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://www.charleyproject.org/cases/t/tammen_ronald.html

(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.