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

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word “expunge” fits.

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

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

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

Ron’s case is special.

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

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

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

Purged

Why the FBI’s actions concerning Ron Tammen’s fingerprint file are weirder and more outrageous than we thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little later in the conversation:

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

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

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

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

Me: Which aspect doesn’t sound normal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A closer, albeit blurrier view of an Additional Record Sheet

GED

How does the National Archives document apply to Ron Tammen? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

1995 – CJIS relocates to Clarksburg, WV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it all mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the take-homes:

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a thank you

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

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

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

The missing fingerprints, part 4*

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

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

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

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

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

Background:

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

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

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

Questions for Comment:

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

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

IF YES:

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

IF NO:

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

IF YES:

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

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

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

Instead, I received this email:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It opened like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Fred?”

“Yeah, Barney?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The missing fingerprints, part 3*

(*or how a FOIA request for three other missing persons inadvertently helped me realize that Ronald Tammen is probably dead)

It was on a sad day in 2015—April Fool’s Day, no less—when it had dawned on me that Ronald Tammen had probably died. That was the day that I learned that the FBI had tossed out Ron’s fingerprints—the inky, kid-sized variety that had been rolled across a card back in 1941 as well as the digitized versions that had been stored in the FBI’s computer system. That an organization so historically obsessed with fingerprints would rid itself of the last remnants of someone who had famously gone missing was, in my view, absurd, regardless of what their protocol dictated. The 2002 purging happened surreptitiously, with no notification of Tammen’s immediate family members, which at that point still included all four of Ron’s siblings. Because the FBI purges fingerprints when a person would be 110 years of age or seven years after his or her confirmed death, I concluded that the FBI had probably confirmed Tammen to be dead in 1995.

But there was another line of evidence that the FBI had determined Ronald Tammen to be dead, evidence that had been directly under my nose a whole lot earlier than April 1, 2015. It has to do with the FOIA process.

It works like this: If you were to send a FOIA request to the FBI today seeking documents that they have on any person other than yourself, you would need to provide one of three things: proof that the person is deceased, such as a death certificate or an obituary; proof that he or she was born at least 100 years ago, in which case the person is likely to be dead; or, if the person is still living, a signed consent form from him or her saying that it’s OK for you to receive the documents. If you don’t provide any of the above, it’s highly likely that you won’t be getting a thing from them. As you can surmise, this is tough to do if a person is listed as missing. Where would you get your hands on any of those pieces of backup evidence? Well, there appears to be an exception to this rule: If you were to ask them for Ronald Tammen’s files, they would accept your request, and then send you your documents months later. (But you don’t even have to do that, Good Man readers! You can access them here.)

When I submitted my FOIA request on Ronald Tammen in 2010, the significance of what wasn’t asked of me went unnoticed. It was, after all, my first FOIA request, and I had no means for comparison. However, in 2011, in an effort to learn how Tammen’s case was handled in comparison to other missing persons cases, I submitted FOIA requests on three other draft-age men who disappeared during the J. Edgar Hoover era. They were:

  • Lyndal Ashby, who disappeared from Hartford, Kentucky, in 1960 at the age of 22;
  • William Arnold, who disappeared from Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1967 at the age of 24; and
  • Raymond Harris, who disappeared from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1971, at the age of 20.

For Mr. Arnold and Mr. Harris, the section chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section informed me that my request was exempt from disclosure because I hadn’t sent proof of death or authorization of the third party, or “a clear demonstration that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the personal privacy interest and that significant public benefit would result from the disclosure of the requested records.” Regarding the latter loophole, believe me, I tried, but they weren’t moved by my reason for disclosure. For Mr. Ashby, on the other hand, they accepted the request, and months later, I received eight pages on his case.

It wasn’t clear to me why Ronald Tammen and Lyndal Ashby were treated differently than William Arnold and Raymond Harris, and I said so during the appeal process. Using the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives as a go-between, I asked the FBI liaison to explain to me why I needed to send proof of Arnold’s and Harris’ death, when I didn’t send proof of Tammen’s or Ashby’s death?

What happened next was pretty telling.

First, through the OGIS representative, the FBI liaison communicated the following:

The FBI released information pertaining to Mr. Tammen because over the years the FBI had contact with his family who indicated that they believed Mr. Tammen to be deceased given some suspicious facts, namely, that after his disappearance a fish was found in his college bed.

Talk about a fishy excuse. What communication between the FBI and the Tammen family was he referring to? For years, Ron’s parents were quoted in news accounts saying that they were hopeful that Ron was still alive. They also dutifully signed and returned a form letter every couple years asking the FBI to continue looking for Ron. Mr. Tammen did so until 1970, the last year in which the FBI had sent him the letter. (Mrs. Tammen had passed away in 1964.) Also, the fish in the bed was a prank—I knew it, the FBI knew it, and I figured the Tammens had known it too, since the story about the fish had first appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, their hometown paper, in 1956. His explanation was bogus, and I jumped all over it.

I said that I thought it was interesting that he knew about the fish in the bed, since nothing in the FOIA documents that they’d sent me had mentioned the fish. I wanted to know what document he was reading. Of course, I knew that there was information online about the fish, though I thought it would have been odd if he’d go to those lengths to learn about the Tammen case. Here’s how our phone conversation went on February 15, 2012:

The FBI liaison told me that his reference to the fish was just a poor attempt at humor and that he’d been referring to the scene in The Godfather. (I knew the one he meant—where a dead fish is placed on James Caan’s lap to communicate that a character named Luca Brasi was dead and “sleeps with the fishes.”) He then said he reviewed all of the FBI’s files and there was nothing about the fish in the files.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I remember asking him, “Are you aware that there really was a fish in the bed? I mean, it was nothing—just a harmless prank—but there really was one?” At that point, I was expecting him to come clean and say that he’d read about the fish online. But that’s not what he said. Instead, he said that he had no idea. It was just a poor attempt at humor.

I sued the FBI, which is another story for another day. I’ll go ahead and post my complaint, however, since it’s public information. If you’re interested, have at it.

My answer about Lyndal Ashby came much later, as I was conducting online research for a chapter of my book. I discovered that Ashby had eventually been found, and his name was engraved on a headstone in his memory in Walton’s Creek Cemetery, in his birthplace of Centertown, Kentucky. According to an obituary attributed to his family and posted on ProjectJason.org, a website for missing persons, in June 2013:

Family members in Kentucky have recently learned that Lyndal B. Ashby, formerly of Centertown, died in Oakland, California on April 11, 1990. This information was obtained after his brother conducted a lengthy missing persons investigation, and confirmed by DNA tests conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had been estranged from family since 1960 and died under an assumed identity. His body was cremated and the ashes strewn on the ocean three miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. (See full obituary here.)

So Lyndal Ashby had died in 1990—a little more than six weeks before his 52nd birthday. Now, in hindsight, I imagine that’s why the FBI was able to send his documents to me in the first place. But that’s puzzling too, since the case wasn’t officially resolved until 2013, and I had submitted my FOIA request two years prior. Did the FBI already have a pretty good idea that Ashby was dead by then?

In the end, it was the two actions on the part of the FBI—purging Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 and sending me his FOIA documents in 2010 without requesting backup information—that led me to conclude that they had confirmed Ronald Tammen was dead too. But if they did know that he was dead, how did they know? And moreover, when did he die, how did he die, and where were his remains? Since nothing in Ron’s FOIA documents would address those questions, I decided that the only way to get an answer was to ask them point blank—yes or no—had they confirmed Ronald Tammen to be dead? And that’s what I did.

The missing fingerprints, part 2

Last month, after I posted what I consider to be a big revelation in the Tammen case—documented proof that the FBI had Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints on file when he disappeared, and, moreover, the discovery that they no longer have them—I was expecting, I don’t know, a more enthusiastic reaction? Not cheers and fist bumps per se, but I thought the number of page views would inch up a little, and someone might even weigh in with a “wow.”

Here’s what I heard:

[crickets]

I don’t think it’s because readers have lost interest in the Tammen case. Many of you have let me know through your emails and comments that you’re happy this blog exists. So why all the quiet?

I think I know. It’s because, Good Man followers, you were probably waiting for the other shoe to drop, and rightfully so. I was holding onto a key piece of information.

A few readers might have already figured things out, because the information I was holding back is already public. And that piece of publicly available information has to do with FBI protocol.

“Everybody has to clean their closets once in a while,” one FBI employee told me when I asked him why they no longer had Ron’s prints on file.

That’s a good point. And with the FBI now tracking other biometrics, such as facial recognition and latent and palm prints, they’re probably accumulating massive volumes of data. Under the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, the record retention protocol for fingerprints is as follows (with bold added):

The NGI data will be retained in accordance with the applicable retention schedules approved by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has approved the destruction of fingerprint cards and corresponding indices when criminal and civil subjects attain 110 years of age or seven years after notification of death with biometric confirmation. Source, Section 3.4

So under NGI protocol guidelines, the FBI would have had to wait until either Ronald Tammen was 110 years of age or seven years after his biometrically confirmed death before they could rid their closet of Tammen’s prints. In February 2008, when Detective Frank Smith, of the Butler County Sheriff’s Department, unsuccessfully sought out Tammen’s prints from the FBI, Tammen would have been 74 years of age, not even close to 110.

Not so fast, some forensics experts may be thinking. NGI was fully instituted only recently, in September 2014. The protocol of its predecessor, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which had been in place since July 1999, stipulated this:

NARA has determined that civil fingerprint submissions are to be destroyed when the individual reaches 75 years of age and criminal fingerprints are to be destroyed when the individual reaches 99 years of age. — Source, Section 3.4

OK, that’s better. Whether Ron would have been 74 or 75…that’s close enough, right?

Maybe, except for one thing: On April 1, 2015, a high-ranking official in the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division let me know in an email that Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were “expunged from our system in 2002. No other info available.”

Ronald Tammen would have been 68 or 69.

Whaaaaaa?, I thought.

I followed up with this email, to which he responded to three questions in red:

Thank you so much for your quick response. Just to make sure I understand–does that mean that his fingerprints were still in the FBI’s system until 2002, at which time they were removed from your system? Yes. Also, do you happen to know who expunged them? No Lastly, I know it was a long time ago, but do you have any suggestion regarding the meaning of the language: “removed from Ident. files, 6-4-73”? Sorry, but we do not.

(The last question had to do with a notation on several of the documents I’d received from the FBI as part of my FOIA request. I’d originally been trying to determine if they’d purged Ron’s fingerprints back in 1973.)

I then asked him what the protocol was for expunging fingerprints. He said, “The FBI purges fingerprint data and records at 110 years of age or 7 years after confirmed death.”

And that’s why I’m so riled about Ron’s fingerprint records. Since Ronald Tammen wouldn’t have been 110, or even 75, years of age when the FBI purged his prints, the only logical explanation for their decision to do so, other than the possibility that someone made a colossal mistake, is that Ronald Tammen had been confirmed dead, possibly for seven years, in 2002. This, in turn, could mean that he died around 1995, depending on the date in which the FBI had first learned of his death.

And if the FBI did learn and confirm that Ronald Tammen had died? Well, that just opens up a whole new set of questions, now doesn’t it?

The missing fingerprints

Shortly after Ronald Tammen went missing, the FBI began their own investigation into his disappearance. Because the FBI is part of the federal government, it’s subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which means that an ordinary U.S. citizen can ask them to provide documents on a topic within their jurisdiction, though some exemptions apply. (Actually, non-citizens can submit FOIA requests too.) In April 2010, I submitted a FOIA request seeking everything they had on the Tammen case and, just before Christmas of that same year, the FBI sent me 22 pages.

Here you go. (Click on link to view documents.)

These pages provide much to mull over, and, meaning no disrespect to the G-men  and administrative staff who were just doing their jobs back then, they’re a tad sloppy and chaotic. When I shared them with someone who used to work for the FBI and asked him what he thought, he said that it appeared as if a lot was missing. Mind you, this person didn’t have a scintilla of background knowledge on the Tammen case. He based his observation on the fact that the FBI is a memo-happy place (my words, not his), where a phone call or visit generally warrants a new report. In an unsolved missing person’s case from 1953, one would expect more than 22 pages. In addition, several people with whom I’d spoken had told me that either they or their parents were interviewed by the FBI after Tammen disappeared, yet those visits weren’t mentioned anywhere in the documents I’d received.

After a few more related FOIA requests that yielded nothing, I appealed, arguing that there must be more documents based on the missing interviews and a couple other pieces of evidence I’d gathered. Months later, I was sent nine additional pages pertaining to the Georgia “dead body” case of 2008.

Here they are.

As you can imagine, taking on the FBI can be a challenge, and I won’t be able to cover my history with them in a blog post or two. I need to save some of that drama for the book.  However, one of the more surprising discoveries can be found on page 3 of the first batch of documents they sent me. To cut to the chase: when Ronald Tammen’s mother telephoned the Cleveland FBI office on April 30, 1953, to report her son missing, the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. already had his fingerprints on file.

From the year 1941.

When Ron Tammen was seven or eight years old.

FBI memo
Click on document to enlarge.

That seemed odd to my FBI contact and me. He considered it uncommon to fingerprint a child back then because people generally weren’t concerned about the sorts of crimes that we worry about today. I wondered if the other Tammen kids might have been fingerprinted too, and asked Marcia, John, and Robert if they could recall their parents having them fingerprinted as children. They each told me “no.” Although John had no memory of Ron being fingerprinted, and Marcia and Robert weren’t born at the time, Marcia said that she did recall being told that Ron had been fingerprinted in school. I subsequently found a 1960 anniversary article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that stated, “…fingerprints taken when Ronald was in the second grade at Fairview Park Elementary School are on file in the FBI in Washington.” No reason was given as to why a child would be fingerprinted during the second grade, but the FBI document states that it was for personal identification. Maybe some prescient teacher had the students fingerprinted as a class project. The children could learn about how law enforcement operated while doing their civic duty.  Oh, and if (God forbid) one of them should happen to go missing someday, well, they’d be ahead of the game.

That’s precisely how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would have viewed things too. Hoover felt that everyone in the country should be fingerprinted, not just the criminals, civil service applicants, and members of the military. He encouraged all citizens to voluntarily have their fingerprints sent in so that the information could be used to aid in missing persons investigations, or to help the bureau identify an amnesia victim or an unidentified body. So with the FBI already in possession of Ron’s fingerprints in 1953, wouldn’t that have given them a leg up in their investigation into his disappearance? Apparently not.

But here’s the wildest part: If a member of law enforcement were to contact the FBI today seeking a copy of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints—in the event someone encountered a person who resembled him or someone turned up dead who might have been Ron Tammen—an FBI representative would have to tell that official that no fingerprints exist.

They had them, and you can see the notations for yourself on pages 6 (dated Nov. 16, 1959) and 7 (Oct. 30, 1961) of the first batch of FBI documents. They look sort of like this (the best I can approximate using this software):

19M    17W    r12

L       3 W

But they no longer have them. Detective Frank Smith tried to get them in 2008 when he was handling cold cases for the Butler County Sheriff’s Department, and was turned away empty-handed. (By the way, if we have any fingerprint specialists among us who can shed some light on what these notations mean, please feel free to comment.)

To put it plainly, the fingerprints of Ronald Tammen, the central player in one of the most famous missing persons cases in the state of Ohio, were already on file with the FBI the year that he disappeared. Furthermore, although Tammen has never been found, and we are still within the timeframe in which he could feasibly turn up alive, someone from the FBI looked at those prints and decided that, for whatever reason, they didn’t need them cluttering up their files anymore. Someone decided they should be purged. Was it a mistake (and by “mistake,” I mean an act of mind-boggling negligence), or did they know something that the rest of us haven’t yet learned? That’s just one of the questions I’ve spent the past seven-plus years attempting to have answered.