More smoking evidence that Ron Tammen was alive in 2002

Short post tonight, but I can’t keep it in. For most of today, I’ve been doing a deep dive into FBI protocol to help me revise my FOIA request seeking all fingerprint expungement requests between 1999 and June 2002 due to the Privacy Act. As many of you know, June 2002 was when Ron Tammen’s fingerprints had been expunged due to the Privacy Act or a court order. However, in my recent FOIA request on that subject, the FBI claimed that, based on the information I’d provided to them, they were “Unable to identify records responsive to your request.“ For my revised request, I want to point to specific FBI protocols in their own words so their FOIA folks won’t be able to pretend that I didn’t give them enough information.

One of the websites that I visited today was www.governmentattic.org, which is an invaluable website that believes in government transparency. They’ve posted all sorts of random documents from all areas of the federal government that they’ve obtained by submitting their own FOIA requests. There, I was thrilled to find an FBI FOIA and Privacy Act reference manual that covers the time period of January 8, 1987 through March 31, 1998.

Near the end of the manual are memos that deal with agency protocol when handling FOIA and Privacy Act requests. Memo 14, which deals with the correction or expungement of information in FBI files, was issued on March 31, 1998, just four years before Ron’s fingerprints were expunged. It’s pretty short, so I’ll let you read it at your leisure. (Note that the initials PLS stand for paralegal specialist.)

Here are the two key takeaways from this memo:

  1. Among other things, I plan to seek “all correspondence between the Bureau and the requester” for the period of January 1, 1999 through June 30, 2002. There’ll be tons of redactions, no doubt, but we still could get a sense of how many people requested that their fingerprints be expunged during that period due to the Privacy Act.
  2. Best of all, is the first sentence of the last paragraph: “The only person who can make a request for amendment/correction is the subject of the record.”

You guys, we’ve been saying all along that if Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act, then he was alive in 2002, since he’s the only person who can make that request.

It’s just super nice to hear the FBI say so too.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Zeroing in on Ron’s ‘zero’ file

Cincinnati Field Office, image credit: FBI.gov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cincy file

Bridge into Cincinnati; Photo by David Lundgren on Unsplash

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

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

Their timing seems…oh, I dunno…questionable?

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

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

Click on image for a closer view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NARA FOIA rep then added:

Classification 190 files do not include the underlying records. 

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

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

What Part C says

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

At the top of page one, it says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part D, Classification 190

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serial 967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your message. 

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

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

Here’s me again:

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

Any information you can offer would be truly appreciated.

And back to Mikki:

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

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

Thank you.

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

Here’s me again:

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

And back we go to Mikki: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, they knew. They so knew. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eager, anguished fingerprint expungement of June 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on document for a closer view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on document for a closer view

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

Here are my thoughts regarding the FBI email:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would that work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you? Where do you lean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on document for a closer view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word “expunge” fits.

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

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

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

Ron’s case is special.

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

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

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

Purged: All about the OTHER document that used to be inside Ron Tammen’s fingerprint jacket…

…and how it could tell us more about what happened to Ron

It’s (almost) April 19th again, which means that 68 years have come and gone since Ronald Tammen went missing from Miami University, in Oxford, OH. In the four years in which this blogsite has been in existence, and that’s counting that one year we were on a hiatus, we’ve experienced a lot of firsts together, wouldn’t you say?

Remember when we all found out about Ron dropping his psychology course weeks before his disappearance even though that was the textbook laying open on his desk? That was a first! Or when we learned about the woman from Hamilton or about Ron’s walk home from Sunday night song practice? Two more firsts! Or that Dick Titus was the guy who put the fish in Ron’s bed and that Commander Robert Jay Williams was the project manager of ARTICHOKE in March 1952? That adds up to five firsts! And of course there are the two memos that I believe link Ron’s psychology professor, St. Clair Switzer, to the CIA’s drugs and hypnosis studies

In that same vein, my devoted subscribers, occasional drop-ins, and public at large, I’d like to present our topic du jour, which is also a first. It has to do with the “Additional Record Sheets” that the FBI’s Identification Division used to keep in fingerprint jackets with the fingerprint cards when they were still using their manual system. As we’ve established here (in another first!), Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were on file at the FBI from 1941 through 2002, but then the FBI purged them, though no one seems to know (or want to admit) why. This past summer, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Ron’s Additional Record Sheets thinking they might help answer that very question.

At this point in the blog post, I’d like to ask you to do something. Try Googling the term “Additional Record Sheets” plus “FBI” plus “fingerprint” all on the same search bar and see what happens. With the FBI using their manual system for 75 years (from 1924 to 1999), one might think that hundreds of archival documents on their website along with other related websites would turn up. I’d expect to see sample Additional Record Sheets, training booklets, and other records from the agency’s bureaucratic past, some signed by J. Edgar himself. But that’s not what happens. At the time of this writing, eight results turn up, though that number should soon skyrocket to nine with the addition of this blog post. Currently occupying the top and second-place positions is content written by yours truly. In third place is a document posted by someone at the National Archives—and let me just add a great big THANK YOU! to whomever posted that gem, as you’ll soon understand why. What I’m trying to say is, other than you, me, and the former staffers of the FBI’s Identification Division, I don’t think very many people know about Additional Record Sheets. What’s more, I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that this may be the first time in the history of the universe that anyone has submitted a FOIA request (and an appeal, and now the next thing, which I’ll be getting to shortly) on Additional Record Sheets, let alone written an entire blog post on them. We’re trailblazers, y’all!

Before I get to the next steps, I wish to address a question with you: namely, how is it that you and I have even come to know about the elusive and unironically named Additional Record Sheets when the rest of the world seemingly does not? If you thought that one of my sources from the Identification Division (later renamed Criminal Justice Information Services, or CJIS) was casually tossing around the term as I was questioning them about their fingerprint protocol, you would be mistaken. Not one person mentioned Additional Record Sheets or their abbreviated term, ARS, even once. And honestly, where would the challenge have been if they had? 

So how did I get here, where I’m so sure about the existence of Ronald Tammen’s Additional Record Sheets that I’m willing to continue traveling down this lonesome FOIA road, much to the annoyance of the FBI, in hopes of getting my hands on them? Adding two and two probably wouldn’t have cut it. Rather, this particular discovery required the use of an equation in which statements made by person 1 and person 2 were juxtaposed with an observation provided by person 3, and, after a translation to the standard vernacular supplied by a 2008 Fax, the sum of those key terms were then subdivided and reapportioned by way of the aforementioned 2004 National Archives document, made available courtesy of an online search algorithm commonly known as Google. Who said we’d never use new math in our adult lives?

Here’s an excerpt from the conversation I had with the two people who got the ball rolling:

Me: Do you think it’s still odd that they would have purged his prints?

Person #1 (speaking to Person #2): Would they have put things on microfiche?

A little later in the conversation:

Person #2: When they purged the files, they used to put them on microfiche. There should be a record somewhere if those were microfiched.

Me: But would they have told Butler County that they don’t have them even if they had them on microfiche? [I was referring to the year 2008, when the Butler County cold case detective, Frank Smith, had requested a “hand search” for Ron’s fingerprints from CJIS in Clarksburg, WV, and was told they weren’t anywhere to be found.]

Person #1: You see, that doesn’t add up to me.

Person #2: There should be a way for them to identify that they have the prints on microfiche. None of that sounds normal to me.

Me: Which aspect doesn’t sound normal?

Person #2: The fact that they said: we just threw it away. If it went through a process, there should have been a record of the process. Just like these documents here, saying, “removed from FBI file…” So there’s a reason why that happened. I don’t know what that reason would be.

What I learned during this exchange was that A) Under the manual system, the FBI didn’t just destroy fingerprints and be done with them. They required records to be made describing the process by which the fingerprints were destroyed, including the reason for their destruction. Also, B) purged fingerprints weren’t actually purged purged. They were put onto microfiche—a purged print purgatory, of sorts, where they would sit around just in case someone might need them someday. It’s like when you accidentally delete an email. At least for a while, it’s not really deleted—it’s just sitting in a different place (i.e., the trash) so you can retrieve it if you need to. Or when you store documents in the cloud—if your laptop crashes, nothing is really lost. Same concept goes for the purged fingerprint cards.

And so, in theory, if a fingerprint card is purged, they should still have the microfiche and they should still have the records. At the time of our conversation, I was picturing the microfiche in labeled boxes in a dusty storage room, but where were the records kept? We know from an FBI memo that Ron’s fingerprint jacket had exactly one fingerprint card in it in 1973, when they compared his prints to the man from Welco Industries, in Blue Ash, OH. There was no mention of an accompanying record.

Some months went by, and I found myself talking to another FBI retiree about Ron’s missing fingerprints. I asked that person what they would have done with Ron’s prints if he’d died. Here’s what that person said to me:

Person #3: “…even if a print had been identified as deceased, in that jacket, there still would have been information written in there by hand that it had been identified as deceased individual such and such. So all that would have been automated along with the actual fingerprints themselves that were digitized.”

Again with the record-keeping talk. But where were these notes being written? On the fingerprint jacket itself? I was imagining scribbles on a folder. The person specified that the notes were made “in that jacket.”

Their biggest reveal, however, was how the notes were “automated” along with the digitized fingerprints. In other words, all of those explanatory notes wouldn’t have been lost when the FBI changed over from their manual system to the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) in 1999. The notes would have been digitized too.

I went online to see if I could learn more about the FBI’s record-keeping system for purged fingerprints. The keywords I chose were pretty basic—something like FBI, fingerprint, purge, and microfiche. Nothing useful turned up.

At some point, I must have been reminded of the Fax written by the person from CJIS to Frank Smith, and I retrieved it from a manila folder in my research files. It was this Fax that I was referring to when I spoke with persons 1 and 2 about how CJIS couldn’t locate Ron’s fingerprints after Smith had requested them. Here’s what the CJIS rep had written, or SHOUTED, to Smith in February 2008:

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

“Ah, yes, microfilm,” said I, with a palm smack to my forehead. Microfilm is another word for microfiche. When I used it alongside the other search terms, up popped the glorious 2004 National Archives document.

Why is the document so glorious, you ask? As it so happens, federal agencies are required to submit such documents to the National Archives to ensure the proper management of government records. This particular Request for Records Disposition Authority had been submitted by the FBI describing their record retention protocol under IAFIS. The description it contained for Additional Record Sheets was exactly as persons 1, 2, and 3 had told me:

Additional Record Sheets (ARS): Prior to automation, CJIS maintained fingerprint files in a manual jacket. The cards were two-hole punched and attached to a file back by the use of a two-pronged clasp. The file back was known as the ARS back. One side of the ARS back contained employee identification numbers and dates that indicated when a file was pulled for some action. The other side of the ARS back was used primarily to record any disseminations of the record, including notations of expungements or purges of record entries, such as deletions of arrests for non-serious offenses. ARS backs were only maintained for criminal fingerprint cards. CJIS is in the process of converting these cards to electronic format.

Granted, the above paragraph is a little confusing, since it refers to fingerprint “files” instead of cards, and ARS “backs” or “cards” instead of sheets. Here’s how I picture it: Inside the fingerprint jacket was a fingerprint card and behind that card, attached with a two-pronged clasp (remember those things?), was another card, called the ARS back (because it was in the back, get it?), where notes would be written on both sides. 

But you’re in luck. The FBI has posted a video on YouTube that discusses the digitization of their hard copy fingerprints, and on that video is a photo of a long-ago staffer reviewing someone’s fingerprint cards along with—YES!—their Additional Record Sheet. And now, without further ado, I present a screen grab of an Additional Record Sheet, in full view, outside its protective fingerprint jacket.

A closer, albeit blurrier view of an Additional Record Sheet

GED

How does the National Archives document apply to Ron Tammen? 

The 2004 disposition authority request submitted by the FBI to the National Archives has a lot to say about how long the FBI should retain criminal and civil fingerprints under IAFIS, not to mention the Additional Record Sheets and microfilm. Below is a link to the document as well as a timeline to help show where Ron factors in, and why, to quote person #1, his case “doesn’t add up.”

1941 – Ron Tammen is fingerprinted in Fairview Village (now named Fairview Park), OH, along with his second-grade classmates, and the fingerprint card is sent to FBI Headquarters. Ron’s fingerprints would have likely been held in the civil file at this point.

1953 – Ron Tammen disappears from Miami University on April 19. Mrs. Tammen soon contacts the FBI’s Cleveland office and they send a report to headquarters, where his fingerprints are discovered. His prints would have been moved into the criminal file at this time, since that’s where missing persons’ fingerprints were routinely maintained. 

1958 – The FBI begins its microfilm program as a space-saving measure. In a 1991 booklet on the Identification Division of the FBI, the duties of the Microfilm Unit are described as primarily to thin out the fingerprint jackets of repeat offenders. The unit also microfilmed the fingerprints of subjects who’d died.

1973 – Tammen’s fingerprint card is reliably in its jacket when Tammen’s prints are compared to the guy who worked for Welco Industries in Blue Ash, OH, near Cincinnati. The date in which they pulled his card for comparison would have been included on Ron’s ARS back along with a brief description of actions taken.

1992 — The Identification Division’s name is changed to Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS).

1995 – CJIS relocates to Clarksburg, WV.

1999 – This is a big year for the folks in fingerprinting. They begin converting from a manual system to IAFIS, digitizing all of their fingerprint cards along with the Additional Record Sheets. They also stop putting fingerprints onto microfilm because they no longer need to worry about all those fingerprint cards exceeding their cabinet space. Nevertheless, they retain the 38,000-plus microfilm rolls they have, which contain roughly 50 million prints.

It should be mentioned here that the fingerprint cards are NOT destroyed immediately after they’ve been scanned. According to the 2004 disposition authority request: “At the present time, CJIS maintains a dual recordkeeping system consisting of an electronic fingerprint identification system (IAFIS) as well as a paper based repository of criminal master fingerprint cards. In 1995, CJIS and the [FBI’s] Laboratory Division signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing that CJIS would continue to maintain the paper file until both parties approve its destruction.” It goes on to say that the two divisions signed the MOU because the IAFIS fingerprint scans didn’t meet the Laboratory’s resolution specs. So that’s interesting.

2002 – Three years after the rollover to IAFIS, Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints are purged from the system with seemingly no explanation. Because we now know that the FBI had both electronic and hard copy versions of fingerprints in their care at this time, we also know that it probably wasn’t just a computer glitch or human error that caused Ron’s fingerprints to disappear. Someone had to make a special trip over to the manual files, seek out Ron Tammen’s fingerprint card, and purposely destroy it as well. Did it happen on the same day? We don’t know that. But with the window of time being between 1999, when his fingerprints would have ostensibly been digitized, and 2008, when Frank Smith requested the hand search, I’d say the chances are good that whatever inspired someone to delete Tammen’s electronic prints in 2002 would have been enough motivation for them to destroy his manual file at that time as well.

July 2, 2004 – The FBI submits its disposition authority request to the National Archives. In a nutshell, it says that the FBI should retain fingerprints until the individual reaches 99 years of age or seven years following notification of the subject’s death for both electronic and paper records. Same for the Additional Record Sheet scans. It also adds this powerful phrase for all of the above: “whichever is later.” This means that 99 years of age is the YOUNGEST a person should be before these records can be deleted. If he or she should die an untimely death, say, at a youthful 98 1/2, the FBI would, in theory, be required to wait an additional seven years before the fingerprints and Additional Record Sheets could be deleted. Here are the specifics:

  • Criminal Subject Master File (scanned fingerprints): DELETE/DESTROY when the individual is 99 years of age or 7 years after notification of an individual’s death, whichever is later.
  • Additional Record Sheets: Hard copy files: DESTROY after verification of a successful scan. Scanned version: DELETE when the individual has reached 99 years of age, or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.
  • Criminal Fingerprint Cards/Records (hard copy fingerprints): DESTROY when the records indicate that the individual has reached 99 years of age or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.
  • Microfilm Library: The entire microfilm collection will be maintained until the birth date of the most recent set of fingerprints (i.e., born in 1981) reaches 99 years of age. DESTROY in 2080.

February 2008 – Detective Frank Smith contacts CJIS requesting a hand search for Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. Not only don’t they have his prints as a scan or hard copy, they’re not on microfilm either. 

What does it all mean?

Just this: When the FBI decided to purge Ronald Tammen’s fingerprint files, they broke the retention rules that had been approved by the National Archives. In federal lingo, this means that one or more persons within the FBI (allegedly) committed an unauthorized disposition of federal records

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Jenny, this document was from 2004, and Ron’s fingerprints were purged in 2002. How do you know that these rules were in effect two years earlier?

I know this because the document says on its cover page that it consolidates four disposition authority requests from previous years (1990, 1995, 2000, and 2002) “into one comprehensive document.” As back-up, I also have all four of the earlier disposition authority requests. Below is the document that establishes the 99-year/”whichever is later” rule, as you can see by the handwritten notes. You guys, they’d been doing it this way since at least 1995.

You may also notice on the 2004 document some crossed-out paragraphs that were superseded in 2010 by new language. Below is the document from 2010, which now stipulates that they should maintain everything until a person reaches the age of 110, period, whether they lived or died. They don’t mention the seven years after confirmed death and they no longer mention “whichever is later.” If there’s a document that supersedes this one, it isn’t referenced here, as far as I can tell.

I know what else you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Jenny, I’m sure they hadn’t finished scanning those millions of fingerprint cards in 1999. Is it possible that they were about to scan Ron’s fingerprints in 2002, noted how many years had passed since he’d disappeared, and decided to purge them at that time?

I mean…it’s possible, but that’s not how it was described to me in 2015 when the FBI spokesperson had written the following: “Jennifer — We ran the FBI# and discovered it was expunged from our system in 2002. No other info available.” “Expunged from our system” tells me that Ron’s fingerprints had already been scanned into IAFIS (the “S” in IAFIS stands for “system”) and was later expunged, or purged, a term the spokesperson later used. Also, even if it happened that way, it would have still been against protocol, since Ronald Tammen wouldn’t have been 99 years of age.

Here are the take-homes:

  • According to their own rules, the FBI should have been able to produce Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints, both the electronic and hard copy versions, when Frank Smith requested them in 2008. Also, based on the 1995, 2004, and 2010 disposition documents, they should be able to produce them today. Even if Ronald Tammen were known to be dead, the FBI should have his fingerprints on file until at least the year 2032, 99 years after Tammen was born. Or if they’re going by the 2010 disposition protocol, they should have them until the year 2043.
  • Those who have been following this blog for a while are keenly aware that I’d thought that Ron Tammen had probably died in 1995, when I was informed that his fingerprints were purged in 2002. I thought this because I’d been told by the FBI’s spokesperson that the FBI purged fingerprints at 110 years of age or seven years after confirmed death. It was presented as an either-or scenario and, because Ron was nowhere near 110, I chose door B. If the FBI had been following their IAFIS protocol, even if Tammen were dead, those fingerprints should have been there in 2002, in 2008, and many years hence. So, guess what this means? It means we still don’t know if Tammen is alive or dead, and I have no idea what compelled them to purge his prints in 2002.
  • As for the missing microfilm, if Ron had died before 1999, the FBI might have also microfilmed his fingerprints. However, if he died after 1999, they likely wouldn’t have—they were purportedly done with microfilming. You’d think that it would be a much more involved process to delete a set of fingerprints if they’re buried somewhere within an entire roll of microfilm. I don’t think there’s much we can do to find out. You know the title of that Frozen song that’s really fun to crank up and sing your heart out to when you’re alone in a car? I think that sentiment applies here.
  • And what of the Additional Record Sheets? The hard copies would have been destroyed after they scanned them, as described in the 2004 retention protocol, but the electronic versions should be around until at least 2032 and possibly 2043. If I were a gambling person, I’d bet that they deleted the scans at the same time that they were deleting his electronic fingerprint file. I mean, if they’re going to break one rule, they might as well break all the rules, right? Nevertheless, it’s a question worth pursuing, and pursue it, we will.

Next steps

Before I tell you the next steps, I need to fill you in on some stuff. On March 23, the Department of Justice ruled on my appeal for the Additional Record Sheets and I lost. In the DOJ’s eyes, because of my 2012 lawsuit, I have no right to ask them about Ronald Tammen ever again, even if I’m asking them about documents that they’d never searched or thought to search before we signed our settlement in 2014. That’s despite the fact that the same DOJ division had ruled in my favor in 2016 when I used the same argument about another Tammen file that they hadn’t searched before. I thought lawyers loved precedent, but apparently not in Ronald Tammen’s case.

If you’re hoping to hear that a new lawsuit against the DOJ is now in full swing, prepare to be let down. The lawyer who represented me in my 2012 lawsuit, a FOIA expert who advised me that my 2014 settlement wouldn’t preclude me from submitting future FOIA requests on Tammen if I should discover relevant files that the FBI hadn’t yet searched, is no longer in private practice. Lately, I’ve been trying to find another FOIA lawyer to represent me, however, one expert had an alternative opinion about the settlement provisions and another might be ghosting me. But don’t feel bad—I have a feeling that this is all just part of the game when you’re dealing with FOIA law and the FBI. (You know in the Frozen song where she sings about not letting anyone see her cry? Some days, that fits too.) In the meantime, I’ll continue looking. 

But there’s another step I can take before I need to start shelling out some of my sad little savings for a lawsuit, if indeed that time comes. It involves our friends at the National Archives, the holder and purveyor of government records. I’m approaching them in two ways. First, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) was started in 2009 to serve as a mediator of FOIA requests, and they’re considered a next stop before a lawsuit. So far, I’ve sent them a detailed email explaining why I should have the chance to see Ronald Tammen’s Additional Record Sheet scans if they still exist and asking them to help make it happen. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Second, I’m reaching out to another division of the National Archives—the people who oversee unauthorized disposition cases. That’s right, readers, I have in my arsenal a weapon known as “tattling,” commonly wielded by individuals of the 6-year-old variety, and by golly, I’m wielding it too. Yes indeed, I’ve recently informed them of what I perceive to be the FBI’s mishandling of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. I don’t know what types of policing powers the nation’s archivists hold. They don’t immediately spring to mind when one thinks of feds who enforce the laws of the land SWAT-team-style—you know, like the FBI? Judging by their web page, they appear to handle such cases through polite correspondence with the agency in question. Nevertheless, I think that someone should register their displeasure. Why not me?

Of course, if Ron Tammen had been working as an undercover operative for the CIA, his fingerprints might have fallen outside the purview of the FBI’s sanctioned fingerprint protocol. When I asked my FBI sources how fingerprints were maintained for people whose identities had been changed by a government agency, such as the CIA, they let me know that they weren’t sure how those cases would have been handled.

“That never was anything that I was, I guess, supposed to know. So I don’t,” one of them said to me.

Just a thank you

Whew—what a year, right, guys? I know we’re not out of the woods yet, but things are definitely looking up, and I am so ready to take to the road again, once it’s safe to do so.

Last year at around this time, just as Covid cases had started popping up everywhere and communities were going into lockdown, I decided to write a Ron Tammen update for the anniversary—the one on Wright Patterson Air Force Base. For the entire previous year, from April 2019 to April 2020, we were on our hiatus, and I was quietly doing my research while writing short updates on Facebook. I didn’t think I had much more to tell you, so I just, you know, withdrew a bit. But once Covid struck, I decided to start back up with the blog, and then we taped the podcast episodes, and everything picked up again. I found that, as we were waiting on ISCAP to rule on the big question, there were numerous other questions needing to be addressed, many of which were posed by you.

Recently, I half-jokingly told a friend that, if it weren’t for her, I think I would have surely perished this year. Thanks to our morning runs and deep and sometimes hilarious convos, I’ve managed to stay healthy and sane throughout this ordeal. I feel the same way about you all. You helped me focus on something other than my mortality. I hope you managed to get through this year in good health as well, and hopefully the blog gave you something else to think about. Anyway, big, big thanks. Also, here are a couple photos of how I spent the pandemic—one in podcasting mode and the other in pre-run mode. Feel free to share photos of yourselves and how you managed to get through this year of insanity as well. Or share a vaccination pic of yourself, and don’t forget to tell us which team you’re on. (Go, team Pfizer!) Of course, if you have thoughts on today’s post, I’d love to hear those as well. The floor is now open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distracted boyfriend

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

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

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

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

So yeah—fingerprints, baby!

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

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

Who can submit fingerprints to the FBI?

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

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

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

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

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

How are fingerprints submitted now?

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

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

What does the FBI number mean?

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

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

What information was included in the fingerprint file/jacket?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What does it mean to expunge fingerprints?

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

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

When are fingerprints expunged?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one knowledgeable source said:

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

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

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

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

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

How do you fingerprint a dead body?

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

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

What types of records are kept after fingerprints are expunged?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion: When a missing person’s records go missing

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

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

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

IDK

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

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