited that room at one time, but, yeah, OK, whatever they say. I mean…there must be at least one document that refers to the Missing Person File Room, since someone used taxpayer money to have those illicit words inscribed on a rubber stamp. (For fun, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request for the Identification Division’s office supply expenditures from, say, 1960 to 1970 to see if anything turns up.)
Today, the Missing Person File Room remains a closely guarded secret. If you haven’t done this yet, try typing the phrase into Google between quotation marks. Two documents will pop up—both of them mine. Soon there will be a third document—this one. I’m considering getting the phrase trademarked. [Note to FBI: You’ll still be able to use the phrase, but you’ll have to cite me and use the registered trademark symbol when you do. It’s a small price to pay for all the hardship you’ve caused me these last 12 years.]
This past weekend, after creating a public records request score card for this blog site, I was reminded of how those two FOIA requests had played out. I started ruminating about what I could do next. If I can’t learn about the Missing Person File Room, which seems to be the situation at present, surely there must be more to be learned about the Ident files.
Well, there was. And just as before, we have archival documents to thank. The publications I found are available free, online. They are the back issues of the FBI’s in-house publication titled the Law Enforcement Bulletin, and you can find issues from January 1933 on up. The articles were (and still are) expressly written for the men and women who work closely with the FBI in enforcing the nation’s laws. For our purposes, the best issues are from the 1940s and 50s, a time when less was less and more was more. Why tighten when you can expound? Why gloss over when you can explain things in granular detail? How else were Andy, Barney, and all the other officers from Small Town USA supposed to learn how proper policing should be done?
An article from May 1951 was especially useful. (It doesn’t show up in the archives list, but you can find it if you Google “May 1951 Law Enforcement Bulletin.” As to why they’ve left all of 1950 and ‘51 off their list? 🤷🏻♀️) The article had to do with the Posting Section, which is the section within Identification that was responsible for posting notices such as wanted notices, missing person notices, and the like. Here’s what the article says about Missing Person Notices. I’ve bolded the parts that are most pertinent to Ron.
Missing Person Notices
The Posting Section prepares and maintains file notices regarding individuals whose location is desired by relatives. Although the FBI has no jurisdiction to conduct active investigations in missing person cases, missing person notices are placed in file on behalf of interested relatives inquiring either directly or through local law-enforcement agencies. If a fingerprint record for the missing person can be identified through an FBI number or a registry number, a notice is posted in that record. If the information set forth in the inquiry is insufficient to identify positively a fingerprint record with the missing person, a notice will be posted in the fingerprint record of the individual whose description is considered possibly identical with the missing person. In cases where no record can be located which is either positively or possibly identical a missing persons notice is placed in the indices of the Card Index Section. This index card also contains the descriptive data furnished by the interested relative.
Missing-person notices are maintained in the files of the FBI Identification Division until information is received which indicates the probable whereabouts of the missing person. At this point the next of kin is notified directly, or the information is furnished to the agency through which the inquiry was received. Missing-person notices are of course removed from the files when interested relatives or agencies indicate that the notices are no longer desired.
Whenever possible, a request for the posting of a missing-person notice should include information as to the date and place of the missing person’s birth. This information is most important in effecting a possible identification, where other specific descriptive data is lacking.
If a person has been missing for a period of more than 7 years, no notice is placed in the file unless some information of a more recent nature relating to the individual is located during the initial search of the Identification Division files.
No notices are posted in cases arising out of marital difficulties except in hardship cases where minor children are involved. Notices are not posted concerning missing persons having a lengthy history of criminal activity, nor under circumstances indicating that the missing person was involved in criminal activity in connection with his disappearance.
Here’s what I’ve concluded on the basis of the above protocol when combined with all of the other information we’ve collected to date.
Identification files, which were also referred to as identification jackets or fingerprint jackets, didn’t hold only fingerprint cards and Additional Record Sheets. They could hold other items too, such as missing person notices, wanted notices, and other relevant documents.
Ron’s fingerprint jacket was #358 406 B. When a missing person document said that it should be placed in #358 406 B, the handler was being instructed to put it in his fingerprint jacket.
Missing person notices were held indefinitely until the person was found. This is consistent with language on Ron’s missing person documents that said “Retain permanently [emphasis added] in Ident jacket #358 406 B.”
Once a missing person was found, the next of kin or the agency that submitted the missing person notice would be notified. Or at least they should have been notified.
With this new take, I took a deeper dive into Ron’s missing person documents. I focused on the handwritten and stamped notations that provided instructions regarding where the individual documents were to be housed. I constructed a chart of each document up through May 1973, when the FBI’s Cincinnati field office had sought to compare Ron’s fingerprints with an employee from Welco Industries. After HQ had responded with their assessment—it wasn’t Ron—all further activity ceased on jacket #358 406 B.*** (Ron’s remaining documents came after 2008, when the case had been reopened by the Butler County (OH) and Walker County (GA) sheriff’s offices. We don’t care about those right now.)
Before we examine my chart, let’s review the FBI’s various numbers that had to do with Ron:
#358 406 B Again (and sorry for the redundancy), this is the FBI number that was assigned to Ron’s fingerprints. From what I can determine, this number would have been on the tab of his fingerprint jacket, as demonstrated from the photo in the October 1948 issue of the Law Enforcement Bulletin on how police departments should set up their files.
79-31966-1 (the last number varies) As mentioned earlier, 79 is the classification number for missing persons. The 31966 was Ron’s case number, and the last number is the number of pages in Ron’s file, e.g., 1, 1x, 2, 2x, and 3. My source in Records Management explained that the Xs were a way to insert pages while keeping them in the proper order.
25-381754 This was Ron’s file regarding a possible Selective Service violation (aka draft dodging). According to the notation at the bottom of the October 11, 1967, letter to Mr. Tammen from J. Edgar Hoover, the case was opened in 1953 and canceled in 1955. It’s my understanding that this file would not have been held in the Identification Division.
As for the color coding:
The green bars have to do with the Ident files—those that refer to retaining them permanently in the Ident jacket #358406B (solid) and those that refer to removing them from Ident (striped). The blue bars/square have to do with language pertaining to the Missing Person File Room.
Here’s my chart:
Based on this exercise, it appears as though Ron’s missing person documents weren’t treated exactly the same way. Some documents were housed in the Ident files—which I’ve ascertained was his fingerprint jacket—while others were housed in the Ident Missing Person File Room, room 1126 of an unnamed building.
Here’s why I think so:
On the document originally dated May 25, 1953, MSL had jotted down that a photo was put in room 1126 on 6-5-73, which was the same date that many of Ron’s missing person papers were removed from Ident. We also see that his photo had been added to his missing person notice on 6-2-53. Did MSL take the photo from his fingerprint jacket and move it into room 1126 on 6-5-73?
Most of Ron’s documents are stamped “Retain permanently in Ident jacket #358406B.” In June 1973, those same documents were marked “Removed from Ident files” and “Referred to Records Branch,” specifying “Main file” instead of 79, otherwise known as missing persons.
The other category encompasses the documents that had the stamp “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room.” Only four documents had that stamp on them. Three of those documents were generated by someone from HQ, including J. Edgar himself. The exception is the 1959 form letter.
Ron’s file doesn’t appear to have been very large—only several pages, according to my source in Records Management. Perhaps those pages were kept one place while his other pages were kept somewhere else?
It appears that documents in Ron’s fingerprint jacket were removed from the Identification Division before the documents were removed from the Missing Person File Room (as indicated by the crossed-out words). I think this because of the photo that was added to room 1126 on the same day that his Ident files were removed.
By the time the Cincinnati memos were filed in May 1973, the Identification Division was no longer putting them into Ron’s fingerprint jacket. The document dated 5-9-73 was routed straight to the Records Branch’s Main File, nearly a month before the other documents were removed from Ident. Conversely, the document from HQ dated 5-22-73 was routed to the Missing Person File Room.
What could all of this mean? Shortly after the Cincinnati field office had sent the Welco employee’s fingerprints to be compared to Ron’s, Ron’s missing person documents were removed from his fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division and sent to the Records Branch. Documents that were in the Missing Person File Room were removed later, although we don’t know precisely when that happened.
This tells me that, in the period in which HQ was comparing the Welco employee’s prints to Ron’s, the folks in Identification had discovered something about Ron’s case and felt the need to update his file, as indicated by the words at the bottom of the 5-22-73 memorandum: “MPN [missing person notice] placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.”
As always, there are discrepancies. A couple documents have both the “Ident files” and Missing Person File Room verbiage, which may indicate that they were filed in both locations. Also, the 5-22-73 memorandum says this about FBI #358 406 B: “This record consists of one personal identification fgpt card taken in 1941.”
How could all those missing person documents have been retained permanently in jacket #358 406 B but the record only consisted of one fingerprint card? I had originally taken this to mean that there was one item in Ron’s fingerprint jacket—his fingerprint card. But I also knew that there must been some wiggle room in that description—after all, his fingerprint jacket would have contained an Additional Record Sheet too.
I believe the operative word is “record.” The word record was frequently used to describe a person’s fingerprint card or cards. (As an example, look at the verbiage from the May 1951 Law Enforcement Bulletin.) I believe the memo’s author was speaking about Ron’s fingerprint record in the strictest sense. Otherwise, I’d think that they would have used the word jacket instead.
Despite the discrepancies, I think we can surmise that something had been special about Ron’s case, necessitating the use of two locations within the same division for his documents. One was known to many and the other was known to a chosen few.
It also tells me that the FBI knew what had happened to Ron by 1973, and probably much earlier. And yet, in a break with protocol, no one had thought to pick up a phone to tell his family.
What are your thoughts? Have I overlooked something? Does anything else stand out?
***Clarification: when I say that all further activity ceased for jacket #358 406 B after June 1973, I’m only talking about Ron’s missing person documents. I’m not talking about his fingerprints, which, as we all know, were purged in 2002, 30 years ahead of schedule.
On or about May 17, 2008, someone in the Cincinnati field office of the FBI discarded a document on Ron Tammen. The document was located in their Classification 190 files, right up front, in the file labeled “0”—known as the zero file. Classification 190 files have to do with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Privacy Act. As for the 0 files, here’s what the National Archives and Records Administration has said about them: used for administrative and logistical matters but mostly were used for citizen correspondence related to a classification, routine request for information, and general reference materials.
As you may recall, I was a little bemused when I learned that Ron’s 0 record had been destroyed in May 2008, since I also knew that Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective, had reopened the case roughly five months earlier, in January. Butler County is in the Cincinnati field office’s jurisdiction. Why would the FBI have destroyed Ron’s record when they knew the case had been reopened? And did they ever pass along whatever was in the 0 file to Det. Smith? And if the document had to do with the Privacy Act, could it be that Ron Tammen himself had requested that his fingerprints be expunged? That seems…oh, I dunno…significant.
As I mentioned in The Cincy file, I wanted to know more. As you can see in the above graphic, Ron’s now nonexistent document was identified with the ending label “Serial 967,” which means that his was document number 967 within the 0 file, behind number 966 and ahead of 968. I wanted to see who Ron’s neighbors were in the file, so I submitted a FOIA request for all documents numbered between 900 and 999. For example, if the surrounding documents were all fingerprint expungement requests, then I’d be willing to bet that Ron’s now obliterated document was a fingerprint expungement request as well. Today I received 39 documents, which you can review here.
There’s not a lot of information to be gleaned from these documents. Only the titles are provided, which offer at least a glimpse into the 0 file’s contents. Some of the documents are administrative. Some have to do with expungement requests from various people whose names—and all other pertinent information—have been redacted. Some have to do with requests for documents, most likely from people who wanted to review whatever documents that the FBI has on them. And then there’s the beloved redacted category. Here’s a breakdown by subject and the number of documents having to do with each. (Note that I was conservative in my groupings.)
NUMBER OF DOCS
Copy of inmates rights
Application to DEA (*Drug Enforcement Administration, I believe)
Court orders re expungement should go to BCII (*Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, I believe)
Proof of death
Request all documents
Imperfected request, notary needed
Entry ordering expungement
Extry (*?) ordering expungement
ELSUR (Electronic Surveillance) [redacted]
CJIS instructions re expungement
Proper submission of expungement
Order sealing conviction
Returning order sealing conviction
Disposition of case
Return disposition sheet—referred to DEA
Third-party request require privacy waiver or proof of death
Enclosing copy of certified judgment order expunging record
Inquiry re [redacted] Ident record
Return judgment entry with Ohio instructions from CJIS
It is what it is—generally, a hodgepodge of requests from a bunch of random people plus some administrative guidance from Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) on expungement and other noteworthy topics. I’m actually a little baffled by the 0 file’s lack of specificity. They couldn’t create separate files for expungement requests versus FOIA requests versus administrative guidelines under Classification 190? They had to toss them all into the same gigantic file?
But let’s not give up just yet. I’ve also come to learn a few additional facts about the Cincinnati file:
Just because the document number has a “CI” in front of it doesn’t mean that it originated in the Cincinnati office per se. The FBI’s Cincinnati field office encompasses 48 counties in southern Ohio. (Cleveland’s field office has jurisdiction over the remaining 40 counties in northern Ohio.) The Cincinnati field office also comprises resident agencies, which are located in other cities, such as Dayton and Columbus. Ron’s document could have originated in any one of Cincinnati’s resident agencies—we can’t be sure of which one. However, we can be sure that it originated in southern Ohio.
The Classification 190 files are overseen by the chief division counsel—a lawyer. This person reports directly to the special agent in charge, or the SAC. The SAC heads up the entire Cincinnati field office.
The destruction of files is overseen by the administrative officer, and he or she does so on the basis of the document retention schedules we’ve discussed in past blog posts, generally years later. This person also reports directly to the SAC.
Ever since the FBI automated its files, agents can enter a name and pop up a number of files in which that name appears, regardless of the file’s origin. When the agent working with Det. Frank Smith was conducting his or her search on Tammen in January 2008, all of the relevant files appeared on screen, including Tammen’s Classification 190 record.
Detective Smith’s file on the Tammen case was given to me by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after Smith retired. His file contains all of the same FBI documents that I received from FBI Headquarters, with the exception that some portions of his documents had been unredacted (alas, nothing useful concerning Tammen, unfortunately). From what I can tell, he did not receive the 190-CI-0, Serial 967 document on Tammen.
One question I’ve had was whether the 190-CI-0, Serial 967 document was simply Det. Smith’s FOIA request to the Cincinnati office for Tammen’s documents. According to the FBI’s printout (above) of Tammen documents, which I’d obtained from my lawsuit, we don’t know the original date of the document that was destroyed in May 2008. Perhaps the FBI special agent whom Det. Smith was working with had created a record concerning Smith’s request and he or she didn’t feel the need to send that to Smith as well. But I’ve discounted that theory, since the record was destroyed only five months later, far earlier than normal retention schedules would permit.
Here’s where my head is at the moment: Document number 190-CI-0, Serial 967 could have been a boring old FOIA request from anyone seeking FBI documents on Ronald Tammen. Perhaps the agent working with Smith saw it and decided it was useless information for Smith’s purposes. (I can’t imagine who the FOIA requester would have been, though. I didn’t submit my FOIA request until 2010 and I think I preceded most others in the Tammen-obsessed public. For anyone reading this who may have submitted a FOIA request on Tammen to the Cincinnati FBI before 2008, please let me know.) Regardless, I’d think that the agent still would have passed the document to Smith. Who knows, the inquirer might have been relevant to Smith’s search. It’s tough to say without a date of origin.
It’s also feasible that Ron Tammen submitted a request to the FBI’s Cincinnati field office (or its resident agencies) to expunge his fingerprints, or, alternatively, that he submitted an information request to the FBI and that’s how he discovered that they’d had his prints. Either way, someone within the FBI may have felt the need to destroy that request in May 2008, five months after they found out that Butler County had decided to reopen his cold case.
Rest assured that Cincinnati hasn’t heard the last of me.
One question I’ve been mulling over lately is how in blue blazes did a document with Ronald Tammen’s name on it housed in the FBI’s Cincinnati office find its way into the agency’s “circular file” mere months after Detective Frank J. Smith of the Butler County Sheriff’s Office had reopened an investigation into Tammen’s disappearance?
After all, Butler County is in the Cincinnati office’s jurisdiction. If a Butler County detective is actively working the case, you’d think those folks would realize that the record might be of interest. Also, it wasn’t as if the FBI didn’t know that the case had been reopened. They were supposedly providing assistance to Butler County and their counterparts in Walker County, Georgia, as the two offices had joined forces to determine if the remains of a John Doe buried in Lafayette, Georgia, happened to be Tammen.
Their timing seems…oh, I dunno…questionable?
And so, as per yoozh, I needed to investigate.
As we’ve discussed previously, the record in question is #190-CI-0, Serial 967. According to the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, it was “destroyed on or about 5/17/2008,” five months after Detective Smith and his Georgia counterpart, Mike Freeman, decided to reopen their respective cold cases.So why (again, in blue blazes) did the Cincinnati office feel that the time was ripe to destroy that particular document THEN?
Because they’d been so helpful in the past, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), asking them for the Standard Form 115 (SF 115) that substantiated the FBI’s destruction of #190-CI-0, Serial 967.
Their FOIA specialist got back to me the next day. You heard me right. He got back to me—with an actual response—on the very next day that I submitted my FOIA request. When it comes to FOIA, NARA is the biggest, baddest bunch of rock stars ever in comparison to all the other federal agencies. They’re the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Aretha, Bruce, I’m gonna say Dire Straits but that’s just me, [fill in name of your all-time favorite artist/band], and James Brown all rolled into one. Put simply, dealing with NARA’s FOIA office is a feel-good experience.
And where do our friends at the FBI and CIA fall on the rock spectrum? I’d say that one could be likened to Milli and the other to Vanilli. (It makes no difference which is which.) They’re usually just mouthing some words, giving us some lip service. If there’s a document they don’t want the public to see, they’ll find a way to withhold it, regardless of whether their reason is justifiable or not, and they’ll stall for as long as humanly possible. It has to do with r-e-s-p-e-c-t. NARA respects FOIA and the public it serves. The FBI and CIA, um, don’t. Strong words, I know, but girl, you know it’s true. (P.S. The Milli Vanilli analogy doesn’t extend to the musicians and singers who backed them up, especially the drummer, who was playing his heart out in the above video. I have more to say about the drummer near the end of this post.)
Here’s what NARA’s FOIA representative told me:
Agencies do not submit documentation to NARA to substantiate destruction of records. They use approved records schedules to determine the disposition of the records.
Oops. I should’ve checked the online records schedule before submitting my FOIA. But, truth be told, this stuff is confusing and sometimes I need to have things spelled out for me. Also, even if I’d consulted the records schedule first and it had said “Discard after such-and-such timeframe,” I couldn’t imagine that it would have applied to this scenario—during a newly reopened cold case investigation. Surely, there must be a clause that states: “If a document scheduled for destruction is potentially relevant to a newly reopened cold case, of course you should hang onto said document. Good Lord, did you even have to ask?” Or something to that effect.
The NARA rep then explained the file’s numbering system.
FBI File #190-CI-0 is as follows: 1. Classification 190 – Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Acts 2. CI – stands for the field office, Cincinnati, OH 3. “0” – the 0 files were used for administrative and logistical matters but mostly were used for citizen correspondence related to a classification, routine request for information, and general reference materials.
Allow me to interject here that one key difference between the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act is that, with a FOIA request, you’re generally seeking information about someone other than yourself or a specific government program. With a Privacy Act request, you’re seeking information about yourself. OK, carry on, NARA FOIA rep.
NARA FOIA rep then added:
Classification 190 files do not include the underlying records.
What he means by this is that the record being requested under FOIA or the Privacy Act—like a fingerprint record, for example—wouldn’t be part of the Classification 190 file. But correspondence that pertains to that record—e.g., “Dear Sir or Madam: Please expunge my fingerprints because blah blah blah and OH MY GOD CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE HOW A SENTENCE LIKE THAT MIGHT HAVE ENDED?!”—would. That’s just an example off the top of my head, mind you. We’ll never know what Ronald Tammen’s document actually said because, as I believe I’ve pointed out several times already, the FBI’s Cincinnati office destroyed it in the middle of Butler County’s reopened investigation.
NARA’s FOIA representative then sent me a link to the FBI’s applicable records schedule, N1-065-82-04,and he referred me to the pages having to do with field offices, which was Parts C and D. There’s a lot of overlap and plenty of room for judgment calls. Also, this is the honor system, an idyllic system of hope and trust whereby doing the right thing is expected and doing the wrong thing, well, I suppose that can happen too.
What Part C says
Of all the parts of the 309-page records schedule, Part C is the shortest and friendliest, offering up just three pages of general guidelines for FBI field offices regarding what to do with their aging records. I’mposting all three pages for you here.
“These authorities apply regardless of the classification” but then they have some caveats concerning what might be discussed in other parts (e.g., Parts D or E), with this important NOTE: “Care must be taken to insure that records designated for permanent retention by other items in this schedule are not erroneously destroyed using authorities in this part.”
Translation: field offices should do what’s in Part C, regardless of classification, but if other parts of the schedule say that you need to do something else, do that. And most importantly, when in doubt, don’t throw it out.
Actually, that reminds me of a story someone told me. When J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI, he didn’t want to let go of anything. For decades, the FBI hoarded all of their records and wouldn’t even let folks from the National Archives touch their stuff. It wasn’t until after Hoover died that they finally let NARA in the door to work out a disposition schedule. The FBI changed their policy in part because they were getting a new building in Washington, D.C., so they used that opportunity to get permission from NARA to destroy a lot of their records. (Incidentally, the FBI still isn’t 100 percent onboard with NARA and FOIA and the whole public transparency cause. Although they dutifully send their records over to NARA on the agreed-upon timetable, they have yet to send an index to help NARA navigate their FBI holdings and address any subsequent FOIA requests they may receive.)
Back to Part C. Because Ron’s document was in the “0” file, the Cincinnati office was instructed to “DESTROY” it when it was 3 years old or “when all administrative needs have been met, whichever is later.”
I suppose it’s possible that the document had coincidentally reached its three-year mark in May 2008. However, even if that were the case (which I don’t believe for one second) I can’t imagine that whoever destroyed it then had determined that all administrative needs had been met when, you know, a cold case investigation had been reopened the next county over. I know at least one detective who might have had an administrative need or two for that document.
There’s another item in Part C that might apply as well. Because Ron’s document is in the Classification 190 category, we know that it had to do with FOIA or the Privacy Act (most likely the latter). Item #9 deals specifically with cases in which the subject requests disposal because “continued maintenance would conflict with provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974.” If that were the reason for destroying the document, then Cincinnati ostensibly should have submitted an SF 115 to NARA beforehand. However, if they’d submitted one, I’m pretty sure I would have received it from NARA when I’d FOIA’d them. (NARA’s FOIA rep’s exact words were: “There are no other records responsive to your request.”) Either item #9 didn’t pertain or, well… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Confused? Stay with me. You’re doing great.
There’s a chance that the folks in Cincinnati also consulted Part D, the guidelines for each of the individual classifications for field offices. This is where things really get complicated. Under Classification 190, we’re told to “See Part C (which we’ve already seen), except for those cases where disposition is governed by General Records Schedule 14.”
Oh, good, a new records schedule. It’s as if they knew I was growing tired of the first one.
When you go online to find General Records Schedule (GRS) 14, you’ll soon learn that in 2017, it was superseded by General Schedules 4.2, 6.4 and 6.5. However, back in May 2008, federal agencies were still doing things according to the 1998 version of GRS 14.
And if you take a gander at that schedule, you’ll soon be presented with a menu of very strict and specific instructions that depend on what the record is—which, alas, we don’t know because the FBI’s Cincinnati office destroyed it.
But wait. Maybe we can figure out what kind of document it was based on the two dates we already know. We know that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in June 2002 due to the Privacy Act or a court order, most likely the former. And we also know that in May 2008, the Cincinnati office destroyed a Tammen-related document having to do with FOIA or the Privacy Act, most likely the latter—though we’re less certain about that one. If both actions were due to the Privacy Act, they could be related, with a difference of six years between them. And if we look at the 1998 version of GRS 14, only one Privacy Act-related document specifies waiting six years before it can be destroyed. It’s this one:
Erroneous release records—files relating to the inadvertent release of privileged information to unauthorized parties, containing information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Maybe that’s the reason they destroyed Ron’s record? It’s impossible to say. But honestly, as I’m wading through the bureaucratic jargonistic blather that is today’s post, annoyed and discouraged and bored out of my mind, I don’t think it matters if the Cincinnati field office was operating under Part C or Part D (or even Part E, the catch-all “Miscellaneous” category for files kept elsewhere) or the old GRS 14—whatever—I still believe they could have turned over Ron’s “0” file document to their law-enforcement partners in Butler County when they had the chance. And make no mistake about it, they had the chance. I’ll tell you why shortly.
There’s one part of Ron’s record that we haven’t discussed the meaning of yet—the number at the end, Serial 967. Serial 967 is what identifies Ron Tammen’s record from everyone else’s in the “0” file. To help you visualize things, picture a metal filing cabinet with a bunch of drawers in it and Classification 190 occupying one of those drawers. (I’m sure it occupies more space than that, but this is just to help us understand the organization.) Now picture the “0” file as a folder inside that drawer in front of all the other folders. The “0” folder holds a large number of documents, and each document has its own serial number, which are arranged in numerical order. When Cincinnati still had Ron’s record, it would have been located pretty far back, between serial numbers 966 and 968.
I have no idea what kinds of documents shared a folder with Ron Tammen’s document, but it might be interesting to find out, mightn’t it? For this reason, I’ve submitted a FOIA request for the documents that surrounded Ron’s—beginning with serial number 900 and ending with number 999. Today, I received a letter of acknowledgement from the chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section letting me know that it was an acceptable request and assigning it a number. If I receive anything of interest, I’ll be sure to let you know.
More on Milli Vanilli’s drummer and how he relates to the FBI’s Cincinnati office
Milli Vanilli’s drummer was Mikki Byron, an accomplished musician who not only played the drums really well, but he also played the guitar, saxophone, and keyboard and sang vocals. In addition to his time spent with Milli Vanilli and the Real Milli Vanilli (the true singers behind Milli Vanilli plus band members), he played in a number of bands, including Mikki Byron and The Stroke, Custom Pink, and the L.A. Ratts. Tragically, Mikki died in 2004 at the age of 36. (As for Milli Vanilli, Rob Pilatus, one-half of the duo, also died tragically in 1998. Fab Morvan, the other half, is still performing.)
Whether or not you’re a fan of Mikki’s music, here’s the point I wish to make: Despite sharing a stage with two guys who were fake singing and whose purported dance moves were just plain awkward, Mikki Byron was for real. He had innate talent and he had training, and he brought everything to the stage when he performed. Fans miss him. They still talk about him. There’s a tribute page on Facebook for him. If you didn’t watch the video of Mikki playing the drums when I mentioned it before, please watch it now. You won’t be sorry.
I was hoping that I’d found my own version of Mikki Byron within the FBI—someone in their ranks who’d be willing to break free of all the stonewalling and duplicity and actually answer a couple simple questions truthfully.
This past Saturday, I sent an email to the Cincinnati office’s community outreach specialist. I said:
I’m wondering if you can help me. For a book and blog that I write, I’m interested in learning more about the Cincinnati field office’s protocol with regard to potentially relevant records during reopened cold cases.
Specifically, if a cold case has been reopened in a county within your jurisdiction, and the FBI has been made aware that the case has been reopened and is providing assistance, what is the Cincinnati field office’s protocol if it possesses one or more potentially relevant records?
The outreach specialist responded that day and told me they’d forwarded my email to the appropriate person. That person—whom we’ll refer to as Mikki—responded on Monday morning. Mikki’s emails will be in blue to help you keep track.
Thank you for your message.
For your background, if the FBI is assisting a local law enforcement agency on a case, relevant records can be shared with the investigators of that agency. If this does not fully answer your question, please provide me with additional details and I will try to provide a more specific answer.
Holy crap, right? Perhaps I’ve finally landed someone who’s willing to address my questions about how they handled Ron’s document.
Here’s me again:
Thank you so much for your quick response. I really do appreciate it. What I’m trying to understand is why the Cincinnati field office destroyed document #190-CI-0, Serial 967 in May 2008 (see attached) when the Butler County Sheriff’s Office had reopened a cold case investigation into the subject of that document, Ronald Tammen, in January 2008 and the investigation was ongoing. It’s my understanding that the records retention schedule for “0” files in field offices appears to allow flexibility for document retention for administrative needs, which I’d think would apply in this case. From what I can tell, it doesn’t appear as if the document was shared with Butler County before it was destroyed, unless you can determine otherwise.
Any information you can offer would be truly appreciated.
And back to Mikki:
Thank you for the added details. My previous response was very general in nature and not pertaining to any specific case or investigation.
Since you are interested in specific case information, it would be best to submit a FOIA request (which you may have already done) or contact the National Press Office (email@example.com) about any records management questions.
Riiiiiiight. We tossed it, but you’ll need to talk to those helpful folks over at FBI headquarters about why we went ahead and tossed it.
Here’s me again:
OK, will do. Are you able to say whether you shared the document with Butler County?
And back we go to Mikki:
Haha, just kidding. It’s been 5 days. Mikki hasn’t responded and I’m quite certain that he won’t.
On second read, maybe I came on too strong with Mikki. He asked for details and I gave him some. I’m afraid that my details drove Mikki away.
But you guys, if there was nothing to this mystery—if it was a big fat nothingburger, as they say—he could have said something like: “The document had already been destroyed by the time we learned about Butler County’s renewed efforts. We destroyed it on the basis of Part C, item #2, when the document was three years old.” You know…a credible explanation that could have sent me on my way.
Most telling was that he didn’t answer my question about whether they’d shared the document with Butler County, when, under normal protocol, that’s something they would have done.
There are a few things I can still do to try to learn more about the Cincinnati document on Ronald Tammen, and I will do them, though I won’t put the most promising ones into writing at this point. Will I be asking the FBI’s press office about the file? Oh, yeah, I suppose I’ll do that too, just as I told Mikki, but I can’t imagine that they’ll say anything other than “The FBI has a right to decline requests.” (I’ve heard that one before.)
I also want to make good on a promise I made to you earlier in this post. Some of you may have been wondering to yourselves whether it was possible that Cincinnati had destroyed the Tammen document without ever knowing that Butler County had reopened its cold case on Tammen. I mean, pleading ignorance is a very understandable and forgivable excuse, and Cincinnati is a big city and Butler County is about 35 miles away. Also, you may recall that it was the FBI’s Atlanta office that had opened the “Police Cooperation” matter for the two sheriff’s offices. Is it possible that Cincinnati had no idea that Butler County had reopened its cold case?
Oh, they knew. They so knew.
Here’s how I know they knew: In August 2010, just as I was getting started with my little book project, I interviewed Butler County Detective Frank Smith about his investigation. I’d submitted my FOIA request to the FBI for Ron Tammen’s documents several months earlier, and I was still waiting for their response. Frank had also obtained Ron’s FBI documents—the same ones that I would eventually receive. But Frank, being with law enforcement, would be able to go another route to get his documents—one that was much quicker. Frank had contacted someone with the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, likely by phone. He told them that he’d restarted the Tammen investigation and asked if they could send him whatever files they might have on Tammen.
Can I pin down the precise date that it happened? I can. After Frank Smith retired from the sheriff’s office, I obtained his old file on Tammen. He’d created a log of actions and developments complete with dates and times. Frank Smith had obtained his FBI file on January 22, 2008, at 6:30 p.m. to be exact—just as his investigation was getting started and nearly five months before someone within the Cincinnati office decided to destroy its Classification 190 file on Tammen.
Hello! Tired of hearing from me so much? My apologies. Sometimes I get gabby. There’s another document I’ve been wanting to mention, but it falls slightly outside of last night’s theme—slightly—though the year 2008 is pertinent. This document was written in 2014 as part of my lawsuit settlement. The intended audience wasn’t law enforcement, just my lawyer and me.
The document is part of a declaration written by the chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS) informing us of all the different places they searched for records on Tammen. The 2002 expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints isn’t mentioned anywhere, but I’m not sure that information is available in document form, which is a criterion of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It has to be a document. (Of course, even if there were a document on the expungement, I’m doubtful that they would have let me know about it if they weren’t willing to tell their friends in law enforcement.)
In the declaration, the RIDS chief created a table that listed search terms, the automated or manual indices searched, and the potentially responsive files. It also included the status of their search, such as “unable to locate” or “located, processed and released X pages” or “destroyed on X date.” One file that leaps out at me is numbered 190-CI-0, Serial 967, which I’ve circled in red.
On or about May 17, 2008—a Saturday—the FBI decided to destroy documents that had originated in the Cincinnati (CI) field office. Because the file number is preceded by the number 190, I believe it had something to do with the Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts. The book Unlocking the Files of the FBI, by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart tells me that. The book goes on to say that “The Bureau established this classification in 1976 to handle citizen requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 as amended and the Privacy Act (PA) of 1974, which together provided for the expungements of records upon the request of an individual.”
Hmm. Those words have a familiar ring, don’t they?
With the case being reopened by Butler County, OH, and Walker County, GA, in 2008, and with the FBI opening a new file on Tammen that same year (not to mention the special file with the plagiarized narrative), doesn’t it seem a little curious that the Cincinnati office—just one county over from Butler County—would destroy a file on Tammen in mid-May of 2008?
Let’s take a closer look at the timeline, shall we?
January 14, 2008 – The Atlanta office of the FBI is contacted by the Walker County (GA) sheriff’s office to request the “opening of a police cooperation matter.” The Atlanta office was told of Walker Co.’s interest in reopening a cold case having to do with a dead man who was found in a ditch near Lafayette in the summer of 1953. The Walker Co. sheriff’s office wanted to find out if the dead man might be Ron Tammen. According to the resulting FBI report, dated January 29, 2008, Walker Co. was “requesting Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assistance with positive identification and investigation.” The report ends with “In view of the above, it is requested that a Police Cooperation matter be opened and assigned to SA [redacted].”
February 8, 2008 – The remains of the unidentified man are exhumed from Lafayette City Cemetery, in Lafayette, GA, to obtain his DNA. That DNA would be compared with the DNA of Ron Tammen’s sister Marcia to see if it might have been Ron. Representatives of the Butler Co. (OH) and Walker Co. sheriff’s offices, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the media, and other onlookers are present.
February 26, 2008 – Frank Smith, Butler County cold case detective, writes to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) requesting a hand search for Ron’s fingerprint card.
February 28, 2008 – CJIS writes back, saying (and I’m paraphrasing): sorry, we’ve looked everywhere for Tammen’s fingerprints. They’re not here. The author neglects to mention that they’d expunged Tammen’s prints in 2002 in response to a court order or Privacy Act conflict.
March 14, 2008 – The dead man’s remains are received by the FBI Laboratory, DNA Analysis Unit.
May 17, 2008 – File number 190-CI-0, Serial 967 is destroyed in the FBI’s Cincinnati office.
June 2, 2008 – The FBI notifies the two sheriff’s departments that the DNA was not a match.
June 3, 2009 (one year later) – The Atlanta office of the FBI closes the case into the Police Cooperation matter.
So, to put this as simply as I can: a few months after the dead man’s remains had been exhumed, and while the two sheriff’s offices were eagerly awaiting the DNA results and wondering if they’d actually managed to solve both cold cases at once, an FBI file having something to do with Ronald Tammen was destroyed. On a Saturday. Just a short drive from the Butler Co. sheriff’s office, or, come to think of it, Oxford, Ohio.
Also, the file in question just so happens to concern a possible FOIA or Privacy Act request from an individual. Yeah, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. Nothing to see here.
Have a good weekend, everyone! I’m happy to entertain questions and comments.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Coincidentally or not, June 5, 1973, also happened to be exactly 20 years after the memo was sent from Headquarters to the Cleveland office in which they acknowledged that the young man who had been reported missing by his mother was the same person who had been fingerprinted back in 1941. For this reason, some readers may conclude that the removal of whatever it was from Ron’s record is not coincidental—that the FBI may have had a protocol in which, if there were no promising leads in 20 years, the FBI would make some sort of status change in the case, perhaps to the point of calling off the search.
This makes sense, except for a couple factors: I’ve received no indication from any source that there ever was a 20-year cut-off. When I asked Stephen Fischer, chief of multimedia productions and the media liaison for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS), if he had a suggestion regarding the meaning of the phrase “Removed from Ident files,” he said, “Sorry, but we do not.” If they had a 20-year rule, it would have been easy enough for him to say so. Also, if there were a 20-year deadline, wouldn’t it have coincided with the date in which the missing person report was filed, which was May 26, 1953?
I do think that the 20-year timeframe is significant, but not because of FBI protocol. I think it’s significant because of the news article that ran on the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which brought about the Welco lead.
So the question remained: What was removed from the Ident. files, and why?
There’s something that I need to share with you at this point, and I do so with a great deal of embarrassment. Sometimes, when a lot of information comes at me firehose style, I’ll focus on what I believe to be the most crucial take-home message—such as the fact that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002 and the FBI had probably confirmed him dead seven years prior—while accidentally letting some of the other details slip by, even though they may be even more important in answering a question at hand. As I was writing this blog post, I revisited emails from 2015 in which I was discussing the “Removed from Ident files” language with members of the FBI. Even though Stephen Fischer said that they didn’t know what it could refer to, Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, did have something interesting to say.
“The reference to ‘Removed from Ident File,’” he wrote to me in an email, “refers to the missing person notice on file.”
Ron’s missing person file was the one that begins with the number 79—#7931966, to be exact—that you see scribbled on many of the FOIA documents, and it contained correspondence between FBI Headquarters and its field offices as well as the Tammens. It was different from the fingerprint card that was contained in Ron’s #358 406 B file. Fox also said that Tammen’s missing person file was managed by the Identification Division.
At that moment, nearly three years after first reading Fox’s email, the significance of the Identification Division became clear to me. John Fox wasn’t telling me anything that I hadn’t read many times elsewhere. The division’s name had been written in the 5th paragraph of the 5/9/73 memo and in the first paragraph of every form letter leading up to it. It had been written at the top of the May 26, 1953, document in which the Cleveland office summed up its conversation with Mrs. Tammen—ATT: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION. For so long, I had been fixated on the fact that the Identification Division was known informally as the fingerprint division, which housed the hundreds of thousands of fingerprint cards in the enormous building that’s now the D.C. Armory. (Listen to two brief audio clips about the history of the Identification Division and its fingerprint records: Part I and Part II.) All along, I had been grappling with the question of how the FBI could remove Ron’s fingerprints from the Identification Division, but not expunge them until 2002. But it wasn’t just Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints that were maintained by the Identification Division. It was also Ron’s missing person file.
Could it be that Ron’s entire missing person file was removed from the Identification Division on June 5, 1973? Nearly every one of the letters of correspondence regarding Tammen’s case had the words “Removed from Ident files” written on them. In addition, stamped at the bottom of the June 5, 1953, memo are the words “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room,” and a number that looks like 429. The October 11, 1967, letter from Hoover to Mr. Tammen and the 5-22-73 memo from Ruckelshaus to the Cincinnati field office have a similar stamp, but the room has been moved to 1126. In all cases, the stamps are crossed out.
I believe that the reason for the removal of all of those pages was that Ronald Tammen was no longer considered by the FBI to be missing.
Here’s my theory: When J. Edgar Hoover chose not to compare the soldier’s prints with Ron’s in October 1967, he likely already knew what had happened to Tammen and he felt it would have been a waste of time to compare the two men’s fingerprints. It’s also my belief that Ron’s whereabouts were to be kept secret, even from his family members, for whatever reason. (Heck, 65 years after Tammen’s disappearance, I believe that’s still the case.)
In 1973, the Cincinnati SAC didn’t know what Hoover had known. He innocently submitted the fingerprints to Headquarters, and, just as innocently, the Identification Division ran their comparison. But something happened between May 22 and June 5, which led to the FBI’s decision to remove Ron’s missing person file from the Identification Division. Could that be what Ruckelshaus (or whoever authored the 5-22-73 letter for the acting director’s signature) had meant when he said that “MP placed in 1953 to be brought up to date”?
I think someone discovered what Hoover had known in 1967 and ordered that Ron’s missing person file be placed elsewhere, so they would no longer be bothered by additional MP-related requests. His fingerprints, on the other hand, would remain on file with the Identification Division, and later CJIS, until 2002, at which point the prints were expunged.
To sum up where my head is right now: not only do I think that the FBI knew when Ronald Tammen had died—seven years prior to 2002, or around 1995—but I also believe they knew what he was doing when he was still very much alive. They just don’t want us to know they knew.
But it’s still just a theory. I need to talk to a few more people.
On a side note, I’ve come to learn the name of the person who worked at Welco as well as the details that were included in his personnel file. I won’t be revealing his name in order to protect his privacy and the privacy of his family, but I will say this: his name had a similar ring to Tammen’s. It would have been logical for the caller to make that connection because people who run away and change their names often use new names that sound like the old ones. The other details I’ll divulge here are his height and weight, which were recorded in his personnel file as 6 ft. 2 ½ in. and 185 pounds, respectively. Unless Tammen had experienced a major growth spurt after he disappeared—his medical records at Miami listed him as 5 ft. 9 in. in April of ‘53—there was no way this man could be confused with Tammen.