A word-by-word comparison of the 2008 FBI narrative to the source from which it was copied
For my last post this weekend, I want to hammer home just how similar the narrative that I received from my 2014 lawsuit settlement is to a write-up on Tammen’s case on The Charley Project website. Because The Charley Project write-up has been edited over the years and now includes information obtained from this blog, let’s time travel back to the halcyon days of 2008, a simpler time when all of us were 13 years younger and perhaps a little more naive, including the folks at the FBI. Who knows, maybe they had no idea back then that the use of another person’s words without attribution is frowned upon.
Thanks to the website Wayback Machine, I’m including a screen shot of the verbiage from The Charley Project’s web page on Tammen from March 23, 2008—an arbitrary date in 2008 for which they had a page capture—as well as a link to that page. I’m also including the two pages of the narrative that the FBI emailed to me in 2014, claiming that I had unprecedented access to such information. The true author of the verbiage is Meaghan Good, who has told me that she first posted the Tammen write-up to The Charley Project website on March 1, 2005. What the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) seem to think I’ve had unprecedented access to has been available to literally every man, woman, and child since 2005. Can you see why I’m bitter?
To make things easier on you, I’ve copied the write-up from The Charley Project page, and have inserted in blue the places where the FBI narrative strays from the original. If a word is omitted or a sentence is moved, I indicate that as well. Here you go:
Tammen [*THE VICTIM] was last seen in old Fisher Hall, a former Victorian mental asylum converted to a dormitory at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio on April 19, 1953 [4/19/1953]. He was a resident hall advisor at Fisher Hall, and lived in room 225. At 8:00 p.m., he requested new bedsheets because someone had put a dead fish in his bed.
Sometime around 8:30 p.m., Tammen [*THE VICTIM] apparently heard something outside his room that disturbed him, and went out into the hallway to investigate. He never returned. His roommate came in at 10:00 p.m. and found him gone. The roommate originally assumed Tammen [*THE VICTIM] was spending the night at his Delta Tau Delta fraternity house, and did not report his disappearance until the next day.
There is no indication that Tammen left of his own accord. [*previous sentence moved to end of paragraph] His clothes, car keys, wallet, identification, watch, high school class ring and other personal items were left behind in his dormitory room, and he also left the lights on, the radio playing, and a psychology textbook lying open on his desk. His gold 1938 [*year missing] Chevrolet sedan was not taken from its place in the school parking lot, he left his bass fiddle in the back seat of the car, and he left behind $200 (the equivalent of over $1,300 in today’s money) in his bank account. Tammen is believed to have [*IT IS BELIEVED THE VICTIM] had no more than $10 to $15 on his person the night he disappeared, and [*ALSO, HE] was not wearing a coat. [*first sentence in paragraph moved here;]
However, authorities have not found any indication of foul play in Tammen’s [*HIS] disappearance either.They do not believe he could have been forcibly abducted, as he was large enough and strong enough to defend himself against most attackers. They theorize that he could have developed amnesia and wandered away, but if that was the case he should have been found relatively quickly.
A woman living outside of Oxford, twelve miles east of the Miami University campus, claims that a young man came to her door at 11:00 p.m. the evening Tammen [*THE VICTIM] disappeared and asked what town he was in. Then he asked directions to the bus stop, which she gave him, and he left. However, the bus line had suspended its midnight run, so he could not have gotten on a bus. The witness says the man she spoke to was disheveled and dirty and appeared upset and confused. He was not wearing a coat or hat, although it was a cold night and there was snow on the ground. He was apparently on foot, since the woman did not see or hear a car. The man matched the physical description of Tammen [*THE VICTIM] and was wearing similar clothes, but it has not been confirmed that they were the same person, and Tammen’s [*THE VICTIM’s] brother stated he did not believe the man the witness saw was Tammen [*HIS BROTHER].
Five months to the day before Tammen [*The VICTIM] vanished, he went to the Butler County Coroner’s office in Hamilton, Ohio and asked for a test to have his blood typed. The coroner claims that this was the only such request he ever got in 35 years of practice. It is unknown why Tammen [*THE VICTIM] wanted the test done and why he did not have it conducted in Oxford, where local physicians or the university hospital could have typed his blood for him. Tammen [THE VICTIM] was scheduled for a physical examination by the Selective Service for induction into the army, but inductees did not need to know their blood type in advance of the physical.
Tammen’s [*THE VICTIM’S] parents, who lived in the 21000 block of Hillgrove Avenue in Maple Heights, Ohio in 1953, last saw him a week before he disappeared and say he did not appear to be troubled by anything at the time. He was on the varsity wrestling team in college, played in the school dance band, and was a business major and a good student. He dated at the time that he vanished but did not have a steady girlfriend.
In the decades after Tammen’s [*THE VICTIM’S] disappearance, students at Miami University claimed his ghost haunted Fisher Hall. His parents are now deceased. Fisher Hall was torn down in 1978 and an extensive search was conducted in the rubble for Tammen’s [THE VICTIM’S] remains, but no evidence was located. His case remains unsolved. [*THE VICTIM’S OH DL IS C-779075.]
In running my little comparison, I noticed a few things:
The Charley Project write-up is well-written, so I can understand why someone from the FBI thought it provided a good summary of the case in few words. Nevertheless, there are several inaccuracies and areas of conjecture that have accrued by way of other media outlets over time. The FBI, who should have access to the most accurate source information on the case, allowed those inaccuracies to remain in their narrative for law enforcement.
Only one detail was omitted from the FBI narrative: the year 1938 in the description of Tammen’s car (actually, his car was a green 1939 Chevy).
The only information that the FBI added to its narrative is Ron’s driver’s license number.
As we’ve discussed in an earlier post, even though the FBI obviously had new intel from 2002 that led to the expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints, that information didn’t make it into this narrative for law enforcement, which, ostensibly, was written in 2008. Perhaps it and other details were somehow mentioned in the full report, but alas, only law enforcement can access that. Judging by their unwillingness to disclose that information to former Butler Co. cold case detective Frank Smith when he inquired about Tammen’s fingerprints in 2008, I doubt it.
Hello! Tired of hearing from me so much? My apologies. Sometimes I get gabby. There’s another document I’ve been wanting to mention, but it falls slightly outside of last night’s theme—slightly—though the year 2008 is pertinent. This document was written in 2014 as part of my lawsuit settlement. The intended audience wasn’t law enforcement, just my lawyer and me.
The document is part of a declaration written by the chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS) informing us of all the different places they searched for records on Tammen. The 2002 expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints isn’t mentioned anywhere, but I’m not sure that information is available in document form, which is a criterion of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It has to be a document. (Of course, even if there were a document on the expungement, I’m doubtful that they would have let me know about it if they weren’t willing to tell their friends in law enforcement.)
In the declaration, the RIDS chief created a table that listed search terms, the automated or manual indices searched, and the potentially responsive files. It also included the status of their search, such as “unable to locate” or “located, processed and released X pages” or “destroyed on X date.” One file that leaps out at me is numbered 190-CI-0, Serial 967, which I’ve circled in red.
On or about May 17, 2008—a Saturday—the FBI decided to destroy documents that had originated in the Cincinnati (CI) field office. Because the file number is preceded by the number 190, I believe it had something to do with the Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts. The book Unlocking the Files of the FBI, by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart tells me that. The book goes on to say that “The Bureau established this classification in 1976 to handle citizen requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 as amended and the Privacy Act (PA) of 1974, which together provided for the expungements of records upon the request of an individual.”
Hmm. Those words have a familiar ring, don’t they?
With the case being reopened by Butler County, OH, and Walker County, GA, in 2008, and with the FBI opening a new file on Tammen that same year (not to mention the special file with the plagiarized narrative), doesn’t it seem a little curious that the Cincinnati office—just one county over from Butler County—would destroy a file on Tammen in mid-May of 2008?
Let’s take a closer look at the timeline, shall we?
January 14, 2008 – The Atlanta office of the FBI is contacted by the Walker County (GA) sheriff’s office to request the “opening of a police cooperation matter.” The Atlanta office was told of Walker Co.’s interest in reopening a cold case having to do with a dead man who was found in a ditch near Lafayette in the summer of 1953. The Walker Co. sheriff’s office wanted to find out if the dead man might be Ron Tammen. According to the resulting FBI report, dated January 28, 2008, Walker Co. was “requesting Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assistance with positive identification and investigation.” The report ends with “In view of the above, it is requested that a Police Cooperation matter be opened and assigned to SA [redacted].”
February 8, 2008 – The remains of the unidentified man are exhumed from Lafayette City Cemetery, in Lafayette, GA, to obtain his DNA. That DNA would be compared with the DNA of Ron Tammen’s sister Marcia to see if it might have been Ron. Representatives of the Butler Co. (OH) and Walker Co. sheriff’s offices, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the media, and other onlookers are present.
February 26, 2008 – Frank Smith, Butler County cold case detective, writes to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) requesting a hand search for Ron’s fingerprint card.
February 28, 2008 – CJIS writes back, saying (and I’m paraphrasing): sorry, we’ve looked everywhere for Tammen’s fingerprints. They’re not here. The author neglects to mention that they’d expunged Tammen’s prints in 2002 in response to a court order or Privacy Act conflict.
March 14, 2008 – The dead man’s remains are received by the FBI Laboratory, DNA Analysis Unit.
May 17, 2008 – File number 190-CI-0, Serial 967 is destroyed in the FBI’s Cincinnati office.
June 2, 2008 – The FBI notifies the two sheriff’s departments that the DNA was not a match.
June 3, 2009 (one year later) – The Atlanta office of the FBI closes the case into the Police Cooperation matter.
So, to put this as simply as I can: a few months after the dead man’s remains had been exhumed, and while the two sheriff’s offices were eagerly awaiting the DNA results and wondering if they’d actually managed to solve both cold cases at once, an FBI file having something to do with Ronald Tammen was destroyed. On a Saturday. Just a short drive from the Butler Co. sheriff’s office, or, come to think of it, Oxford, Ohio.
Also, the file in question just so happens to concern a possible FOIA or Privacy Act request from an individual. Yeah, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. Nothing to see here.
Have a good weekend, everyone! I’m happy to entertain questions and comments.
This is going to be a short post. What I’d like to do is compare several documents that were produced by the FBI after Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002. The first one should be fresh in your mind: it’s the email sent to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by the FBI’s records and information management specialist in April 2021. Even though the email’s language is vague about key details, such as what caused them to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints, it does provide some specifics that the specialist had obtained as she “researched [NARA’s] request for information.” (I wonder where she looked, since I was asking the FBI for everything they had on Tammen since 2010, and didn’t get nearly as much of the juicy stuff that she got.)
So that’s Exhibit A: The email written April 15, 2021, by the FBI’s records and information management specialist.
Exhibit B is the narrative that I received from my lawsuit settlement—you know, the settlement where I signed my life away so that I can never utter the name Ronald Tammen to the FBI ever again? The narrative about Tammen’s case is maintained in a database that members of law enforcement can access all over the country. I’m not allowed to say its name because they’ve told me I’m the first non-law-enforcement type to access anything from that database, which I seriously doubt, but I’ll play by the rules, even though they clearly aren’t.
The narrative contains some inaccuracies, which proved useful, because they led me to its source: The Charley Project, a website dedicated to missing persons. I also learned that the write-up was first posted on March 1, 2005, so it was available to the entire world at that time. Although the Charley Project write-up has since been updated, when I compared it to my narrative in 2014, it was almost a word-for-word match. The case number of the narrative begins with 2008, so I believe that’s the year it was created (i.e., plagiarized) by the FBI, though I couldn’t get confirmation on that. At the bottom of the pages, it says that it was “current as of 10/25/2012.”
So, in 2002, something of consequence caused the FBI to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of schedule, and whoever typed up this “report” in 2008 didn’t consider it worthwhile to inform fellow law enforcement professionals about what it was. But then, come to think of it, why do you suppose they created this file so late in the game?
Exhibit C is a fax that was sent from the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) to Frank Smith, former cold case detective for Butler County, Ohio, who had reopened the Tammen case in 2008. Smith had noticed the fingerprint shorthand on Tammen’s FBI files and requested a “hand search to see if any fingerprint cards can be located.”
The fax, dated February 28, 2008, said “A SEARCH OF OUR CRIMINAL AND CIVIL FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR YOUR SUBJECT. A COMPLETE SEARCH OF OUR ARCHIVE MICROFILM FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR THIS MISSING SUBJECT AS WELL.”
Gosh, if they’d just done what their records and information management specialist had done and looked up Tammen’s name and birth date, they would have immediately discovered that his fingerprints had been expunged in 2002. All of that searching high and low for Tammen’s fingerprints could have been avoided.
Actually, I’m being facetious. I’m quite sure that the author of this memo had looked up Tammen’s name and birth date and knew that his fingerprints had been expunged. The person just elected not to inform Detective Smith—a fellow law enforcement professional—of that information.
If I had to guess why in 2008 the FBI created the file for law enforcement with the plagiarized narrative, I’d say that it was Detective Smith’s efforts that had motivated them to do that as well. When Smith and his counterparts in Walker County, GA, were asking the FBI to compare the DNA of the dead body in Georgia with Marcia Tammen’s DNA, the FBI may have deemed it necessary to create the file—if for no other reason than for show.
In June 2002, I was living at a place called the Car Barn of Capitol Hill, an old red brick fortress that used to house trolley cars in the northeast section of Washington, DC. Every weekday, I’d step out of the apartment, head right on East Capitol Street, stroll past the dogs and kiddos at Lincoln Park, and then turn up North Carolina Avenue on my way to Eastern Market to take the train to my job as a technical writer for the federal government. I was living my dream—immersed in the historic urban-ness of Capitol Hill, doing work I believed in, and feeling attuned to the inner-workings of our democracy. But, as it turns out, I was also sadly oblivious.
Oblivious, because I had no idea that on one of those June days, the FBI would be expunging the fingerprints of Ronald Tammen, the person who’d famously disappeared from my alma mater in 1953 and who, according to his friends and family, was still very much listed as missing.
What about you? Where were you in June 2002 when the FBI purposely expunged Tammen’s fingerprints forever and always—gone in a flash—no take-backs, no quitsies?
We’ve since learned a little bit about that expungement—namely that it was carried out in accordance with the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA’s) records schedule known as N1-65-88-3, Item 1a, which means that his fingerprints were expunged in response to either a court order or a conflict with the Privacy Act of 1974. If it’s because of the Privacy Act, and the odds are good that it was, then Tammen was likely alive when his fingerprints were expunged. (As you may recall, an expert I spoke with said that the Privacy Act far outweighs the court order as the reason for expungements.)
As much as the above revelations have told us, they’ve also managed to generate more questions. Therefore, I recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NARA. I wanted to see whatever documents the NARA representative was reading when he or she informed me that: “The fingerprints in question were expunged from the FBI system as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a,” and then quickly followed up with “NARA does not have any further information regarding the expungement of this file.”
Specifically, I wanted to get my hands on the relevant Request for Records Disposition Authority form, aka Standard Form 115, aka SF 115, that I believed someone must have filled out before they could expunge Tammen’s fingerprints. (To preserve ink, I’ll be referring to it as the SF 115 from here on out.) I also asked for “any additional documentation associated with the FBI’s action.”
I submitted my FOIA request on June 8 of this year and yesterday, July 6, I received a response. Theirs wasn’t one of those evasive “we can neither confirm nor deny” or “we can’t find anything” sort of responses I get from the CIA or the FBI. It was a responsive response. NARA sent me 24 documents totaling 80 pages. These people are big believers in FOIA and it shows.
The majority of the documents don’t have anything to do with Tammen’s case per se, but they offer insight into how the FBI was handling its expungement cases before and after the fateful day in June 2002, which offered good background. However, one key document does tell us about Tammen’s case. That’s right. Someone from the FBI actually provided a short synopsis about Tammen’s fingerprints and what led to their being expunged. We’ll get to that synopsis in a second.
First, let’s discuss some of the things I learned about court-ordered or Privacy Act expungements in general.
Let’s begin with this fun fact: The 1988 SF 115 that’s cited for all Privacy Act/court-ordered expungements was signed by Robert W. Scherrer, who led an interesting life before he was in charge of records at the FBI. He’s kind of famous.
You’ve already seen N1-65-88-3 on this blogsite, however a memo dated 11/30/87 is extremely helpful in describing that records schedule, particularly the meaning of Item 1a. (Don’t ask me what the acronyms at the top of the memo stand for—I’ve been all over NARA’s website, and can’t find a document that spells out NIRM or NIR. Just know that they appear to be in the Records Administration side of NARA and they seem to be charged with the proper disposition of records. If you happen to be from NARA and can solve this puzzle, please let us know in the comments section.)
Based on that memo, we now know that Item 1a refers to records that were already considered temporary, meaning they were slated to be destroyed after a given retention period had ended. Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were in this category. As you may recall, in my write-up Purged, I discuss at length how Tammen’s prints were expunged at a time when the FBI was operating under the records schedule that required holding onto fingerprints until an individual would have reached 99 years of age. In Tammen’s case, that would have been the year 2032.
Because Item 1a records have already been approved for disposal (after the person is 99 years old in this case), if the FBI were presented with a court order to expunge or with an expungement request due to a Privacy Law conflict, they would be able to expunge those records immediately.
Here’s the most interesting part of this very helpful memo:
This will obviate the need to submit an SF 115 to NARA for each individual accelerated disposal action, thereby lessening the Bureau’s workload and ours. Also, it will speed the actual disposal of the records by eliminating our processing time and the 45 day waiting period while a job is at the Federal Register. In some cases, this waiting period causes anguish to individuals eager to see their file destroyed. For these reasons, NARA should approve this item. Records already have been appraised as lacking in historical value and there is no problem from the legal rights standpoint since the disposal of records has either been ordered by a court or is being done with the approval of the individual to whom the records pertain.
So to sum things up: for Item 1a records, no additional SF 115 is needed in order to expunge them before their normal retention period is over. Simply recording somewhere that the expungement was conducted on the basis of N1-65-88-3, Item 1a, is all the information the FBI would need to supply to NARA as back-up. As a result, there isn’t a specific SF 115 for Ron Tammen’s fingerprints.
In contrast, Item 1b refers to files that are permanent or otherwise not scheduled for disposal. If an expungement request should come in, either because of a court order or Privacy Act conflict, 1b files did require an additional SF 115, and they would have to go through the lengthy process described above. Beginning in 2003, however, the FBI began inquiring about whether they needed to continue submitting SF 115s for the expungement of permanent records due to the time element, and they and NARA sought legal guidance on that question. As far as I can tell, in 2011, the FBI stopped sending in SF 115 forms for the expungement of permanent records.
So the question that’s probably on everyone’s mind is: if the FBI didn’t have to submit an SF 115 to expunge Ron Tammen’s fingerprints, what was the NARA rep looking at when he or she sent me an email saying that Tammen’s prints had been expunged as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a? (On second read, if that’s the question that’s on everyone’s mind, my goodness, you are a brilliantly wonky bunch, aren’t you?)
This. NARA had contacted the FBI on April 15, 2021, a couple weeks before I received NARA’s email, and here’s what the FBI’s records and information management specialist had to say about Ron Tammen’s case:
So, that’s pretty cool, right? Do you think the FBI would have bothered telling me any of this if I’d reached out to them directly? I’d asked them at the outset why they expunged his prints and was told “no other info available,” so I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t have. But I can ask NARA and NARA can ask the FBI, and voila, we have more answers.
Here are my thoughts regarding the FBI email:
We now know that Ronald Tammen’s parents had given Ron’s fingerprint card to the FBI when he disappeared. This question was always perplexing, since my FBI sources had said that children’s fingerprints were routinely returned to the parents, and it appeared as if the FBI had kept Ron’s prints since 1941. However, it doesn’t answer why they had an FBI number for him when Mrs. Tammen had reported him missing, #358406B. I’d been told that they wouldn’t create FBI numbers for fingerprints that were returned. But so be it.
The FBI records specialist says that Ron’s fingerprints were filed with the civil prints. I’m pretty sure she’s mistaken on that. One, his missing person file had “crim” written on it—short for criminal—next to the fingerprint shorthand, and two, my sources said missing persons were routinely filed in the criminal file, since that was the most active one to check against incoming prints.
The most loaded, convoluted sentence in the email is this one: “The prints in question would have been retained until the subject was 99 years of age had they not been responsive to an expungement initiated in or prior to 2002 with the final action taken in June of 2002.” So, I was right when I guessed that Tammen’s fingerprints should have originally been retained until he was 99. Woohoo! I love when that happens!
As for her remark about an expungement that had been “initiated,” let’s consider the language that’s commonly used when describing the two reasons for expunging under N1-65-88-3. You either have a court order, an order coming from the court, or you have an expungement request, a request coming from an individual that’s decided and acted upon by the FBI. She uses neither word, but her phrasing sounds far more like a Privacy Act expungement where the FBI, not the courts, had control. Here’s what she also doesn’t say: she doesn’t give NARA a benign reason for Tammen’s prints to have been expunged, such as if it were part of a large number of missing persons who were expunged for Privacy Act reasons when the FBI automated their fingerprints. This tells me that Ron’s case is special.
Despite her ambiguous language regarding the timeframe, I strongly suspect they expunged his record immediately. I’m sure it wasn’t a “let’s initiate an expungement sometime in or prior to 2002,” and then wait a few months. Remember why the FBI wanted to do away with submitting SF 115s for the 1b files? Time. They didn’t want to wait around.
I submitted a second FOIA request to NARA in hopes of finding out if there had been a mass expungement sometime between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2002, due to their transition to automation. Namely, I asked for all SF 115s that had been submitted during that period for the expungement of fingerprint records ahead of their retention date. As we now know, I won’t be receiving any SF 115s from the 1a crowd, which I would think are the ones I’m most interested in. I’m not sure if I’ll be seeing anything from the 1b crowd either, but I’ll let you know if I do.
Does the FBI know more about Tammen’s case? Oh, most definitely. Why do you think the records and information management specialist went to great pains to construct such a vague and confusing paragraph?
As far as how we can find out more about the FBI’s expungement of Tammen’s fingerprints, unfortunately, my FOIA settlement prevents me from requesting any more documents on Tammen from the FBI, and I’m quite sure they’d push back hard on this question. (I’ve come to know them pretty well by now, and something tells me that they feel as though they know me pretty well too. 🥰) If there are other possible sources of information, I will seek them out. However, if anyone reading this now or in the future is interested in submitting their own FOIA request to the FBI concerning the “expungement initiated in or prior to 2002 with the final action taken in June of 2002,” here’s where to go: https://efoia.fbi.gov/#home.
I only ask that, if you choose to submit a FOIA request, please don’t do it on my behalf, and please don’t tell me or announce it on this blog.** You’d be doing it out of your own curiosity and interest in knowing the truth. You’re also welcome to use whatever records I’ve posted online as supporting documentation, since it’s public information. That’s how researchers work. We share things.
Of all the documents that NARA sent me, one of my favorites was the 11/30/87 memo, especially where it discusses how a lengthy wait to expunge records “causes anguish to individuals eager to see their file destroyed.” Further down, it notes that expungement due to the Privacy Act is “being done with the approval of the individual to whom the records pertain.” If Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act, and, again, the odds are with us that they were, then it’s my belief that Tammen was likely the eager and possibly even anguished person who was insisting that they be expunged ASAP.
OK, the floor’s now open. I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts!
**If you should decide to submit a FOIA on the June 2002 expungement of Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints and you’re successful at obtaining information, by all means, please let us know. However, I’m just not permitted to be part of the FOIA process. Thanks!
A sample of someone’s fingerprints from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Aug. 1953
Remember how, back in 2015 and 2016, I kept pestering the FBI to answer, yes-or-no, had they confirmed Ron Tammen to be dead? And remember how they chose not to answer that question despite the fact that a simple “no”—they had not confirmed him to be dead—would have sent me on my way, forlorn and (momentarily) defeated?
Back then, I took their non-answer to mean that Ron was dead but they just didn’t want to say he was dead. Because Ron’s fingerprints had been expunged long before he’d turn 110 (the age at which a person’s fingerprints are normally expunged, as cited by the FBI’s spokesperson), I figured that was all the evidence I needed to conclude that he was dead and had been dead for at least 7 years (the alternative scenario cited by their spokesperson). But with our recent discovery that the FBI was able to expunge his fingerprints early because of #N1-65-88-3, Item 1a—the National Archives and Record Administration’s (NARA’s) record schedule having to do with a Privacy Act conflict or a court order—I now believe Ron was alive when they expunged his fingerprints. It’s also feasible that he could be alive today, although I don’t think so.
You guys called it early. When I told you that the FBI was able to expunge Tammen’s fingerprints 30 years ahead of time due to a Privacy Act conflict or a court order, I think Blue was the first to say that he could have still been alive, and others agreed. Kudos to you, smart people!
I was a little slower, probably because I was so focused on the “court order” lingo and how I’d heard that term before. A couple of the former FBI staffers I’d spoken with had mentioned it as a possible reason for early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints, while no one had brought up the Privacy Act. Also, among the smattering of documents online that cited N1-65-88-3 for early expungement, they all had to do with a court order. So that’s where my brain was.
As for the “was he alive?” question, it seemed possible if it had to do with the Privacy Act, which I’d been bumping into with all of my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. That law is literally a question of life or death. If I couldn’t prove a person was dead, I (usually) didn’t get the info. The court order is so much grayer: what was the order and when was the order given and which court would have ordered it—federal or state or even lower? And if I were somehow able to get past all that, could we tell if Ron was still alive?
I knew I needed to talk to someone who was knowledgeable about such matters and who was willing to speak openly. Thankfully I found someone. I won’t be sharing the person’s name or credentials with you because I promised them we would be talking “on background.” (Translation: I can use the information they shared, but I won’t be identifying them.)
A word of warning: you’ll find that there was a point in our conversation where things went a little…askew. From the start, I’d told my source that the reason the FBI had expunged Ron’s fingerprints was the Privacy Act or a court order—good old N1-65-88-3, Item 1a—and the early part of our discussion reflected that. However, as the conversation progressed, my source began to speculate about a different reason for the expungement. Things became a little uncomfortable as I pushed back. Still, even those moments offer important insights into Ron’s case.
Most responses have been lightly edited or paraphrased to reflect the overall substance of what was said in Q&A fashion. Occasionally I’ve supplied additional background information to help clarify a response. If I have thoughts to add regarding a particular response, those’ll be in blue next to my initials. Here we go!
What are the main reasons that FBI files might be expunged ahead of time because of the Privacy Act?
If a person were to file a FOIA request on themself, and their file had incorrect information in it, they might ask that it be expunged. Or perhaps the information was collected illegally. For example, if a person was exercising his or her First Amendment rights (such as voicing their opposition to a political issue), and the FBI started a file on them, they could request that the file be expunged. Most Privacy Act cases have to do with First Amendment issues.
What happens when an FBI file is expunged based on the Privacy Act or a court order?
According to the Federal Records Act, government records can’t be destroyed without the approval of the head of NARA. In the case of a Privacy Act or court-ordered expungement, however, those take precedence. Once the FBI agrees to expunge a record for either of those reasons, NARA’s role is to simply document the action.
At my time of involvement, the FBI would write to the National Archives saying “we’re going to destroy file number XYZ under the Privacy Act.” The National Archives would keep that record and write back to the FBI. Then the FBI would destroy the file and replace it with a card saying “file number XYZ has been destroyed under the Privacy Act.”
JW: When I was told by the FBI that Ron’s fingerprints had been expunged in 2002, the spokesperson added “no other info available.” If the 2002 protocol was similar to the one described above, the spokesperson should have been able to tell me why Ron’s prints were expunged. Also, now that we know about NARA’s record schedule, the FBI spokesperson should have had access to that information too. At the risk of sounding naïve, I think the FBI was intentionally keeping it from me.
N1-65-88-3 doesn’t pop up much on Google. How frequently or rarely is this reason cited for the expungement of government records?
I don’t think that it happens a lot. It could be dozens or a hundred times a year, but I don’t think it’s that much.
Do they ever expunge FBI files for people who are deceased based on the Privacy Act?
That I don’t know. Under American law, dead people don’t have the right to privacy. But whether a family member could write it in, I’m not sure they would have the legal standing to make the request.
JW: Upon further reading, the Department of Justice has this to say: “Deceased individuals do not have any Privacy Act rights, nor do executors or next-of-kin.” This tells me that the FBI can’t expunge a file based on a Privacy Act conflict if the person is deceased. The FBI might request the file be expunged for another reason, but not for the Privacy Act. Therefore, if Ron’s file was expunged due to a conflict with the Privacy Act, it’s my belief Ron was alive in 2002.
On the other hand, in 2010, I was able to obtain Ron’s FBI files without providing proof of death or authorization from a third party. For this reason, I think Ron Tammen was deceased by 2010.
What about the court order? Are these generally for living people?
To be honest, I’ve never heard of an example of a court ordering the destruction of records, although I’m sure it probably happens. I’d say that, by far, the majority of expungements based on either the Privacy Act or a court order are due to the Privacy Act.
Legal questions have come up, one of which is: can a federal judge order something to be kept or destroyed when the Federal Records Act gives that authority to the head of NARA? But I don’t think it happens that often.
JW: It’s telling that our source doesn’t recall ever seeing a court-ordered expungement. Perhaps most useful is our source’s estimation that Privacy Act expungements far outweigh court-ordered expungements. As a result, it seems more likely that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict.
As for the alive-or-dead question, in the few court-ordered expungements I’ve seen online, the person whose records were being expunged was ostensibly alive. I’ve been attempting to find someone who can definitively answer my question, and I’ll continue to look.
Regarding the early expungement of fingerprint cards, have you heard of that happening before? If so, under what circumstances does that happen in your experience?
If I was thinking in terms of being a practical bureaucrat, if we’re in the process of converting tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of fingerprints to an automated system [which took place in 1999], and we have all these fingerprints that were gathered in World War II from school kids, and figuring they’re probably 70, 80 years old in the ‘90s, they might have simply gotten authority…and I’m not sure how. What they could have done is go to the National Archives with a blanket request saying “We’d like to destroy all fingerprint cards created before 1950 because they’re not relevant now, or we’re getting ready to convert these to the automated system and these will just add to the burden of doing that.”
How would that work?
If it was simply a request for expungement, the FBI would write the request on the Standard Form 115 [the form in which all such requests are written], send it to NARA with a brief explanation of why the records don’t have value to the FBI or anybody else, and describe when they would like to destroy them—when they’re 50 years old, 75 years old, or whatever. Then, one of the Archives staff would review the form and seek permission from the head of NARA. A copy would be returned to the FBI, and they would follow the schedule.
Would that be the N1-65-88-3—would that be a Privacy Act expungement?
No. The FBI would have submitted something with a different number and it would probably just be a request to destroy fingerprint cards that are X number of years old.
JW: I found an example of one of the more routine “thinning-out” records schedules from the year 2000 (marked 00), which I’m posting here. As our source said, the number is different and doesn’t involve the Privacy Act or a court-ordered expungement. Could this request have been initiated because of the FBI’s move to automation in 1999?
But the person from National Archives cited N1-65-88-3, which tells me that it IS a little different than the switchover to the automated system.
That could be an oversight on NARA’a part. They probably just assumed that it was destroyed under the Privacy Act when it was actually destroyed under the authority of another Standard Form 115.
JW: The NARA rep’s exact words were “The fingerprints in question were expunged from the FBI system as per N1-65-88-3, Item 1a. NARA does not have any further information regarding the expungement of this file.” That sounds a lot more certain than someone who is just assuming something. Also, I used to respond to public inquiries with a federal agency. We’d never put anything in writing without double-checking to make sure we had our facts straight.
I’ve submitted a FOIA request to NARA for “the paperwork associated with the FBI’s early expungement of the fingerprints (both paper and electronic) for Ronald H. Tammen, Jr., FBI # 358 406 B. This should include the relevant Standard Form 115…plus any additional documentation associated with the FBI’s action.” Once I have that, I’ll be able to decide if I need to file more FOIAs to determine if there was a mass expungement around 2002 because of a Privacy Act conflict or court order or if Ron’s case was special.
In light of the above, here’s where I’m leaning at the moment:
Because Privacy Act or court-ordered expungements circumvent the role of the head of NARA, it imparts a higher level of import and urgency to the removal of Ron’s fingerprints.
It’s far more likely that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict than a court order.
If Ron’s fingerprints were expunged due to a Privacy Act conflict, then he was still alive in 2002.
Ron’s fingerprints were NOT expunged as part of a mass expungement of obsolete fingerprints (e.g., fingerprints obtained from children before WWII or some other characteristic) to reduce the burden on the FBI’s automated system or any other reason to thin out their records.
Whether Ron’s fingerprints were expunged as part of a mass expungement due to the Privacy Act or a court order remains to be seen.
This is just a quick update, but it’s significant, so I thought it was worthy of being an official blog post.
I was getting ready to FOIA the FBI for their 1988 records schedule–hoping to find the meaning of N1-65-88-3, Item 1 a–when I found myself on a new page for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): the Records Control Schedules. Before that moment, I’d only seen the schedules referred to as Records Schedules, which was how I must have missed this page earlier.
Click on this link for all the records control schedules for the FBI.
Then scroll until you get to N1-065-88-003. Note that they’ve placed zeros before the 65 and the 3, which is probably why it wasn’t turning up in Google.
And here it is, you guys: the document that the FBI (through a NARA spokesperson) cited as its reason for expunging Ron Tammen’s fingerprint file 30 years ahead of time.
We’ve seen this language before in similar documents. As Item 1 reads:
Case files or any portion of their contents, including specific information within documents, whose continued maintenance by the FBI may conflict with the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a, as amended, or whose destruction is mandated by court order.
Note that Ron’s scenario is described in Item 1 A, which ends with this fateful decree: DESTROY immediately.
That’s so interesting that the FBI may have felt that continued maintenance of the fingerprints of a person who’d been missing since 1953 might have been in conflict with the provisions of the Privacy Act. I wonder: Did they feel the need to expunge all missing persons’ fingerprints for the same reason?
Lately, I’ve been reading up on the Privacy Act and things of that ilk. Someday, we may have a longer discussion on the topic, once I’ve had all my questions answered. However, at this stage, I can say this: I’ve been living under the Privacy Act rules for the past 11 years as I’ve been filing FOIA request after FOIA request. And this question stands out:
Q: When does a person’s privacy protections pretty much go out the window (with certain caveats, such as with HIPAA and FERPA)?
A: When they die. Once a person has died, a whole world of information opens up to us through FOIA. The ticket for entry is proof of death.
Several of you have said that it sounds more likely that Ron was alive in 2002 in order for them to have reason to expunge his fingerprint records. Although we still can’t rule out the court order, I believe a potential Privacy Act conflict supports this theory.
I’d like to thank you for your astute questions and observations to date on this topic–you’ve been extremely helpful. The floor is now open.
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.
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?
…and how it could tell us more about what happened to Ron
It’s (almost) April 19th again, which means that 68 years have come and gone since Ronald Tammen went missing from Miami University, in Oxford, OH. In the four years in which this blogsite has been in existence, and that’s counting that one year we were on a hiatus, we’ve experienced a lot of firsts together, wouldn’t you say?
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.
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.
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.
(*or the myriad ways to answer a yes-or-no question)
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:
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?
How did the FBI confirm Ronald Tammen, Jr.’s, death?
When did the FBI confirm Ronald Tammen, Jr.’s, death?
Where is Mr. Tammen’s body?
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?
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.”
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:
(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?
“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.
(*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:
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.
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.