…and the answer has been on page 1 of Ron’s FOIA docs this whole entire time
One of the ongoing questions of my search for what happened to Ron Tammen has been the location of the “Ident Missing Person File Room”—the string of words that had been stamped on some, though not all, of Ron’s missing person documents. We’ve known that the Ident Missing Person File Room was in room 1126 of some building, ostensibly in the Washington, D.C. region, though we didn’t know which building.
For months, I’ve been expending some serious brainpower—and not just my brainpower, but yours too—trying to come up with ways that I might discover the location of room 1126. Thanks to your creative suggestions, I’ve submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking phone directories, floor plans, key receipts, custodial routes, maintenance requests, installation orders, you name it, for some of the more likely contenders. You may recall reading blog posts in which I advanced hypotheses for the location of room 1126—first, inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and, on second thought, the Department of Justice Building.
Why would I do all of that? Because I believe room 1126 is significant to Ron’s story.
But lately, I’ve grown weary of FOIA. So much back-and-forthing with the FBI has thrown buckets of water on my inner fire. They always have the final word, and that word (or words) has been: “unable to identify records that are responsive to your request.” So I thought I’d switch up my game a little. I decided to Google what’s already out there—but not your typical, run-of-the-mill Googling. I mean level-10 Googling. I mean cracking open “Google Books” and diving into the decades-old, government-produced publications that various librarians of sundry institutions have taken the time to copy, cover to cover. And let me tell you…what’s already out there has been illuminating. If you want to get an authentic picture of how things worked back in the day of J. Edgar Hoover, it’s best to consult what the key players had written or said, preferably under oath.
Before we address what makes room 1126 so special, let’s talk about the FBI’s filing system. Honestly, from everything I’ve read, it hasn’t changed that much since Hoover ran the place. OK, yeah, sure, computers. But the overall organization of the files and the related vocabulary are the same today as when Edgar discussed them with his associates and underlings. (Did you know that that’s what he called himself informally? I feel like such an idiot, but I’ve thought of him as J. Edgar for so long that I never knew that his friends called him Edgar.)
For the most part, Edgar Hoover believed in filing everything together. In most cases, every single file representing every single investigation has been lumped together into one ginormous records system, which is referred to as the Central Records System. In Edgar’s idealistic world, everyone’s records should be treated the exact same way—whether you’re a habitual law breaker or a squeaky clean job applicant in need of a routine background check. Then as now, they commonly refer to these files as the “main files,” or the “main bureau files.”
What divides them are the classification numbers that precede every FBI case number. Missing person cases start with the number 79. Crime on the high seas begins with 45; fraud against the government is 46; and impersonation, 47. If you had the number 53 in front of your case file, you were being investigated for “excess profits on wool,” which I guess was a problem around World War I, but they don’t use that one anymore. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s not all kidnappings (7), extortion (9), and counterfeiting (55). There are respectable classifications too—like 66 (administrative matters), 67 (personnel matters), and 240 (FBI training). As of this writing, there are 281 classifications in all, which you can peruse here.
To help FBI staff locate files, they created indexes, 3” X 5” cards arranged alphabetically by subject on which pertinent case numbers were written. Let’s say you worked in the Files and Communications Division and you were asked to name check someone. You’d look up that person’s name on a card in the general index, and there, on that card, would be numbers of relevant case files to check. It gets way more complicated, with multiple indexes and cross-references, but for our purposes, the indexes helped FBI staff find pertinent case files on a given subject.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What about fingerprints?”
Fingerprint files are maintained separately from the Central Records System, as are records that are entered into the National Crime Information Center. These resources were formerly housed within the Identification Division, now the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, and are accessible to law enforcement agencies around the country. The Central Records System, on the other hand, is only accessible to FBI staff and, at least before computers, primarily staff in the Files and Communications Division, who would provide the files to other FBI staffers on a short-term loan basis.
What I’m getting at is that, under the normal system, missing person cases were filed along with everything else in the main files. If the FBI was fortunate enough to have a missing person’s fingerprints, as they did in Ron’s case, that person’s records would be filed in their fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division. And even though fingerprint jackets were maintained separately from the Central Records System, I’m guessing that the folks in Files and Communications would at least have an index card with the missing person’s name on it to help them find those records too if need be. But that’s just a guess.
What wasn’t a normal part of the FBI’s recordkeeping system was putting some of the missing person files in a special room: #1126. That was unusual.
At this point, let’s switch over to my favorite format, Q&A. Who wants to start us off?
The Identification Building—which was nicknamed the Ident Building—is so named because the enormous Identification Division was located there for many years. But other divisions were located there too, namely the Files and Communications Division, and later, once the FBI was computerized, the Computer Systems Division.
Why do you think the FBI would have needed a Missing Person File Room apart from the main files?
My guess? Secrecy. When Hoover was the FBI director, he and his leadership team felt the need to keep sensitive documents locked away in cabinets and special rooms, so that only a select few people would know about them or see them. I have a theory on why they might have done that for missing persons in particular, which I’ll explain a little later.
I’d heard that Hoover had kept secret files in his office. Did his associate directors and assistant directors have secret files too?
The short answer is yes.
Not long after Hoover died on May 2, 1972, the public learned about files that he kept in his office area, which was a suite consisting of nine rooms on the fifth floor of the Department of Justice building. According to Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary for over 50 years, there were several types of files housed there:
Hoover’s personal files, which were described as personal correspondence between Hoover and people in his sphere, many famous and politically powerful. (At Hoover’s instruction, Gandy destroyed all of the personal files shortly after Hoover died.)
Estate files, which had to do with Hoover’s house, taxes, etc.
Hoover’s “Official and Confidential” files, which had been widely publicized in the media and were considered extremely sensitive on a range of topics.
A category that Gandy only referred to as “special,” which were also highly confidential, and kept under “lock and key.”
Mark Felt, who is famously known as the anonymous source Deep Throat during Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting of Watergate, was responsible for taking over the Official and Confidential (OC) files after Hoover’s death. Felt oversaw the inventorying of those files, but they remained in his office until he retired in 1973. They were later placed in the Special File Room, a room set aside by the bureau for confidential files. (If you want to read Hoover’s OC files, you can do so here.)
In 1975, Felt told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations that it wasn’t just Hoover who was withholding sensitive documents. The division directors were too. Shortly before Hoover’s death, Felt had been tasked with consolidating the sensitive division files in his office. He obtained about two file cabinets’ worth, which he promptly locked up.
John P. Mohr, who oversaw the FBI’s Administrative Division and several others, said this to the subcommittee about his own secret files: “They were files that I maintained that were not in the record of the Bureau’s files, which were contacts that I had. If you are a smart investigator, and you should be one if you are going to be in this business, you should have your own sources and keep them to yourself.”
What kinds of documents did FBI officials treat as confidential?
Oh, gosh, you name it. The Special File Room held a hodge podge of records on hot-button subjects of the day. They were all indexed, so still officially part of the Central Records System. The point was to restrict access to a limited few, and out of eye shot from most everyone else, especially the majority of Files and Communications staffers.
Included were files containing graphically violent photos, national defense secrets, informants’ names, stuff on Castro, stuff on Cosa Nostra, cases affecting an FBI employee’s family, and more. Of course, if someone important was rumored to be gay, that would have made the cut. The Special File Room wasn’t especially spacious so it was considered only temporary housing for a file, though admittedly “temporary” could mean years. Division heads were periodically asked to review the files they were maintaining there and to let Files and Communications staff know when a file had lost some of its radioactivity (so to speak) so they could be returned to the main files. Speaking of radioactivity, files related to the Atomic Energy Commission were included there as well.
Back to the Missing Person File Room, why would a bunch of missing person files be kept secret?
I think I know. In the mid-1970s, Americans were learning that the FBI as a general practice held onto just about everything that anyone mailed or called in on someone—usually derogatory, rarely complimentary—even if the tipster was anonymous. (This helps explain why the Cincinnati Field Office responded to that anonymous call in 1973 to check out the employee at Welco Industries.) During another 1975 hearing (the 94th Congress was busy), members of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights voiced their displeasure over this practice. They were particularly concerned about information being held on members of Congress, however, it was emphasized that legislators are treated no differently than any other citizen.
Here’s an exchange between M. Caldwell Butler, of Virginia, and then-FBI Director Clarence Kelley concerning a made-up person named John Jones:
Mr. Butler: “Let us just take John Jones and somebody says to the Bureau there is a guy named John Jones in Boston who is nuts. What do you do with that? Can you not just throw it away, or do you have to really put it in the miscellaneous file, index it and keep it there, and then go through the purging procedure later, or does the guy lose his job if he does not file it?”
Mr. Kelley: “I am confident again that some of it is not put in the file. But the general instruction is that it does go into the file, it having been reported to us by a citizen, and in the orderly conduct of our business we are to take information which is unsolicited and comes to us.”
So let’s ponder on that for a second. Whenever someone—anyone—went missing, even if the FBI wasn’t conducting an investigation, which is the norm for most missing persons cases, they were probably receiving a lot of unsolicited letters and phone calls from acquaintances of that person, be they friend or foe. These wouldn’t be the “he was such a nice guy” sort of call. They’d be juicier, perhaps scandalous—something that might help explain why such a nice, quiet person up and vanished. Kelley admitted that that’s the sort of information the FBI would gladly accept and file. And with as much publicity as missing person cases receive, I’d imagine that if any of the classifications had a need for their very own special file room, classification 79 would.
Why do you think room 1126 is in the Ident Building?
I was still leaning heavily toward the DOJ Building, when things began to fit much better for the Ident Building. Here’s what led me to my conclusion.
The Department of Justice Building Map doesn’t fit.
I managed to find several telephone directories for the Department of Justice during that general time period, which included a map of the DOJ building’s layout. (Thanks again, Google Books!) I then developed a chart of room numbers on the first floor where Special Investigative Division staff were located in 1975, before they moved into the FBI Building. Although they were located in almost every corridor, no one had an office in the 1100 corridor, which was still occupied by DOJ administrative staff. Therefore, even if there was a room 1126 in that corridor (which I still haven’t confirmed), a DOJ administrator would’ve had to be responsible for the missing person files, which is highly unlikely. That isn’t how the FBI operated.
Files and Communications were responsible for all files, even the special ones.
The Files and Communications Division had a lot of say regarding management of the bureau’s files. If a division wanted to house a sensitive file in the Justice Building for accessibility, they needed to alert Files and Communications first, and it was signed out on a short-term basis, usually with the file kept in a supervisor’s office. Although we learned from Mark Felt that divisions had their own stash of special files, they would’ve been in a locked file drawer, not occupying an entire room. Also, they wouldn’t have had their own stamp declaring it the “Ident Missing Person File Room.”
The Files and Communications Division occupied much of the first floor of the Identification Building.
To reiterate, all bureau files—including those in the Special File Room—were the responsibility of the Files and Communications Division, which occupied several floors of the Identification Building, including the first floor. From 1961 to 1972, the Special File Room was located in room 1315 Ident, and the supervisor in charge of the Special File Room was located in room 1113 Ident. The Special File Room was later moved to the third floor of the Ident Building before everyone moved to the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
The numbering fits.
Room numbers in the Identification Building were in four digits, with the first digit indicating the floor number. Therefore, room number 1126 fits the scheme for a first-floor room. Also, I compared office numbers listed in the 1975 telephone directory, and a number of them correspond to one another by floor. For example, there were offices in rooms 3129, 5129, and 6129. Even though no one had an office number 1126—why would they if it was full of missing person files?—someone did have an office in room 3126, two floors up. We also know that the health center was in room 1121, which would have been a few doors down from 1126.
‘Ident’ is used two ways.
This was perhaps a big source of my confusion. Sometimes “Ident” refers to the Identification Building. And sometimes it refers to the Identification Division. When they wrote “Removed from Ident files” on Ron’s missing person documents, they were talking about the division.
Likewise, the “Ident” in front of “Missing Person File Room” on the stamp was likely referring to the division, although it could have been referring to the building. Either interpretation works.
But are you ready for the clincher? On the first page of the May 26, 1953, report summarizing Mrs. Tammen’s phone call, off to the right of Ron’s identifying features, are the words “Copy of photo filed in 1126 Ident.” Below that is the date 6-5-73. And below that are the initials MSL. They did the customary thing and put the room number in front of the name of the building—1126 Ident. They told us which building. They’d been telling us all along.
And you guys? Now that we know the exact location of the Ident Missing Person File Room, suddenly I’m in the mood to submit a few more FOIAs. Funny how that happens.
You know how it feels when you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle and a puzzle piece doesn’t fit quite right? It looks like it should fit. It seems as if it has all the right edges. But when you try to insert one piece’s knobby end into the corresponding cut-out area of another piece, you discover that you have to use too much force jamming it in. That’s how I felt about my hypothesis from January 21 on the location of the Ident Missing Person File Room—room #1126 in an unnamed building. Lots of details seemed to fit the J. Edgar Hoover Building, but I’ll admit that other details required a little too much, um, creative-thinking, shall we say? Case in point: when I proposed that the Identification Division had assigned a number to the Missing Person File Room that was based on the future numbering system of a building that was still in the blueprint stage, well, that’s getting pretty creative. Also, if the room was going to be housed on the 11th floor with all of the muckety mucks in Identification, as I’d proposed in my hypothesis, it should have had five digits, not four. It should have been room #1126-something, like 11261 or 11265. You get the gist.
So, I admit it. I was wrong. I apologize for the confusion and I humbly beg your forgiveness. As I believe I’ve mentioned in past posts, I am a human being with all of the accompanying accoutrement and baggage.
I’m not going to bore you with the precise details of how I came upon the new hypothesis because, truth be told, I don’t think I could replicate the sequence of events. Let’s just say that I read through a bunch of documents, plus I spent more time looking through the 1975 FBI phone directories, then I Googled a bunch of stuff based on what I’d learned through said documents and phone directories. Coffee was involved as well.
Now, several days later, I think we’re getting really, REALLY close to knowing the truth behind the Ident Missing Person File Room, and why some of Ron’s missing person documents were housed there.
Here’s how we’re going to do this. Far be it from me to bury the lede, so I’m going to tell you very soon—in the very next paragraph, in fact—what I discovered. Then, I’ll try to address all of the questions that I can imagine swirling around in your collective brains.
Here’s what I discovered: Room 1126 was very likely a room on the first floor of the Department of Justice Building, a building that had housed more than two-fifths of the FBI before the J. Edgar Hoover Building was completed in 1975. The division that maintained room 1126, the Ident Missing Person File Room, was very likely…wait for it…the FBI’s Special Investigative Division.
And now, some Qs and As:
Really? Are you sure?
I’m pretty darn sure. But you may have noticed that I used the words “very likely” twice in the above paragraph. That’s because, although I haven’t yet found a document that directly links room 1126 to the Special Investigative Division, I’ve discovered lots and lots of connecting dots that link the two together.
Why do you think the Missing Person File Room was in the DOJ Building?
First, the numbering format of the building fits. The DOJ Building is seven stories high, and its numbering system is always in four digits. Rooms on the first floor all begin with the number one followed by three other numbers.
Second, although I wasn’t able to find documentation of room 1126 (yet), I was able to find documentation of room 1127, which, in February 1976, was the office number of someone by the last name of Newman. Unfortunately, this particular Newman doesn’t appear to be listed in the 1975 FBI phone directories, but that’s OK. I have more to say on Newman in a second.
Third, if you examine those phone directories, you’ll see the names and abbreviations of five buildings listed at the top of the first page. These are the buildings in which the thousands of FBI staff were stationed, and they were scattered around DC and in nearby Silver Spring, MD. You’ll see the initials JEH for the J. Edgar Hoover Building and IB for Identification Building. But there’s one building that isn’t listed at all, even though people were still working inside it. In those instances, a person’s name would be listed, along with a phone extension, and a room number, but no building would be specified. I later found this was the Department of Justice Building. Furthermore, with one exception, all of the offices that were on the first floor were located in the DOJ building.
Why didn’t they write the name of the DOJ Building in the staff directory?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I’m thinking maybe it was for security reasons. Or maybe, because it was the main administrative building for so many years, the office culture had been to just write the room number. The only time they’d need to name a building was if they were describing a different building. Just guessing though.
Two parter: How did you figure out that the missing building in the directories was the DOJ building, and how did you tie everything to the FBI’s Special Investigative Division?
Oh, this is when things got fun. Remember Newman in office 1127? Well, the documents I found on him or her looked mighty investigative in nature. In February 1976, he or she had requested a slew of files from the Records Management Division. The files that were requested could be subversive or nonsubversive; some were restricted to the DC metro region, and others not.
Then I looked at the 1975 phone directories again. Many of the individuals who were listed without a building were in the FBI’s Special Investigative Division. And most of those individuals also happened to be on the first floor.
That’s when I started Googling the Special Investigative Division like mad. One person, a guy by the name of Courtney Allen Evans, had been named to head the division when it was created in 1961. According to his personnel documents that I found on the FBI Vault site, in 1962, as Evans was starting his new position, he received some room keys. Evans retired in 1964, however, those room numbers correspond to several of the rooms that are listed in the 1975 phone directory for people who worked in the Special Investigative Division, including the man in charge, William V. Cleveland.
Lastly, the annual inspections of the Special Investigative Division for 1962 and 1964 said outright that all division space is located on the first floor of the Justice Building with the exception of some employees who were on the seventh floor.
Hence: the unnamed building in the phone directories was the DOJ Building, and, in 1975, the FBI’s Special Investigative Division occupied the first floor.
Did any of Courtney Evans’ room keys happen to be for room #1126?
Sadly, no. But documents show that Courtney also had a master key to the entire first floor, which he returned when he retired.
You said there was one exception to your discovery that all of the offices that possessed first-floor room numbers in the phone directories were located in the DOJ Building. What was the exception?
The exception was in the Identification Building, which had one room listed on the first floor, #1121. That room was the health service for the Identification Division. Although I’m a big believer in health, I wish this office hadn’t existed because its room number is very close to the number 1126, which plants a small seed of doubt regarding my theory. Nevertheless, I think the preponderance of evidence supports the notion that 1126 was in the DOJ Building.
That’s very interesting, but I’m still thinking about the health clinic in the Identification Building. Why don’t you think room 1126 was somewhere nearby?
Two reasons: First, not one person with whom I’ve spoken who had worked in the Identification Building has ever heard of the Ident Missing Person File Room. Not a soul. And I spoke with people who, if there was such a thing on the first floor of the building in which they worked, they should have known about it.
Second, it wasn’t the protocol. Missing person documents were normally filed with the Records Management Division. The missing person file room was not part of the Identification Division’s day-to-day business of handling missing person cases.
Wow. If you’re right, this would help answer a lot of questions about the Missing Person File Room stamp on Ron’s documents, wouldn’t it?
Go on…I’m listening…
Well, there’s the question of why don’t they identify the building after the room number on the stamp? But if it’s the DOJ Building, they probably didn’t feel the need to add the name of the building, just like with the phone directories.
Also, there’s the question of why does the word “Ident” precede the words “Missing Person File Room”? If the room was housed somewhere in the Identification Division, they shouldn’t have to specify Ident, should they?
You know, that’s another really good point. If we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who worked in the Special Investigative Division, they might have labeled their Missing Person File Room with the prefix “Ident” to reinforce the fact that the files originated with the Identification Division. The name may have been a shout-out to the fine folks in Identification, though the file room resided within the Special Investigative Division.
What’s so special about the Special Investigative Division?
Let’s start with some historical perspective: the Special Investigative Division didn’t exist until 1961, when Courtney Evans was named to the head post by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had decided to split his investigations team into two divisions—the General Investigative Division and the Special Investigative Division—as a tactical maneuver to help reduce friction between the FBI and Hoover’s two nemeses, President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Both Kennedys liked and trusted Evans, and Evans served as a liaison to both men.
The General Investigative Division covered all of the typical FBI cases: murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and the like, as well as fraud, embezzlement, and civil rights cases.
The Special Investigative Division, on the other hand, covered three main categories. The first was organized crime, which, according to a 1975 FBI brochure, was defined as “a lawless empire involved in gambling, loan sharking, narcotics, prostitution, labor-racketeering, extortion, and any other venture where easy money can be made.” Organized crime includes the mafia, but it can also include gangs and other organized groups. The Special Investigative Division also investigated fugitives—people who escaped arrest or incarceration. They were also the group who investigated Selective Service Act violations, aka draft dodgers.
Lastly, agents in the Special Investigative Division were the ones who were called upon to investigate individuals who were being considered for employment in high or sensitive government posts under the “Security of Government Employees program.” As the 1975 brochure states, “These investigations ensure that appropriate Government officials have the necessary information on which to judge whether a person chosen to serve the American public is deserving of the trust placed in him as a public servant.”
So why do you think the Special Investigative Division would have had Ron’s missing person file?
Exactly. Why would the Special Investigative Division want to investigate Ron Tammen?
I don’t believe Ron was linked in any way to organized crime, so let’s just toss that one out right now. We know all about the source of the fish in the bed, and so did the FBI. It wasn’t the mob. And there’s no indication that Ron was involved in any of the nefarious activities previously mentioned.
What about fugitive or Selective Service Act violation cases? We already know that Ron was investigated for draft dodging beginning in 1953. But that case was closed in 1955 by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, Ohio. (I’ve submitted a FOIA request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, by the way, to find out how typical that action was.) So with the Special Investigative Division starting in 1961, I highly doubt that they would have reopened Ron’s Selective Service case. No way.
Let’s see, let’s see…so what’s left?
What about the very happy-sounding and not-at-all-worrisome program known as the “Security of Government Employees program”? When I looked up that program, a page popped up on the National Archives and Records Administration website that states that this investigative program (labeled Classification 140 in FBI parlance) was established by the FBI in 1953 as a way of enforcing Executive Order 10450, which was the executive order signed by President Eisenhower to root out and fire gay government employees. We’ve discussed the Lavender Scare on this site before, and how the FBI was descending on civil servants and subjecting them to intense interrogation about their personal lives. Well, now we know the people who were doing it: our friends in the Special Investigative Division.
Now, recall that, in 1953, the Special Investigative Division didn’t exist yet—they inherited the program later. But Ron’s documents were very likely passed along to them—for whatever reason—after they were established in 1961.
Do you think that’s why Ron’s documents were housed there—through the Security of Government Employees program?
It’s tough to say, since we don’t have the documents. But we do know that the FBI was investigating Ron’s case far more than they would a typical missing person case. I’ve often wondered where those interview reports landed, and my current belief is that many of them may have been stored in the Missing Person File Room.
Do you think the Missing Person File Room is still in the DOJ Building?
If I’m not mistaken, the Special Investigative Division moved out of DOJ later in 1976, and into their new digs at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. In September of that year, a group representing the General Counsel to the Public Documents Commission of the DOJ was occupying Newman’s old office.
So what’s next? What can you do to find out more?
I think this information opens up new territory for Freedom of Information Act requests. First off, I need a floorplan of the DOJ building, like, pronto. I’ve attempted this before and failed. But now I have more reason to push on that.
What do you all think? Can you think of some FOIA requests that are just begging to be submitted?
Any final thoughts?
Just one: We’ve been saying all along that Ron’s missing person case was special. Apparently the FBI’s Special Investigative Division thought so too.
Update regarding my 2/23/22 blog post:
As you may recall, I’ve been trying to figure out if there was a room 1126 in the Department of Justice (DOJ) Building in the early 1970s. If I can prove that, then I think we can reasonably conclude that the Ident Missing Person File Room was under the supervision of the FBI’s Special Investigative Division.
To answer that question, I’ve been attempting to get my hands on the DOJ Building’s floor plan. But I’ve come to learn that the DOJ Building is considered one of the most secure buildings in the federal government. Translation: I won’t be getting a copy. I did manage to locate someone from the General Services Administration who has a copy of the original floor plan from the 1930s, and who was willing to tell me if there was a room 1126. Here’s what she said:
“Looking at the original (1930s) first floor plan for the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building at 950 Pennsylvania Ave NW, there does not appear to be a room 1126. It’s possible that the building was re-numbered between 1930 and 1970, however, the original plans do not contain that number.”
So that’s disappointing.
I then asked: “Did the original floor plan show a room 1127? That could help me determine if there could have been a renumbering afterward.”
Her response was: “No, I do not see a room 1127 either.”
So here’s my thinking: unless the staff member known as Newman was working out of a different building in 1976—and I don’t think he was—they must have renumbered the rooms sometime between 1935, when the DOJ Building was completed, and 1976, when Newman was making his records requests.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Jenny, Newman’s records requests didn’t include the building name—only the number 1127. Is it possible that Newman was working out of the Identification Building? Maybe the Special Investigative Division placed him there so he’d be closer to Records Management, which I seem to recall was also located in the Identification Building.”
Wow…you have an insanely good memory. But while anything is possible, I believe I have proof that that wasn’t the case.
First, although it might have been helpful to place Newman close to Records Management, here’s the snag in that theory: Records Management was part of the Files and Communications Division, and, in February 1976, they had already been occupying the fifth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building for over a year. There would have been no reason for Newman to be in the Identification Building in 1976 as everyone else was moving out.
Also, there really, truly was (and perhaps still is) a room 1127 in the DOJ Building. I know this because I have two documents from September 1976 that tell us so.
The first is a letter dated September 15, 1976, from the deputy archivist of the United States to the General Counsel’s office of the Public Documents Commission, a commission created in 1974 to study “the control, disposition, and preservation of documents produced by federal officials, particularly the President.” It appears as though the commission took over Newman’s office shortly after he and his colleagues moved into the J. Edgar Hoover Building that same year.
The letter’s recipient, an attorney named Dori Dressander, passed away in 1999, I’m sorry to report. Otherwise, I would have definitely reached out to her to ask about the room next door and whether she had any good stories she could tell us about Newman. Some additional research on Ms. Dressander reveals that she was a respected legal scholar who had been working on a book on civil rights under the Eisenhower Administration at the time of her death. After she died, the landlord of her Washington, D.C. apartment sent all of her research papers–which were on loan to her and should have been part of Eisenhower’s Presidential Library — to the landfill, which is sadly ironic, considering her obvious belief in public access to historical records. (Note to self: revise will to donate Ron Tammen files to a millennial whom I like and trust.)
The second document is a write-up from the September 16, 1976, issue of the Federal Register that also lists room 1127, Department of Justice.
So, at least for now, our theory is holding up.
Mind you, there’s still a chance that room 1126 is or was on the first floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, but I doubt it. The stamp on Ron’s missing person documents likely preceded 1975, the year in which the Hoover building was constructed. Also, the first floor was predominantly devoted to administrative-type purposes, such as classrooms, an auditorium, and the personnel office. A computer room for the National Crime Information Center was also on the first floor, in room 1328. Although, at this point, we can’t rule out the J. Edgar Hoover Building entirely, hopefully the additional FOIA documents I’ve requested will help us do so. And who knows, maybe with those documents in hand, we’ll be knocking on the door to the Ident Missing Person File Room–a door that’s maddeningly unremarkable; a door that’s in full view but is way too easy to miss–sooner than we know.
Considering how similar the Ron Tammen and Richard Cox disappearances seemed to be, one question that may have crossed your minds at some point is: were Richard Cox’s missing person documents handled the same way as Ron Tammen’s? In other words, were some of Cox’s documents stamped “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room” too?
To the best of my knowledge, the answer is “no” to both questions.
I know that some of you aren’t convinced that there was a missing person file room per se. But even so…the FBI seemed to be treating the two cases differently, even though there were distinct similarities between them and they’d occurred only three years apart.
Admittedly, I’ve been eyeballing hundreds of pages today and there’s a chance I may have missed something.
And so…I’ve decided to post all of Richard Cox’s FBI documents on this website. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the FBI’s files on Cox have ever been posted in their (supposed) entirety online before. Feel free to explore them at your leisure. There’s quite a bit there and some of it makes for fascinating reading. Also, if you do spot either of the above phrases, or anything else of interest, please let me know. You can find the three CDs’ worth of documents at the bottom of the home page, in the same area as the other documents I’ve posted.
Lastly, if their estimate is still on target, I should be hearing from the Department of Justice by early February regarding my appeal concerning Richard Cox’s Additional Record Sheets. It would be a huge deal if they rule in my favor. I don’t think anyone has ever requested—and received—Additional Record Sheets from the FBI before. Fingers crossed.
A couple days ago, as I was pondering my next move on a recent FOIA request that had left me empty-handed, I turned my sights once again to the July 1975 FBI telephone directory.
You may recall the directory in question. We’d discussed it when I was trying to track down someone who’d removed Ron’s missing person documents from “Ident” in June 1973—someone who appeared to have the initials MSL. The directory header says “Officials and Supervisors” in large print and “Secretaries, Stenos, and Clerical Supervisors” in smaller print. Beneath that header is an unredacted list of former employees and their phone extensions, and following those names are the names and locations of every division, section, unit, and desk in the Bureau. It’s a tiny window into the FBI in the mid-seventies and a window that I needed to peer through a little more intently. I guess you could call me the FBI’s own little Gladys Kravitz.
Not all officials are listed in the 1975 staff directory, mind you. Clarence M. Kelley had been the director since 1973, and his name is nowhere to be found. The logic may have been that if you’re an employee of the Bureau, you should already know who the director is. Shame on you if you needed to ask if Kelley was spelled with an “ey” or just a “y.” But Kelley’s underlings are all present and accounted for, including his associate director Nicholas P. Callahan and the associate directors of each of the 12 divisions and the Office of Planning and Evaluation.
According to the directory, the director’s and associate director’s offices were located on the seventh floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which had been newly completed that very year. Many of the FBI’s employees were also stationed there by then, though not all. People were still occupying space in the Identification Building at 2nd and D Streets SW, as well as an Annex at 215 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the Old Post Office Building, and the Willste Building, which was a high-rise in nearby Silver Spring, MD (and is now a pricey condo building).
Richard H. Ash, who headed up the Identification Division at that time, had an office on the top floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building—the 11th—in room 11255.
Two days ago, I found myself staring vacuously at the second-to-last page of the directory at a general entry for the Identification Division. The entry looked modest for the largest division in the agency. The mammoth sections it oversaw appeared alphabetically as stand-alone entries, typed in all caps with their units beneath, but the division itself appeared on its own in mostly lower-case letters. Only its phone extension managed to convey an elevated degree of importance: 2222. The Identification Division’s room number was 11262 in the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
It sounded familiar, but why?
And then it occurred to me that 1126 is the number for the “Ident. Missing Person File Room,” which had been stamped on several of Ronald Tammen’s missing person records. So far, a total of zero people I’ve spoken with from the FBI’s Identification Division or its successor, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), as well as the Records Management Division, have ever heard of the Missing Person File Room.
For those who may be new to the blog site, the Identification Division’s Missing Person File Room appears to have been a diversion from typical FBI protocol for missing persons. Several of Ron’s papers had been housed there, as indicated by the above stamp, and then the stamp was crossed out at some point, though we don’t know when or why, and we also don’t know where Ron’s papers were stored after that. My thinking is that Ron’s case wasn’t the typical missing person case. I also think they knew he was no longer missing. (You can read every blog post that discusses Ron’s missing person file at this link.)
Could it be, thought I, that the Missing Person File Room was in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, up on the 11th floor, under the watchful eye of the higher-ups in the Identification Division? It only had four numbers, not the five that was characteristic of the 11th floor’s numbering system. But is it…conceivable?
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that it makes no sense. Ron’s missing person documents had (ostensibly) been stamped sometime before June 1973, which precedes the Hoover building by at least two years. How could they specify a room number for a new building before said building had even been built?
Hear me out.
As it so happens, although the J. Edgar Hoover building was nowhere near finished in 1973, it had already been years in development by then, and had been since the early 1960s. In fact, if you’re ever in the mood for some light reading, or, better yet, a natural remedy for covid-fueled insomnia, documents pertaining to the entire process, which began with the formulation of an idea in 1940, can be found on the Government Attic website.
So keeping all of the above in mind, it would seem feasible that, by the summer of 1973, the Identification Division’s management probably was already preparing for its big move. To assist in the transition, perhaps they’d even decided to label some documents according to the new floor plan, even though the numbering system may not have been 100 percent final. Perhaps when they were writing the number 1126 on the line provided by the rubber stamp, they meant 1126-ish.
That might help explain another minor mystery, by the way—the Missing Person File Room stamp itself. I’d often wondered why someone had to write in the room number as opposed to having the room number engraved on the stamp. Was the information held there so confidential that they had to change its location every so often?
My thinking now is that the stamp was made during the transition period when they weren’t exactly sure where the Missing Person File Room would be located. “Just put a blank line there and we can fill in the room number later,” a 1970s office supervisor might have said before pivoting on her platform heels and walking away.
But what about the other buildings that the FBI used back in 1973? Could room #1126 have been in one of those?
I honestly don’t think so. I’ve attempted to obtain floor plans for the Robert F. Kennedy Building at 950 Pennsylvania NW, where the Department of Justice is housed and where some FBI officials were located before they moved next door to FBI Headquarters. Likewise, I tried to obtain floor plans of the Identification Building at 2nd and D Streets, SW, the hub of the fingerprint identification activities. I was unsuccessful. I also was unsuccessful in having someone answer my direct question regarding whether there is a room 1126 in the DOJ building now or in the Ident Building when the FBI was still a tenant.
One kind soul did tell me that there is no such number in the Ford House Office Building, which is a renovated version of the Ident Building.
I was also able to locate some room numbers online for the RFK building, though 1126 isn’t among them. Although the numbering is in four digits and there could feasibly be a room number 1126 on the first floor, it seems unlikely that the Missing Person File Room would have been there. It’s more plausible that it would be accessible to wherever administrative staff would have been located, which was usually on a higher floor.
As for the Identification Building, the 1975 FBI telephone directory shows that most sections were on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th floors. The directory didn’t specify a room number for the Technical Section, which housed the criminal fingerprint cards. (The civil and Old Armed Forces cards were stored in the Willste Building, in Silver Spring.) Technical staff were most likely stationed in a large open space on the first and possibly second floors. But again, it doesn’t seem likely that the Missing Person File Room would have been located there, particularly since people who’d worked there didn’t seem to know that the room existed.
I also don’t think the Missing Person File Room was housed in the Willste Building due to the same accessibility issues as for the DOJ building. It’s difficult to say, since no room numbers are provided in the directory.
Yesterday, I wrote to the National Capital Planning Commission’s (NCPC’s) Office of Public Engagement seeking the 1967 approved floor plan for the 11th floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, if available. I also requested copies of the approved floor plans for the first, second, and seventh floors, since the drawings are blurry in the 2014 GSA document. (The NCPC has suggested going through the Public Engagement Office first before filing a FOIA request.)
In addition, I plan to reach out to two former employees from that era who may be able to answer my questions about the Missing Person File Room as well.
Greetings! Today, I’d like to further discuss the memo that was written on May 9, 1973, by the special agent in charge (SAC) of the Cincinnati Field Office to the acting director of the FBI, who was then William Ruckelshaus. As you probably know by now, the memo concerns the anonymous phone call they’d received claiming that Ron Tammen was working at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, Ohio.
“Oh, geez, that thing again?” some of you may be thinking.
Yeah, that. Sorry, but I still have unresolved issues.
In the last write-up, we discussed how shaky that lead was to begin with. The guy who’d called had refused to provide his name and then he told the FBI rep that a coworker of his might be Ron based on his physical description and “other reasons which he cared not to discuss.” He then “terminated the telephone call,” which sounds as if he hung up in the rep’s ear—a noisy click followed by the long, low waaaaaah of a dial tone. (Hanging up on someone was more dramatic back then.) Apparently, that’s all that was needed for an agent to be assigned to check things out that same day.
Here’s the question that keeps rolling around in my brain: If the FBI didn’t investigate missing person cases, as they claim not to do, why would they have assigned someone to fingerprint the guy at Welco just because some unnamed caller thought he fit Ron’s description? According to an unredacted version of the 1973 memo, the Welco man was an electronic technician from Virginia who’d served his country honorably from 1951 until 1960—a period that covers the time right before Ron entered Miami and extends until seven years after he’d disappeared.
I’d think that the FBI agent would have done his background research on the Welco guy before he made his trip to Blue Ash. The FBI has records on all sorts of people. If a person has a criminal record, they can access it, and they can also access a person’s military service records. Did they do any initial research or did they just pull a surprise pop-in and obtain his bio information there? According to the May 1973 memo, many of the biographical details were provided by the company’s vice president after pulling his employee’s personnel file. Pop-in, it is!
Out of respect for his family, I won’t be sharing the name of the Welco guy who was fingerprinted. His name sounds a little like Ron’s name, which is probably why the anonymous caller thought of him when he read the 20th anniversary article on Tammen’s disappearance and decided to alert the FBI. (I mean, who does that?) And despite whatever physical characteristics the Welco guy had that might have resembled Ron’s, one characteristic stands out that isn’t the least bit similar. It’s also an attribute that is far less likely to change after a person reaches adulthood: his height. The Welco guy was 6 feet 2 ½ inches tall. Ron was roughly 5 feet 9 inches tall. Nevertheless, the special agent fingerprinted the strapping electronic technician from Virginia and a couple weeks later, the Cincinnati Field Office was told that the fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s prints. Not the same guy, said they. (The Identification Division also did some curious things after arriving at their conclusion, which I discuss in the post The Ident Files.)
So there’s that. But the 1973 memo has introduced another small mystery in the Ron Tammen story, and that mystery has to do with the first sentence. It says: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.” The CI stands for Cincinnati Field Office, and an “airtel” was one of the ways in which the FBI communicated internally, especially, I imagine, with its field offices. Think of it as a glorified memo. Most importantly, I wonder if the 12/19/58 airtel is the reason that a special agent was sent to Welco versus ignoring the call altogether, which would have been my inclination had I been on phone duty.
In light of that possibility, the airtel strikes me as important. Unfortunately, there are no 12/19/58 airtels anywhere in the documents I’ve received from the FBI. Back in 2011, I quoted that sentence as a reason for my appeal, when I felt the FBI was withholding documents on Ron. (I still feel that way, by the by.) Even though I won the appeal, I never received a 12/19/58 airtel. I only received documents having to do with DNA testing after Butler County, Ohio, and Walker County, Georgia, reopened their respective cold cases in 2008 to see if a dead body found in the summer of 1953 in Georgia might be Ron.
Although I can’t tell you what the nonexistent memo says, I can deduce a few things about it:
It likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.
Whenever I’ve discussed Ron’s case with retired FBI folks, the issue of Ron’s avoiding the draft has become their go-to hypothesis as to why the FBI would have investigated his case at all. They can’t imagine why the FBI would spend person-hours, car mileage, or long-distance charges on Ron’s missing person case.
But I’m not convinced. First, we’ve learned that the FBI was indeed visiting people in their homes and dorm rooms shortly after Ron went missing, before his draft status had changed, and also that the FBI had been sitting in on faculty conferences at Miami by May 1953. Second, one FBI retiree told me that he or she didn’t think they had the staffing to seriously investigate Selective Service cases. They might have posted a record with the National Crime Information Center, so that, if the person was arrested, the FBI would let law enforcement know that there was a Selective Service violation against him as well. But this person doesn’t remember the FBI actively searching for someone who didn’t report for induction.
So I don’t think that Ron’s Selective Service violation—case #25-381754— was the reason that the FBI investigated Ron’s disappearance, or at least not the sole reason. I also don’t think it’s the topic of the 12/19/58 airtel. Here’s why:
When FBI Headquarters responded on 5/22/73 saying that the Welco guy’s fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s, someone added a note at the bottom, which included this information:
Was a subj of SSA violation in 1953. Canceled in 1955 (USA Cleveland closed case).
Allow me to interpret by writing out all of the words: It says that Ron was the subject of a Selective Service Act violation in 1953, however, his case was canceled, or closed, in 1955 by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland.
I don’t know how weird it is for a U.S. Attorney, who is part of the Department of Justice (DOJ), to request that an SSA case be closed. That’s probably a question for another day. (Actually, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request seeking all SSA cases that were closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland in 1955 to find out how weird it was.)
For now, let’s concentrate on the timeframe. For whatever reason, in 1955, Ron’s case had been closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, which is part of the DOJ, which is the parent agency of the FBI. Because the airtel was written in 1958, three years later, the airtel likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service Act violation.
The 12/19/58 airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati in January 2008.
In May 1973, the Cincinnati Field Office possessed the 12/19/58 airtel. We know this because they referred to it in their memo. And that makes perfect sense. If FBI Headquarters sends you an airtel, you file it somewhere in case you need it, and they needed it in 1973.
But in 2008, the airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati anymore. I think this because I obtained a set of the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after cold case detective Frank Smith had retired. It’s the set that Smith had obtained from the Cincinnati Field Office in January 2008. Just like my FOIA documents, Butler County’s set doesn’t include the 12/19/58 airtel either.
I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking: Perhaps the airtel reached its record retention date, and Cincinnati destroyed it according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records schedule. Thank you for raising this important point. You’ve obviously become experts on the topic of NARA and records retention schedules, thanks to the FBI’s early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints in 2002, 30 years ahead of their normal schedule.
While it’s true that the 1958 airtel may have been destroyed, the FBI hasn’t admitted to destroying very much on Tammen, at least not to me. Through my lawsuit settlement, I was provided with an in-depth declaration of all the places in which the FBI had searched for documents on Tammen. And in that search, they told me the approximate dates when certain documents had been destroyed.
For example, although FBI Headquarters destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file “on or about 2/1/1997,” they also reported that the Cincinnati Field Office destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file in 1964. Ostensibly, the 1958 airtel was not in that file, otherwise Cincinnati’s SAC would not have referenced it in 1973. So that supports our conclusion that the 12/19/58 airtel didn’t have anything to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.
The only other document that the FBI’s declaration claims was destroyed is Ron’s Classification 190 document, which had to do with either the Privacy Act or the Freedom of Information Act and which had originated in the Cincinnati Field Office. That document was destroyed “on or about 5/17/2008”—several months after Smith had reopened his investigation. But no matter what purpose the destroyed document had served when it was still with us on earth, it couldn’t have been the 12/19/58 airtel, since the latter document originated from FBI Headquarters, not Cincinnati.
In their declaration, the FBI also says that one file on Ronald H. Tammen, file #252-IR-C5652, is missing and unable to be located (see top chart). Perhaps the 12/19/58 airtel is in that lost file? I have some thoughts on this question, but I can’t print them here just yet. Based on the file’s number, it has to do with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and/or its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP. It’s important that we not let our imaginations run wild regarding the missing file. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything pertaining to Ron that would be helpful. If there ever comes a time when I’m at liberty to discuss this topic, I will. But I also don’t think it has anything to do with the 12/19/58 airtel, particularly since the center wasn’t started until 1984.
The airtel may not have pertained to Ron specifically.
So where’s the 12/19/58 airtel and what might it have said? You got me. But it occurs to me that the reason neither Frank Smith nor I received the airtel in our FOIA documents could be because it wasn’t stored along with the Tammen documents. Maybe the airtel dealt with a separate topic. For example, perhaps it was an instructional document for how to handle anonymous phone calls.
For this reason, I’ve filed a FOIA request seeking “ALL FBI BUREAU AIRTELS dated 12/19/1958 that were addressed to the Cincinnati Field Office.” I’ll keep you posted.
I’m going to end things here for now. If I should hear back from any of my public records requests over the next week or two, you may hear from me again. Otherwise, I wish you all peaceful and healthy holidays (emphasis on the healthy), including a Belated Healthy Hanukkah, a Healthy Christmas, a Healthy Kwanzaa, and a Healthy New Year, not to mention a Healthy Boxing Day, Winter Solstice, and (of course) Festivus!
Turns out, I guess I’ve been needing to spend a little more time with Ron’s “Ident” files. I’m referring to Ron’s missing person documents that I’d obtained through my 2010 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, someone with the initials MSL had handwritten on many of them that they were removed from the FBI’s Identification Division—called Ident for short—on June 5, 1973. Those same documents also carry a stamp saying that they were routed to the Records Branch. Inexplicably, the sender checked “Main File” as opposed to “79-1,” the classification for missing persons.
Weird, right? The Identification Division was responsible for overseeing missing persons cases. Why would someone from Identification send Ron’s missing person documents somewhere else? As far as Tammen’s family and the rest of the world knew, he was still missing. Yet the FBI was acting like—dare I say it?—he didn’t seem to be missing anymore.
As many of you know, I’d consulted with people who used to work in the Identification Division, which later became Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), to see if they could explain why. Unfortunately, no one could offer an explanation. Neither could my contact from Records Management. I’m not disparaging these individuals. They did their best with the information that was provided to them. There just wasn’t that much information to provide.
I tried seeking more documents. Because MSL appeared to be a subordinate of Fletcher Thompson’s, the head of the Identification Division in 1973, I submitted a FOIA request seeking every piece of correspondence that Thompson had written for the period of May to June 1973, regardless of the subject. My hope was to snag some missive in which Thompson ordered Mary Sue Lipschwitz—or whoever MSL turned out to be—to handle the Tammen situation STAT. Alas, the FBI’s response to me was that it was impossible for them to conduct a search of their indices based on my request. Fine. Be that way. I let it drop for the time being.
I also tried to learn more about the Ident Missing Person File Room, which had been stamped on several of Ron’s documents along with the handwritten room number 1126. None of my sources had ever heard of it. I’d come to believe that it had something to do with the Special File Rooms that J. Edgar Hoover had established for documents that he considered to be of utmost secrecy. I submitted a FOIA request seeking all documents relating to the establishment and protocol of the FBI’s Special File Rooms in general and the Missing Person File Room specifically. I received a couple hundred pages on the former, but nothing on the latter. I appealed. Again, nothing. The FBI claims that they have zero documents—not a one—that refers to a Missing Person File Room. They’d sent me some documents that had ostensibly inhabited that room at one time, but, yeah, OK, whatever they say. I mean…there must be at least one document that refers to the Missing Person File Room, since someone used taxpayer money to have those illicit words inscribed on a rubber stamp. (For fun, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request for the Identification Division’s office supply expenditures from, say, 1960 to 1970 to see if anything turns up.)
Today, the Missing Person File Room remains a closely guarded secret. If you haven’t done this yet, try typing the phrase into Google between quotation marks. Two documents will pop up—both of them mine. Soon there will be a third document—this one. I’m considering getting the phrase trademarked. [Note to FBI: You’ll still be able to use the phrase, but you’ll have to cite me and use the registered trademark symbol when you do. It’s a small price to pay for all the hardship you’ve caused me these last 12 years.]
This past weekend, after creating a public records request score card for this blog site, I was reminded of how those two FOIA requests had played out. I started ruminating about what I could do next. If I can’t learn about the Missing Person File Room, which seems to be the situation at present, surely there must be more to be learned about the Ident files.
Well, there was. And just as before, we have archival documents to thank. The publications I found are available free, online. They are the back issues of the FBI’s in-house publication titled the Law Enforcement Bulletin, and you can find issues from January 1933 on up. The articles were (and still are) expressly written for the men and women who work closely with the FBI in enforcing the nation’s laws. For our purposes, the best issues are from the 1940s and 50s, a time when less was less and more was more. Why tighten when you can expound? Why gloss over when you can explain things in granular detail? How else were Andy, Barney, and all the other officers from Small Town USA supposed to learn how proper policing should be done?
An article from May 1951 was especially useful. (It doesn’t show up in the archives list, but you can find it if you Google “May 1951 Law Enforcement Bulletin.” As to why they’ve left all of 1950 and ‘51 off their list? 🤷🏻♀️) The article had to do with the Posting Section, which is the section within Identification that was responsible for posting notices such as wanted notices, missing person notices, and the like. Here’s what the article says about Missing Person Notices. I’ve bolded the parts that are most pertinent to Ron.
Missing Person Notices
The Posting Section prepares and maintains file notices regarding individuals whose location is desired by relatives. Although the FBI has no jurisdiction to conduct active investigations in missing person cases, missing person notices are placed in file on behalf of interested relatives inquiring either directly or through local law-enforcement agencies. If a fingerprint record for the missing person can be identified through an FBI number or a registry number, a notice is posted in that record. If the information set forth in the inquiry is insufficient to identify positively a fingerprint record with the missing person, a notice will be posted in the fingerprint record of the individual whose description is considered possibly identical with the missing person. In cases where no record can be located which is either positively or possibly identical a missing persons notice is placed in the indices of the Card Index Section. This index card also contains the descriptive data furnished by the interested relative.
Missing-person notices are maintained in the files of the FBI Identification Division until information is received which indicates the probable whereabouts of the missing person. At this point the next of kin is notified directly, or the information is furnished to the agency through which the inquiry was received. Missing-person notices are of course removed from the files when interested relatives or agencies indicate that the notices are no longer desired.
Whenever possible, a request for the posting of a missing-person notice should include information as to the date and place of the missing person’s birth. This information is most important in effecting a possible identification, where other specific descriptive data is lacking.
If a person has been missing for a period of more than 7 years, no notice is placed in the file unless some information of a more recent nature relating to the individual is located during the initial search of the Identification Division files.
No notices are posted in cases arising out of marital difficulties except in hardship cases where minor children are involved. Notices are not posted concerning missing persons having a lengthy history of criminal activity, nor under circumstances indicating that the missing person was involved in criminal activity in connection with his disappearance.
Here’s what I’ve concluded on the basis of the above protocol when combined with all of the other information we’ve collected to date.
Identification files, which were also referred to as identification jackets or fingerprint jackets, didn’t hold only fingerprint cards and Additional Record Sheets. They could hold other items too, such as missing person notices, wanted notices, and other relevant documents.
Ron’s fingerprint jacket was #358 406 B. When a missing person document said that it should be placed in #358 406 B, the handler was being instructed to put it in his fingerprint jacket.
Missing person notices were held indefinitely until the person was found. This is consistent with language on Ron’s missing person documents that said “Retain permanently [emphasis added] in Ident jacket #358 406 B.”
Once a missing person was found, the next of kin or the agency that submitted the missing person notice would be notified. Or at least they should have been notified.
With this new take, I took a deeper dive into Ron’s missing person documents. I focused on the handwritten and stamped notations that provided instructions regarding where the individual documents were to be housed. I constructed a chart of each document up through May 1973, when the FBI’s Cincinnati field office had sought to compare Ron’s fingerprints with an employee from Welco Industries. After HQ had responded with their assessment—it wasn’t Ron—all further activity ceased on jacket #358 406 B.*** (Ron’s remaining documents came after 2008, when the case had been reopened by the Butler County (OH) and Walker County (GA) sheriff’s offices. We don’t care about those right now.)
Before we examine my chart, let’s review the FBI’s various numbers that had to do with Ron:
#358 406 B Again (and sorry for the redundancy), this is the FBI number that was assigned to Ron’s fingerprints. From what I can determine, this number would have been on the tab of his fingerprint jacket, as demonstrated from the photo in the October 1948 issue of the Law Enforcement Bulletin on how police departments should set up their files.
79-31966-1 (the last number varies) As mentioned earlier, 79 is the classification number for missing persons. The 31966 was Ron’s case number, and the last number is the number of pages in Ron’s file, e.g., 1, 1x, 2, 2x, and 3. My source in Records Management explained that the Xs were a way to insert pages while keeping them in the proper order.
25-381754 This was Ron’s file regarding a possible Selective Service violation (aka draft dodging). According to the notation at the bottom of the October 11, 1967, letter to Mr. Tammen from J. Edgar Hoover, the case was opened in 1953 and canceled in 1955. It’s my understanding that this file would not have been held in the Identification Division.
As for the color coding:
The green bars have to do with the Ident files—those that refer to retaining them permanently in the Ident jacket #358406B (solid) and those that refer to removing them from Ident (striped). The blue bars/square have to do with language pertaining to the Missing Person File Room.
Here’s my chart:
Based on this exercise, it appears as though Ron’s missing person documents weren’t treated exactly the same way. Some documents were housed in the Ident files—which I’ve ascertained was his fingerprint jacket—while others were housed in the Ident Missing Person File Room, room 1126 of an unnamed building.
Here’s why I think so:
On the document originally dated May 25, 1953, MSL had jotted down that a photo was put in room 1126 on 6-5-73, which was the same date that many of Ron’s missing person papers were removed from Ident. We also see that his photo had been added to his missing person notice on 6-2-53. Did MSL take the photo from his fingerprint jacket and move it into room 1126 on 6-5-73?
Most of Ron’s documents are stamped “Retain permanently in Ident jacket #358406B.” In June 1973, those same documents were marked “Removed from Ident files” and “Referred to Records Branch,” specifying “Main file” instead of 79, otherwise known as missing persons.
The other category encompasses the documents that had the stamp “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room.” Only four documents had that stamp on them. Three of those documents were generated by someone from HQ, including J. Edgar himself. The exception is the 1959 form letter.
Ron’s file doesn’t appear to have been very large—only several pages, according to my source in Records Management. Perhaps those pages were kept one place while his other pages were kept somewhere else?
It appears that documents in Ron’s fingerprint jacket were removed from the Identification Division before the documents were removed from the Missing Person File Room (as indicated by the crossed-out words). I think this because of the photo that was added to room 1126 on the same day that his Ident files were removed.
By the time the Cincinnati memos were filed in May 1973, the Identification Division was no longer putting them into Ron’s fingerprint jacket. The document dated 5-9-73 was routed straight to the Records Branch’s Main File, nearly a month before the other documents were removed from Ident. Conversely, the document from HQ dated 5-22-73 was routed to the Missing Person File Room.
What could all of this mean? Shortly after the Cincinnati field office had sent the Welco employee’s fingerprints to be compared to Ron’s, Ron’s missing person documents were removed from his fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division and sent to the Records Branch. Documents that were in the Missing Person File Room were removed later, although we don’t know precisely when that happened.
This tells me that, in the period in which HQ was comparing the Welco employee’s prints to Ron’s, the folks in Identification had discovered something about Ron’s case and felt the need to update his file, as indicated by the words at the bottom of the 5-22-73 memorandum: “MPN [missing person notice] placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.”
As always, there are discrepancies. A couple documents have both the “Ident files” and Missing Person File Room verbiage, which may indicate that they were filed in both locations. Also, the 5-22-73 memorandum says this about FBI #358 406 B: “This record consists of one personal identification fgpt card taken in 1941.”
How could all those missing person documents have been retained permanently in jacket #358 406 B but the record only consisted of one fingerprint card? I had originally taken this to mean that there was one item in Ron’s fingerprint jacket—his fingerprint card. But I also knew that there must been some wiggle room in that description—after all, his fingerprint jacket would have contained an Additional Record Sheet too.
I believe the operative word is “record.” The word record was frequently used to describe a person’s fingerprint card or cards. (As an example, look at the verbiage from the May 1951 Law Enforcement Bulletin.) I believe the memo’s author was speaking about Ron’s fingerprint record in the strictest sense. Otherwise, I’d think that they would have used the word jacket instead.
Despite the discrepancies, I think we can surmise that something had been special about Ron’s case, necessitating the use of two locations within the same division for his documents. One was known to many and the other was known to a chosen few.
It also tells me that the FBI knew what had happened to Ron by 1973, and probably much earlier. And yet, in a break with protocol, no one had thought to pick up a phone to tell his family.
What are your thoughts? Have I overlooked something? Does anything else stand out?
***Clarification: when I say that all further activity ceased for jacket #358 406 B after June 1973, I’m only talking about Ron’s missing person documents. I’m not talking about his fingerprints, which, as we all know, were purged in 2002, 30 years ahead of schedule.
**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?
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.
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:
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?
Tuesday, June 5, 1973, promised to be 90 degrees and sunny in our nation’s capital—the kind of run-of-the-mill day of intense heat and high humidity to which the DC crowd is well-accustomed. Richard Nixon, who had a little over a year remaining in his presidency, would be facing a fully booked schedule of meetings and photo ops that day, topped off by a state dinner and concert honoring Liberia’s president. Just down Constitution Avenue, the Watergate Hearings were in full swing, televised live from the Russell Senate Office Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, roughly two miles away, in a leafy, less ornate area of Capitol Hill, J. Edgar Hoover was still lying in his grave, having succumbed to a heart attack the previous year.
As cataclysmic as Hoover’s death had been for the women and men of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (one former employee joked that they’d half-expected him to return from the dead on the third day), they had since rebounded. They were back to the daily grind of carrying out their mission and raison d’être: “to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” In two more years, they’d be moving to the FBI’s present home—the J. Edgar Hoover Building at Pennsylvania and Ninth Streets NW. But in 1973, some staffers were operating out of the Department of Justice Building, next door to the FBI’s current site, while two major divisions were located in an AC-free building at Second and D Streets in the SW section of the District. (I’ve learned in interviews that Hoover was notorious for not providing air conditioning to his employees because he liked to show legislators how frugal he could be with his budget.) And so it would be here—at this sweltering site, on this sizzling day—that one of the weirder aspects of the Ronald Tammen saga would take place.
The documents we’ll be discussing won’t be new to you. They’re the same old scribbled-on records from my 2010 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. (You can access them here.)
What is new, however, is that, since we’ve last discussed my interactions with the FBI on this blog site, I’ve had the chance to speak with several people who were working in the two relevant divisions at the time that the 1973 incident occurred: Identification and Records Management. Not only did these people help interpret what many of the scribbles mean, but they also shared their views on how normal or not-so-normal it was to treat Tammen’s documents the way they did. In addition, I also spoke with people—some the same, others different—who happened to be working in the Identification Division when Tammen’s fingerprints were destroyed 29 years later, in 2002. I’ll be sharing their thoughts as well—although, I’ve decided to save that synopsis for a future day. (Sorry! There’s too much info here, so I’ve decided to take on each of these topics one at a time.)
Most of these people spoke to me “on background,” which means that I’ll be telling you what they said, but I’ll be protecting their anonymity. I realize that some of you may not appreciate when a source isn’t named, and I apologize for that, but, honestly, sometimes it’s the only way to get someone to talk to me. But trust me, they’re credible sources. Also, I’m tracking down more individuals as we speak. As with everything else on this blog, it won’t be ending here.
Who’s MSL and What are the Ident Files?
So let’s get back to June 5, 1973. As you may recall, several weeks before that date, a special agent (SA in FBI vernacular) representing the FBI’s Cincinnati field office investigated a possible lead that had been called in about the Tammen case. The caller had suggested that a man who worked at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, OH, was Tammen. The SA, whom I’ve met, and who is incredibly nice and unbelievably helpful, paid a visit to Blue Ash on the same day the FBI received the call. In addition to filing a report, the SA’s boss in Cincinnati sent the Welco guy’s prints to the Identification Division at FBI Headquarters and asked them to compare those prints with Tammen’s fingerprints that they had on file to see if there might be a match. There wasn’t, but, in my view, it was that innocent and responsible act in which an SA and his boss, who were simply following protocol, brought about what happened on the fifth of June. (If you haven’t read the earlier blog post—or even if it’s just been a while since you have—I’d encourage you to reread it, since it supplies a lot of the details.)
What happened on the fifth of June? That was the day that a civil servant with the initials MSL removed documents contained in Ron Tammen’s missing person file from the Identification Division. Yep, that’s right. On that Tuesday, MSL walked over to Ron’s file, made notations that those documents were to be “Removed from Ident files,” jotted his or her initials on nearly every document, and, well…who knows what else. Mind you, I have no beef with MSL. I’m sure MSL was a hard worker and a team player. In fact, if you look closely at the May 22, 1973, response memo to the Cincinnati office from Headquarters, MSL has initialed the line next to the name Thompson in the list of FBI higher-ups. That particular Thompson would have been Fletcher Thompson, who headed up the Identification Division at that time. Therefore, I’m guessing MSL was Thompson’s assistant and just following instructions. For example, that same May 22 memo suggested that “MP placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.” That’s probably what MSL was up to: bringing Ron’s missing person file up to date. [Note: if you or someone you know should happen to be MSL, please contact me. I’m dying to talk to you. Dyyyyyyyyyyiiiiiiiinnnnng.]
A large stamp also stands out on many of these pages. It says “Referred to Records Branch for” and provides two options: “Main File” and “79-1,” the latter of which is the Missing Person classification. Interestingly, Main File is the option they’ve checked. I would have thought they’d go with the other one.
The question I’ve been asking everyone who might have been in the vicinity of the Ident or Records Management Divisions at that time is: Why did they do this? Was it considered normal protocol, even if a missing person hasn’t been found? Was it something that’s done after a person has been missing for, say, 20 years? If the Identification Division is responsible for overseeing missing persons cases for the FBI—and it is—why would a missing person file for someone who was still missing be moved out of Identification?
Before I share with you some of the insights that were provided to me, I need to let you know that things today have obviously changed since 1973. As of 1992, the Identification Division is now known as Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS—pronounced SEE-jis), which is the largest division of the FBI, and located in Clarksburg, WV. CJIS maintains fingerprint data along with other biometric data, and it oversees other high-tech initiatives as well. There aren’t manual files anymore. Also, the missing person program has been rolled into the National Crime Information Center database, or NCIC. NCIC is available to law enforcement representatives across the country, mostly for finding people who are charged with committing a crime, but also for locating missing persons. Although NCIC began on a limited basis in January 1967 and grew from there, missing persons information wasn’t added to the database until 1975, two years after Ron’s file was ostensibly removed from Ident.
Also this: just because someone speaks to me on background doesn’t mean that they’re going to be giving up the family jewels. People are inclined to support the actions of the agency for whom they’ve given the best years of their lives. I get that. Nevertheless, everyone I spoke with tried to answer my questions honestly, and if they didn’t know and were just guessing, they said so. Also, if something didn’t mesh with how they remembered things to work, they said that too.
Included below are excerpts of summaries of discussions I had with three subject matter experts in Q&A fashion. No one is quoted directly here. Two experts had strong ties with the Identification Division and/or CJIS and one was with Records Management for many years.
What information is stored in NCIC?
NCIC is nothing but descriptive data. It might include identifying numbers, the person’s name, aliases, the date of birth, height, weight, color of hair, color of eyes, and descriptions of scars, marks and tattoos, though not pictures. A picture can now be stored, but, at this point, not searched. There are no fingerprints stored in NCIC. There is, however, a link from NCIC to NGI, which is the FBI’s very powerful Next Generation Identification system that includes biometric data, including fingerprints. If a person’s fingerprints are searched with NGI, then NGI can tap into NCIC to see if there’s a warrant on that person or if they’ve been listed as missing.
Would the kinds of documents I obtained through FOIA—the letters between Ron’s parents and Hoover, etc.—be stored in NCIC?
Ron’s missing person documents would not be stored in NCIC. If Ron’s case was entered into NCIC, only the above descriptive information would have been entered.
How can I find out if Ron Tammen was entered into NCIC?
The law enforcement agency that took the initial missing person report would be responsible for entering the case into NCIC. Usually, the submitting entity is local police, however, in Tammen’s case it was the Cleveland office of the FBI, which tends to complicate matters. One expert is doubtful that Tammen’s case was entered into NCIC due to the length of time since his disappearance and he felt it would have been of low priority among all of the other cases they had to enter during the transition to NCIC.
I should note here that, in 2015, I’d filed a FOIA request to the FBI to see if there were any criminal records on Ron in NCIC, and that search came up empty. However, one thing I’ve learned through these discussions is that NCIC has a historical file, which is separate and offline from the NCIC database. It contains nearly all the records that were ever entered into NCIC and that are no longer active. To the best of my knowledge, the historical file has never been checked for Ronald Tammen-related records.
Tell me more about the NCIC historical file.
There are two parts to the historical file. Not only is there a database of virtually every record that was ever in the system but there’s also a database of every transaction that ever went through the system. A transaction is simply a record of an action that was taken, including a search. This means that I could potentially find out if any police department ever ran a search on Ronald Tammen, which is one of the FOIAs I intend to submit. Incidentally, the NCIC historical file seems like a hidden gem/best-kept-secret of the FBI that I think more people need to know about and use. Note that it’s important to specify which of the two databases you’re inquiring about—the historic records or the historic transactions—to help narrow things down.
How long are missing person files normally retained in NCIC?
The records are kept forever unless the submitting entity removes it.
What are the most common reasons for removal of a missing person record from the NCIC database?
By far, the most common reason for removal of an NCIC missing person record is that the missing person has been located, either alive or deceased. There should be a record of the transaction that removed the online record, however it wouldn’t contain information as to the reason for the removal. Records can also be removed by either the state agency that manages the state system or the CJIS staff, but such removals are rare. If the person is found by the agency that took the original missing person report, they could simply cancel the record.
Where would my FOIA docs have been kept?
The missing person record is placed in the General File, which is maintained by the Records Management Division. If there’s a fingerprint, it’s maintained in the fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division. The file will remain with Records Management until it’s destroyed based on the agency’s destruction schedule.
Note that many of the Tammen FOIA documents have a stamp that says in all caps: RETAIN PERMANENTLY IN IDENT JACKET: 358406B, which supports the notion that the fingerprint jacket was in Identification, though it also appears that at least some of the documents (e.g., the ones with the stamp on them) were kept in that jacket as opposed to (or in addition to) Records Management. However, the memo dated May 22, 1973 states at the bottom: “MP, who has been missing since April, 1953, may be ident with FBI # 358 406 B. This record consists of one personal identification fgpt card taken in 1941,” which is consistent with the preceding paragraph.
What do you think was “Removed from Ident” on 6-5-73?
This question has everyone stumped. My Identification experts have said “the fingerprint card IS the Ident record.” Their interpretation of the statement was that the fingerprints had been removed from Ident in 1973, so they wondered: if the fingerprints were removed in 1973, what did they expunge in 2002, unless there were two sets of prints? Suffice it to say that, at least at this point, I’ve found no one with an inkling of an idea what records MSL was referring to.
Are you aware of any policy by which, once 20 years go by, the FBI is no longer looking for a missing person?
Among these experts, in addition to several others I’ve spoken with, no one can recall a 20-year rule in closing a missing person case. With regards to the NCIC and missing persons, retention is until the entering agency removes it. There is no life cycle for a record in the NCIC system for a missing person.
What can you tell me about the Missing Person File Room?
On some of the FOIA documents, you may have noticed that a stamp has been crossed out, saying: “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room,” followed by a space for the room number. The October 1967 letter from Hoover to Ron’s father regarding whether the soldier in an AP photo could be Ron Jr. contains the stamp and specifies room 1126.
To date, none of the experts I’ve spoken with in Identification or Records Management knows anything about the Ident Missing Person File Room. One person guessed that all civil fingerprints might have been stored in that room, including military prints, but it was just a guess, and that person was outnumbered by everyone else I’ve ever interviewed on the topic. The overwhelming majority of sources have said that there were only two categories of fingerprint files—criminal and civil—and missing person fingerprints were stored with criminal fingerprints since that was the most active file against which to check incoming prints. Just to hammer this point home, do you want to try a fun experiment? Type “Missing Person File Room” into Google, and see what pops up. As of this morning, the only links and images you’ll see will point to this blog site. The phrase isn’t mentioned anywhere else on the web.
Interestingly, the expert in Records Management pointed out a notation on the May 26, 1953, report that had never before registered with me. It said: “Copy of photo filed in 1126 Ident 6-5-73,” and it was signed by our friend MSL. Then, near the bottom, the familiar: “Removed from Ident files 6-5-73,” again, signed by MSL. As I’ve pointed out from another document, room 1126 was the Missing Person File Room. It seemed curious to her that they’d be filing the photo in 1126 if they were removing documents from that same room on the same day.
She’s right—it is curious.
As I was writing this blog post, I was planning to wrap things up at this point, thus putting the finishing touches on perhaps one of the dullest, most disappointing updates ever. But then I remembered a book I have, titled Unlocking the Files of the FBI, by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart. There, in a brief introductory section on “The FBI Record-keeping System,” I found a possible clue about the Missing Person File Room. On page xiii, paragraph 5, it says:
In 1948, Hoover established at FBI headquarters Special File Rooms [emphasis added] to hold “all Files that have an unusually confidential or peculiar background…including all obscene enclosures.” In general, material placed in the Special File Rooms included what was known as June Mail [jw: June Mail is later described as “most sensitive sources”], ELSUR documents [jw: ELSUR was defined as electronic surveillance], informant files, and sensitive records on Bureau employees and prominent people, as well as on undercover operations and foreign-source information. The field offices also have special file rooms for informant and ELSUR materials.
Wouldn’t it be just like Hoover to create innocuous sounding “File Rooms”—capitalized and pluralized—to hold records that are “unusually confidential or peculiar” or, one of Hoover’s favorite categories, obscene? A File Room for extremely sensitive missing person cases would explain why no one I’ve spoken with had heard of it. I’m sure not everyone was privy to its existence. Someone in Ident probably stumbled upon it at the time they were checking into whether the Welco guy could be Ronald Tammen, and the alarm bells went off. Someone at the top may have asked “What are those hot-potato documents doing in there anyway?” and then barked “Get me MSL on the phone.”
Because I’ve just discovered the existence of the Special File Rooms, I haven’t had time to contact any sources about it. But trust me, come tomorrow morning, I will.
Some closing thoughts…
So where does all this lead us? Here are my main conclusions based on everything I’ve presented here mixed in with a few earlier findings:
–Even though some info on the FOIA documents may suggest otherwise, I believe that there wasn’t anything in the Identification Division’s fingerprint jacket for Ronald Tammen other than Ron’s fingerprint card, submitted in 1941.
–I believe Ron’s fingerprint jacket was initially in the civil file when his prints were first submitted in 1941, but it was added to the criminal file after Ron was listed as a missing person in 1953.
–I think those fingerprints remained in that jacket and were digitized in the 1990s after Ident became CJIS. I believe it was those prints that were purged in 2002.
–I don’t believe there was any such protocol in which the FBI would remove missing person files from Identification after 20 years had passed.
–I believe that the FOIA records I received had been maintained in Records Management from the beginning.
–As far as which documents were “removed from Ident,” I think it must have been whatever was being stored in the Missing Person File Room. Perhaps there were duplicate files of what was in Records Management, but I think there were other documents as well. Based on the 5/9/73 memo, we know that at least one document from 12/19/58 is referenced but missing from my FOIA documents.
–I think that the Missing Person File Room stored files that were somehow sensitive in nature about Ron’s case. I also think that Ron’s case continued to have a file in there, even after documents had been removed. As the expert in Records Management pointed out, even though files were removed from the Missing Person File Room on 6-5-73, a copy of his photo was filed in that room that same day.
–I believe that it was the Cincinnati field office’s request for Ident to compare the Welco employee’s fingerprints with Ron’s prints that triggered Ident to remove whatever was in the Missing Person File Room, thus leading to this clue. (Thank you, Cincinnati!)
For years, I’ve been trying to figure out if there were breaches in protocol regarding how the FBI handled Ron’s missing person case. I think we’ve finally found one. If the Missing Person File Room held potentially sensitive documents concerning Ron’s case, that would elevate it to something far more than just a ho-hum missing person case. And guys, that’s what keeps me going.
On Thursday, April 26, 1973, someone placed an anonymous phone call to the Cincinnati office of the FBI. According to a memo from the special agent in charge (SAC), the caller said that “he was aware the FBI has an interest in one Ronald H. Tammen. The caller advised he has strong reason to believe that captioned subject is identical with one [whited out], who is employed with Welco Industry, 9027 Shell Avenue, Blue Ash, Ohio.” The SAC went on to say that “The caller based his opinion upon physical description and ‘other reasons which he cared not to discuss.’” The caller then hung up the phone.
We’ll never know what additional reasons the caller had for thinking that a man who worked at a plant that built motors for the aerospace industry in a Cincinnati suburb was Tammen or, moreover, why he didn’t care to discuss those reasons with the FBI. Did the Tammen lookalike act all weird and evasive when asked if he went to college? Did he drive around with a string bass in his back seat? Did he have an irrational aversion to fish? Or perhaps had the man pulled the caller aside one day and said, “Don’t tell anyone, but the guy they’re talking about in this news article? Yeah, that’s me.”
One thing that we can be pretty sure of is what triggered the unknown man to make his anonymous phone call on that particular day. Note that his call took place one week to the day following the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance. It was also three days following the article that ran in the Hamilton Journal News—the same article in which Joe Cella revealed that Ron had visited Dr. Garret Boone requesting a blood type test five months before he disappeared. (From what I can tell, no anniversary articles ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Tammen that year.) Although no physical description of Tammen was included in that article, it did provide a college photo, which is probably why the SAC referred to the “captioned subject.” So it’s not a stretch to conclude that the FBI’s caller first learned about Tammen in the newspaper and thought the photo looked a lot like someone he knew.
Which is totally fine. In fact, that’s how many missing persons cases are actually solved. Someone spots an old photo of an acquaintance in a news article or on TV and alerts the authorities. It’s the FBI’s actions after that call was placed, however, that are most telling.
Let’s examine the two FBI memos that I received from my FOIA request pertaining to this potential lead. (Link to them here.)
The first memo was written on 5/9/73—almost two weeks after the initial call had been made. The memo was from the SAC in Cincinnati to the acting director of the FBI, who, thanks to Google, we are able to ascertain was William D. Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the EPA who was subsequently brought over to the FBI as Watergate was heating up. He was only in his position as acting director for a couple of months, before continuing on with his esteemed career (he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015). But for our purposes, he was the man in charge when the question about the guy at Welco came to the forefront; in parentheses, the SAC had added “ATTN: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION.”
The first line reads: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.”
This cryptic little sentence fragment is an example of FBI codespeak, a system of pretend words and abbreviations that keeps their employees informed and the rest of us in the dark. Thankfully, through a variety of means, I’ve been able to decipher at least some of what the G-men of yore were communicating to one another through their typewritten words and their scribbles and scrawls all over my FOIA documents.
In FBI parlance, “Re” is easy. It means “in reference to,” just as it does in any email or memo you might read these days. “Bureau,” as you probably already know, is an unofficial way of referring to the FBI. “Airtel” might sound like a trendy type of overnight accommodations, but it was one of the methods that the FBI used to communicate internally back then. Think of it as a letter that, according to Wikipedia, is mailed the same day that it was typed, which doesn’t sound all that extraordinary, but it is what it is.
So who is “CI”? Fortunately, I own a book titled “Unlocking the Files of the FBI: A Guide to Its Records and Classification System,” written by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart, and published in 1993. According to Haines and Langbart, CI does not mean “criminal informant” or “counterintelligence” or anything exciting like that, at least not in this case. No, the abbreviation CI stands for the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, just as the abbreviation for the Cleveland field office is CV.
Last but not least comes the date, 12/19/58. The SAC was referring to an airtel that had been sent from Headquarters (most likely) to the Cincinnati field office about 5 1/2 years after Tammen disappeared. Don’t bother looking for that airtel in the FOIA documents I’ve posted online, however. It wasn’t included in the first batch of documents that the FBI sent me in December 2010, nor was it in the documents sent to me on appeal or in my lawsuit settlement. Ostensibly, the FBI doesn’t have it anymore. As its name might indicate, that airtel seems to have been teleported into thin air. (If you’re thinking that I should ask the Cincinnati office directly if they might have the memo, I’d already contacted them and the Cleveland office before I filed my lawsuit. Both said that FBI Headquarters had everything on the Tammen case.)
The second and third paragraphs refer to some personal information about the Welco employee that the Cincinnati field office had sent to Headquarters for both its use and the use of the folks in Cleveland. We learn in the accompanying pages (which are almost entirely redacted) that they’d obtained this information from his personnel file, when a special agent paid a visit to the company the same day in which they’d received the phone call.
Paragraphs four and five summarize Tammen’s case, though the SAC erroneously states that a missing persons notice was filed with the Identification Division on 5/26/58, when it was actually filed 5/26/53. (Does that mean that our 12/19 airtel was also from 1953 instead of 1958? We’ll never know, although I don’t have a document from 12/19/53 either.) The writer also says that the Cleveland office was the “Office of Origin in SSA, 1948 case.” Translation: The writer is referencing the Selective Service Act of 1948 and he’s saying that the Cleveland field office had opened an investigation into why Ron didn’t show up for the draft after he disappeared. The FBI called off that investigation on 4/29/1955. The SAC also mentioned Ron’s fingerprint file from 1941, #358 406 B.
The last paragraph on page one and the first paragraph on page 2 discuss the phone call concerning the Welco employee, the details of which we’ve already mentioned at the beginning of this post.
The memo ends with this:
“The Identification Division is requested to compare the fingerprints of [whited out] with those of subject and advise Cincinnati and Cleveland of the results.”
In memo #2, dated 5-22-73, Acting Director Ruckelshaus responded to Cincinnati’s SAC. True to FBI form, he opened with the pretend word “Reurlet,” which, according to Haines and Langbart, means “Reference is made to your letter.” He then said that, in a nutshell, they compared the Welco guy’s fingerprints with Tammen’s prints, and there was no match. In a note at the bottom he’s included some background information on the case that we already know and, in the last sentence, he said “MP,” which stands for missing person, “placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.”
And that’s it. If you were to glance at the next memo to appear in our FOIA docs, you’d see that there is nothing more until 2008, when the Walker County Sheriff’s Office in LaFayette, Georgia, contacted the FBI about the dead body that had been found in a ravine in June 1953, and they were checking to see if it might have been Tammen.
As we’ve already discussed in the January 16, 2018, post, Tammen’s father had written the FBI in October 1967, saying that he could swear a soldier in an AP photo might be his son. But J. Edgar Hoover didn’t bother asking his Identification Division to compare the soldier’s fingerprints with Ron’s, even though he was a big believer in fingerprints for solving missing persons cases and they could have easily run the comparison. Five and a half years later, with Hoover out of the picture, the Cincinnati office had approached the Identification Division directly with the request to compare Ron’s prints with the Welco employee’s. This time, the Identification Division ran the comparison and it turned up negative. FBI Headquarters wrote its memo to Cincinnati’s SAC on Tuesday, May 22, 1973. Two weeks later, on June 4 or 5, 1973 (there are notations that mention both dates, but most say June 5), something related to Ronald Tammen’s case was “Removed from the Ident files.”
Coincidentally or not, June 5, 1973, also happened to be exactly 20 years after the memo was sent from Headquarters to the Cleveland office in which they acknowledged that the young man who had been reported missing by his mother was the same person who had been fingerprinted back in 1941. For this reason, some readers may conclude that the removal of whatever it was from Ron’s record is not coincidental—that the FBI may have had a protocol in which, if there were no promising leads in 20 years, the FBI would make some sort of status change in the case, perhaps to the point of calling off the search.
This makes sense, except for a couple factors: I’ve received no indication from any source that there ever was a 20-year cut-off. When I asked Stephen Fischer, chief of multimedia productions and the media liaison for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS), if he had a suggestion regarding the meaning of the phrase “Removed from Ident files,” he said, “Sorry, but we do not.” If they had a 20-year rule, it would have been easy enough for him to say so. Also, if there were a 20-year deadline, wouldn’t it have coincided with the date in which the missing person report was filed, which was May 26, 1953?
I do think that the 20-year timeframe is significant, but not because of FBI protocol. I think it’s significant because of the news article that ran on the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which brought about the Welco lead.
So the question remained: What was removed from the Ident. files, and why?
There’s something that I need to share with you at this point, and I do so with a great deal of embarrassment. Sometimes, when a lot of information comes at me firehose style, I’ll focus on what I believe to be the most crucial take-home message—such as the fact that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002 and the FBI had probably confirmed him dead seven years prior—while accidentally letting some of the other details slip by, even though they may be even more important in answering a question at hand. As I was writing this blog post, I revisited emails from 2015 in which I was discussing the “Removed from Ident files” language with members of the FBI. Even though Stephen Fischer said that they didn’t know what it could refer to, Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, did have something interesting to say.
“The reference to ‘Removed from Ident File,’” he wrote to me in an email, “refers to the missing person notice on file.”
Ron’s missing person file was the one that begins with the number 79—#7931966, to be exact—that you see scribbled on many of the FOIA documents, and it contained correspondence between FBI Headquarters and its field offices as well as the Tammens. It was different from the fingerprint card that was contained in Ron’s #358 406 B file. Fox also said that Tammen’s missing person file was managed by the Identification Division.
At that moment, nearly three years after first reading Fox’s email, the significance of the Identification Division became clear to me. John Fox wasn’t telling me anything that I hadn’t read many times elsewhere. The division’s name had been written in the 5th paragraph of the 5/9/73 memo and in the first paragraph of every form letter leading up to it. It had been written at the top of the May 26, 1953, document in which the Cleveland office summed up its conversation with Mrs. Tammen—ATT: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION. For so long, I had been fixated on the fact that the Identification Division was known informally as the fingerprint division, which housed the hundreds of thousands of fingerprint cards in the enormous building that’s now the D.C. Armory. (Listen to two brief audio clips about the history of the Identification Division and its fingerprint records: Part I and Part II.) All along, I had been grappling with the question of how the FBI could remove Ron’s fingerprints from the Identification Division, but not expunge them until 2002. But it wasn’t just Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints that were maintained by the Identification Division. It was also Ron’s missing person file.
Could it be that Ron’s entire missing person file was removed from the Identification Division on June 5, 1973? Nearly every one of the letters of correspondence regarding Tammen’s case had the words “Removed from Ident files” written on them. In addition, stamped at the bottom of the June 5, 1953, memo are the words “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room,” and a number that looks like 429. The October 11, 1967, letter from Hoover to Mr. Tammen and the 5-22-73 memo from Ruckelshaus to the Cincinnati field office have a similar stamp, but the room has been moved to 1126. In all cases, the stamps are crossed out.
I believe that the reason for the removal of all of those pages was that Ronald Tammen was no longer considered by the FBI to be missing.
Here’s my theory: When J. Edgar Hoover chose not to compare the soldier’s prints with Ron’s in October 1967, he likely already knew what had happened to Tammen and he felt it would have been a waste of time to compare the two men’s fingerprints. It’s also my belief that Ron’s whereabouts were to be kept secret, even from his family members, for whatever reason. (Heck, 65 years after Tammen’s disappearance, I believe that’s still the case.)
In 1973, the Cincinnati SAC didn’t know what Hoover had known. He innocently submitted the fingerprints to Headquarters, and, just as innocently, the Identification Division ran their comparison. But something happened between May 22 and June 5, which led to the FBI’s decision to remove Ron’s missing person file from the Identification Division. Could that be what Ruckelshaus (or whoever authored the 5-22-73 letter for the acting director’s signature) had meant when he said that “MP placed in 1953 to be brought up to date”?
I think someone discovered what Hoover had known in 1967 and ordered that Ron’s missing person file be placed elsewhere, so they would no longer be bothered by additional MP-related requests. His fingerprints, on the other hand, would remain on file with the Identification Division, and later CJIS, until 2002, at which point the prints were expunged.
To sum up where my head is right now: not only do I think that the FBI knew when Ronald Tammen had died—seven years prior to 2002, or around 1995—but I also believe they knew what he was doing when he was still very much alive. They just don’t want us to know they knew.
But it’s still just a theory. I need to talk to a few more people.
On a side note, I’ve come to learn the name of the person who worked at Welco as well as the details that were included in his personnel file. I won’t be revealing his name in order to protect his privacy and the privacy of his family, but I will say this: his name had a similar ring to Tammen’s. It would have been logical for the caller to make that connection because people who run away and change their names often use new names that sound like the old ones. The other details I’ll divulge here are his height and weight, which were recorded in his personnel file as 6 ft. 2 ½ in. and 185 pounds, respectively. Unless Tammen had experienced a major growth spurt after he disappeared—his medical records at Miami listed him as 5 ft. 9 in. in April of ‘53—there was no way this man could be confused with Tammen.
Over these next several posts, we’ll be continuing to focus our attention on what’s in the documents that were sent to me by the FBI as a result of my 2010 FOIA request, and what, if anything, they might add to the story.
On the morning of Tuesday, May 2, 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover didn’t wake up. His body was discovered at around 8:30 a.m. by his maid, who had arrived at his home to make his breakfast. He’d worked all day at the office the day before, had dinner with his long-time companion and deputy director, Clyde Tolson, and then died of a heart attack sometime during the night or early morning.
Yes. How very thoughtful of this man who’d made an art form of gathering the goods on the powerful, famous, and nonconforming to preserve the trust of those he held most dear by having his secretary tear up, and then send away for further shredding, all of those friendly, personal letters.
Hoover’s death also seemed to bring an end to a different kind of letter—something more relevant to those of us who are concerned with what happened to Ronald Tammen: the form letters. You may recall that the FBI would send a form letter to the Tammens every two or three years, usually in the autumn, to ask if they should continue looking for Tammen. Mr. or Mrs. Tammen would check the box marked “Is still missing,” sign the bottom, and mail the letter back to the FBI. After Hoover died, however, the letters came to a halt, even though, in the final letter, the “Is still missing” box was checked by Ron’s father.
While Hoover was still alive, the FBI had been fairly consistent about sticking to the schedule—jarringly so in 1963. That letter was dated November 29, just seven days after President Kennedy had been assassinated, and the last day of a grueling week in which the country had bid their tearful goodbyes to him. On a day when the nation was still mired in the shock and grief of having seen their young, energetic leader being carried around in a flag-draped casket, someone in Hoover’s employ had the clarity of mind to glance at the calendar and say to him or herself, “Time to send the Tammen family another form letter.”
To put the above action into context, let’s take a quick look at the timeline of that unspeakably sad week, juxtaposed with a few of the more tangible ways in which J. Edgar Hoover had busied himself.
Hoover speaks with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and later sends a memo to his executive staff summarizing his conversation: that the person whom he believed shot and killed the president was in custody at Dallas Police headquarters, and the name of the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, who was “working in the building from which the shots were fired.” He concluded, “I told the Attorney General that, since the Secret Service is tied up, I thought we should move into the case.”
Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963
President Kennedy’s casket is on display in the East Room of the White House. President Johnson declares Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, a National Day of Mourning.
J. Edgar Hoover briefs LBJ about the FBI’s investigation (transcript — 3 pages), telling him, among other things: they had charged “this man in Dallas” with the president’s murder; they had the rifle that killed the president, the bullet, and the gun that killed the policeman; and “one angle that’s confusing”: a person who showed up at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963 using Oswald’s name was not Oswald.
At 4:00 p.m. ET, J. Edgar Hoover dictates a summary of the investigation, saying that Oswald is dead, and that he was shot in the stomach by Jack Ruby. “The thing that I am concerned about, and so is [deputy attorney general] Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin,” he said.
Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 – National Day of Mourning
Beginning at roughly 11 a.m., there is a procession and funeral for John F. Kennedy, after which he is buried at Arlington Cemetery at roughly 3:30 p.m. (View Associated Press footage.)
President Johnson calls J. Edgar Hoover at 10:30 a.m., to speak about his concern that people are calling for a presidential commission to look into the assassination. “Some lawyer in Justice is lobbying with the [Washington] Post because that’s where the suggestion came from for this presidential commission, which we think would be very bad,” (Hoover: “I do too,”)…“and put it right in the White House. We can’t be checking up on every uh, every uh, shooting scrape in the country…” Johnson then said that they planned to do two things: 1) Hoover would give a full report to the attorney general, which would be made available to the public, and 2) the attorney general of Texas would “run a court of inquiry.” Listen to the conversation (20:23) or read the transcript.
Earlier that day, at 1:49 p.m., President Johnson and Hoover discuss possible members of the presidential commission. When they move on to the FBI investigation, Hoover says “We hope to have this thing wrapped up today, but could be we probably won’t get it before the first of the week.” Listen to Part 1 (10:06) and Part 2 (10:24) of the taped conversation or read the transcript.
Oh, and one more thing: a form letter signed by Hoover is mailed to the Tammen family.
I don’t know about you, but I find it extraordinary that the FBI was even thinking about Ronald Tammen during that momentous week in our nation’s history.
Of course, Hoover may not have been aware that a letter with his name and signature was mailed to the Tammens on November 29, 1963. It could be that a low-level civil servant had readied the memo and had it signed with an autopen while Hoover was on the phone with the president telling him about Oswald’s ties to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or the ACLU. Regardless, what this says to me is that in a week when the FBI should have been firing on every cylinder in an effort to determine who killed our president and why, someone within the organization had a more menial task on his or her plate. Even if that person’s job had nothing to do with helping with the Kennedy assassination investigation, even if his or her only job was sending out missing person memos, in my view, it was rather unseemly to be going off-topic so soon. For the rest of the country, the week was rife with cancellations, postponements, and closings in somber reflection of the upheaval we’d experienced. Why couldn’t the FBI—the nation’s top law enforcement agency—have held off on some of its other public duties until, say, after the weekend? Apparently, the bureau had moved on, and they didn’t seem to care if anyone outside its walls knew it.
One last point about the 1963 memo: it wasn’t as if there was a firm date when the memos were mailed out. Nope, the dates were all over the map, as can be seen here:
August 25, 1955
October 1, 1957
November 16, 1959
October 30, 1961
November 29, 1963
January 19, 1967
October 1, 1970
I’m sure the Tammens wouldn’t have minded if the FBI had waited another week or two before sending the letter.
Here’s the other thing that I want to point out about those dates. Based on the above pattern (other than the blip in January 1967), it would be logical to conclude that Mr. Tammen was due to receive another letter in 1972 or 1973, probably in October or November. But then Hoover died in May 1972 and the letter was never mailed. In fact, if these documents are telling us what I think they are, the FBI never wrote the Tammens again. Either Tammen’s case had fallen by the wayside or someone had made the decision that it was time to put a stop to the form letters.
In my next post, I’ll discuss the two documents from May 1973.