(and other perfectly good clues that were ignored by investigators)
By now, I think you should have a pretty good indication of how (in my opinion) the city of Oxford, Ohio, and Miami University conducted their investigations into Tammen’s disappearance. I’ll say it here plainly, just so there’s no confusion: They did a really bad job.
Time and again, investigators would lament in the news about what few clues they had to go on after Tammen disappeared. Sure, they’d received some early tips about several area hitchhikers and an apartment dweller in Cincinnati, but none of those panned out. Then, Clara Spivey came forward with her alleged late-night Ron sighting in Seven Mile, and they finally felt as if they had a true lead. (In response to one reader’s request, we’ll be discussing Mrs. Spivey’s story in more detail in another post that I’m planning for Tuesday, November 6. You’ll have a chance to vote on whether you believe the person who appeared at her door was Ron or not.**)
After Mrs. Spivey’s call in late June 1953, investigators hit another dry spell clue-wise, which supposedly lasted 20 long years. In 1973, the drought ended, at least for the interested public, when reporter Joe Cella revealed that Ronald Tammen had visited Dr. Garret Boone’s office five months before he disappeared to have his blood type tested. We also learned that university officials had already known about the doctor’s visit shortly after Tammen went missing. They just didn’t view it as a clue.
So, Mrs. Spivey’s story? Definite clue.
Dr. Boone’s? Not so much.
When it came to determining whether something was a potential clue or not, these guys were (again, my opinion) clueless.
We’ve already covered some additional details about Tammen’s disappearance that I would categorize as clues. Some of the most significant ones include:
- Song practiceRon is alleged to have been to song practice at the Delt house the night he disappeared and had walked back to the dorms with two other guys at around 10:30 p.m. If true, Ron disappeared more than two hours later than what was widely reported.
- The fightRon allegedly had a fight with his younger brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom of Fisher Hall the night he disappeared.
- The woman from HamiltonRon was supposedly seen seated in a car with a woman from Hamilton for a long time and then driving away with her late that night.
- The psych bookRon had been reported reading his psychology book the afternoon that he disappeared, and his psychology book was left open on his desk, even though he’d dropped his psychology course earlier that semester.
- The things in Ron’s backgroundRon Tammen might have had “things in his background” that were consistent with his having experienced dissociation (amnesia).
- The dead fish
Ron likely hadn’t slept in his bed at least one night, and possibly two, before his disappearance. We know this because Dick Titus had put the fish in Ron’s bed after class on Saturday or perhaps even Friday.
All of the above (and probably more) were known by university officials and Oxford police. If they viewed these details as clues, they chose not to make them public. But from what I can tell, they didn’t do much more than the most perfunctory of probes either. In particular, they could have pursued the rumor about the woman from Hamilton more enthusiastically, enlisting the news media for help. The Journal-News could have run the headline “Tammen allegedly last seen in car with woman from Hamilton,” and the accompanying article could have closed with “Anyone with information is asked to call this number.” But, nah.
And, let’s not forget Heber Hiram (H.H.) Stephenson, the housing official who swore up and down that he’d seen Tammen sitting in a hotel restaurant with a small group of men in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. Stephenson had shared this information with university officials immediately upon his return—the next day, he said—and we see the cryptic “H.H.S., Aug. 5, 1953, Wellsville, New York” in Knox’s notes to confirm that a conversation had indeed taken place. Again, if it hadn’t been for Joe Cella revealing the detail in 1976, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now.
So I have to ask: If the potential sighting by Mrs. Spivey was such a promising clue back on June 29, 1953, when it was first reported in the news, why wouldn’t H.H. Stephenson’s potential sighting have been considered just as promising when he reported it on August 6, about five weeks later? Hi Stephenson knew Ron. Clara Spivey didn’t.
And I have to follow with this question: Did university officials even think to alert the FBI about Stephenson’s story? On May 26, 1953, the FBI had a missing person file on Tammen, and roughly one week earlier, Carl Knox had informed Tammen’s parents that the FBI had been attending faculty conferences. Also, by July 27, 1953, Ron was listed as delinquent for his draft board physical, and therefore, in violation of the Selective Service Act. Carl Knox should have called them—immediately—and reported that an acquaintance of Ronald Tammen’s was quite sure he’d spotted him at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, the previous day. The FBI could have summoned their Buffalo office to check things out, and the Buffalo agents, in turn, could have shown the proprietor Ron’s picture and asked if anyone had seen him. They could have checked the hotel’s registry for the names of the young men. They could have asked if anyone had spoken with them, and if so, why were they there? Where were they going? Heck, if Knox had told them soon enough, the FBI could have possibly even dusted the lookalike’s chair for fingerprints, or, if he’d stayed overnight, the furniture in his room. But judging from the Stephenson quote in Joe Cella’s article, he was never approached again. Here’s what he told Cella: “I was under the impression all these years that my story was generally known by everyone, since Dr. Knox knew about it and was handling the investigation for the university. I am amazed to hear that this information was not known until now.” There’s nothing in the FBI files to indicate such a report was called in either.
So, again, Mrs. Spivey? Clue!
H.H. Stephenson? Better luck next time!
Which brings us to the spring of 1955, two years after Ronald Tammen’s disappearance, when Miami University received yet another potential clue in the Tammen case. Again, by all indications, officials promptly chose to sweep it under the rug.
The clue came in the form of a letter dated May 10, 1955, and addressed to: “Dean of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.” As vaguely worded as that was, it must have found its way to Carl Knox, who was still dean of men at that time, and several copies can be found in the Tammen materials at University Archives. The letter was signed by Major Delmar Jones, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Major Jones told of a dead body that had been found near LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953. The GBI, having received a news clipping about Tammen, was wondering if the body might have been Ron’s.
Here’s what the letter said:
A newspaper clipping was turned over to this Bureau several days ago by Mr. Hill Pope, the coroner of Walker County, Georgia. We do not know from whom this clipping came but it has reference to a young man by the name of RONALD TAMMEN, a nineteen year old sophomore who disappeared from your institution approximately two years ago.
Someone had evidently secured knowledge whereby we were trying to identify a badly decomposed body that was found on the outskirts of LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953.
This investigation is still pending, and we are still endeavoring to ascertain the identification of this body.
It will be appreciated very much if you will give us the full details and complete description of Ronald Tammen so that we may compare them with the identification of the unidentified body.
Your response to this communication will be appreciated very much and we will do everything in our power to assist in locating the subject Ronald Tammen if he should be in our territory.
Yours very truly,
Delmar Jones, Major – Director
GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
[View a copy of the original.]
Delmar Jones was Georgia’s number one law enforcement official from 1948 to 1962, and not someone to be taken lightly. (In 1962, he was demoted to trooper by the governor for campaigning for the former governor in a primary election, which, I suppose, was a risk he’d been willing to take.) Granted, H.H. Stephenson and Garret Boone weren’t slouches either. But you’d have to think that a letter from Georgia’s version of J. Edgar Hoover would have elicited some sort of response from the university.
I have no idea if Carl Knox or anyone else got back to Major Jones. In Miami’s archives, there are no carbon copies of letters mailed in reply. Perhaps Dean Knox placed a phone call to Major Jones, suggesting that the GBI contact the FBI, although no surviving FOIA documents indicate that contact had been made. (As a side note, Ron’s Selective Service case with the FBI was closed on April 29, 1955, 11 days before the GBI letter was written.) Or maybe officials called Major Jones and provided a full accounting of the case over the phone, but the GBI ruled Ron out for some reason and didn’t follow up with anyone. By all accounts, no one seemed to mention the letter to Joe Cella, Gil Wright, or Murray Seeger, since there are no news reports about a dead body in Georgia being possibly tied to Tammen’s case. I don’t even think the university bothered to tell the Oxford police. When I asked my friend Ralph (not his real name), the former cop who was still with the Oxford PD that year and several years after, he was surprised—stunned, actually—to hear about the letter.
So, once more: Confused guy on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared?
Dead body found in ditch 400 miles south of Oxford two months later?
Here’s what we can safely assume: no one went to the lengths that officials went to in late 2007 and early 2008 when, on their own, without even initially knowing about Delmar Jones’ letter, the Walker County, Georgia’s, Sheriff’s Office hypothesized that the two cold cases might be related.
It happened like this:
Mike Freeman, the cold case detective for Walker County, was conducting an end-of-the-year review of unsolved cases in his portfolio when his boss, Sheriff Steve Wilson, posed a question to him.
“What about that dead body found in a ravine back in 1953?” Wilson asked him (or something along those lines). Wilson wasn’t around when the dead body was discovered—he was born several years later—but his dad used to tell him about it, and he can point out the location to anyone who asks. To this day, people in the area refer to the site as Dead Man’s Hollow.
- Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson stands next to the site where the dead body was found in 1953.
Freeman didn’t know anything about the case, but the story intrigued him. The department no longer had a file, so, for starters, he headed to the local library (which, conveniently, is just a few buildings away from the sheriff’s department) and found news articles that ran at the time the body was found. Based on information found in the articles, he learned that an autopsy was conducted by the state medical examiner’s office, which, thankfully, he was able to obtain. [Read the full autopsy report here.]
The details, provided in news accounts and the autopsy, aren’t pretty. The body was found in a highly decomposed state in a wooded ravine off Rogers Road, five miles south of LaFayette, on June 24, 1953. According to Dr. Herman Jones, director of the GBI crime lab (and probably no relation to Delmar, but who really knows?), it was “heavily infested from head to foot with maggots and other worms,” a sure sign that the man had been dead for a while. What was left of his face (which, by that point, was devoid of soft tissue and therefore any recognizable features) was angled upward, toward the sky, and his arms and legs were fully extended, kind of like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Some features were still discernible. His hair was dark brown to black, his height was 5’9,” and, when he was alive, and still had all of his internal organs and tissues in place, his weight would have been around 150 pounds. He had long arms and long slender fingers from which extended nails that were also long and “apparently well kept,” according to Dr. Jones, who’d conducted the autopsy on the same day the body was found. The decedent’s teeth weren’t as well cared for as his nails. Two lower back molars had large cavities in them and several teeth had been extracted. “No dental work done,” Dr. Jones reported, which could be interpreted to mean that he didn’t have any fillings or crowns. There was no evidence that any of the bones in his body had been broken, either recently or in the past. He was estimated to be between 25 and 30 years of age.
The man was wearing only a white T-shirt, size 38, with four round holes in it, and boxer shorts, size 32, the kind with buttons up the fly and a drawstring around the waist. Two khaki-colored wool socks lay at his feet. One sock lay near where his left foot should have been—it was missing, as were the toes on his right foot—and the other sock lay between his straddled legs. (Dr. Jones blamed an animal for the missing foot.) The shorts and socks were military-issue—U.S. Army. A quarter-inch-wide rubber band encircled each ankle, most likely to blouse the bottom of each pant leg, a common practice of G.I.s so that the full boot shows underneath. As for the man’s boots and pants, they were nowhere to be found, but, based on the items that had been left behind, it was clear that he was probably a soldier. What wasn’t clear was how the man died, though officials presumed it was a homicide. According to the sheriff at that time, the holes in his T-shirt were about the size of .38-caliber bullets, however Dr. Jones found no broken bones or skull damage and no evidence of foreign bodies.
The GBI also conducted an investigation (hence Delmar Jones’ letter), and they exhumed the body a second time after the autopsy for additional analysis, including obtaining fingerprints. The Army conducted an investigation as well. Unfortunately, neither have been able to produce records on the case.
Freeman went on the internet—something they obviously didn’t have in 1953—and searched for missing persons from that year. He immediately discovered the treasure trove of websites discussing the Tammen case (except, alas, for this one, which obviously came later). Freeman noted that both LaFayette and Oxford were on U.S. Route 27, and, in fact, the dead soldier was discovered only about 200 yards away from the highway. If Ron had been hitchhiking to Florida, he thought, it was the best possible route to take, since there was no interstate system back then. Ron’s height, weight, and hair color seemed to be in the ballpark too, and his age wasn’t too far off. Ron wasn’t in the Army, but who’s to say that he didn’t enlist after he left Miami? It was worth a shot.
Freeman contacted Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective at that time, and the two decided to make use of another new technology—DNA testing—to determine if the dead man was Tammen. On February 8, 2008, Freeman, Wilson, and Smith, along with Georgia’s chief medical examiner, GBI’s forensic anthropologist, Walker County’s coroner, members of the media, and curious onlookers witnessed the exhumation of remains buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 206 , Block A, in LaFayette Cemetery. The few bone remnants they obtained were forwarded to the FBI and other facilities for DNA testing. The results would be compared with a DNA sample that had been submitted a couple weeks prior by Tammen’s sister Marcia.
The following June, they got their answer: there was no match. The soldier wasn’t Tammen. It was a big disappointment, but cold case detectives probably get used to these sorts of let-downs. Interestingly, I arrived at the same conclusion in another, more roundabout way. In August 1958, human bones had been found in a gravel pit in Preble County, Ohio, which is about 25 miles north of Oxford. Authorities there had sent bone and teeth samples to Ohio’s Bureau of Identification and Investigation, in New London, for analysis to see if the remains might be Ron’s. (Before DNA testing, dental records were the primary method for identifying unknown victims and they’re still valuable today.)
According to an article in the August 17, 1958, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Preble County sheriff had said that no dental work had been performed on the teeth that they’d unearthed, though, admittedly, the set was incomplete.
The article continued:
Ronald’s mother, when informed of the find, said that her son had several teeth filled.
“Also, his upper teeth lapped,” she continued, “and he had planned to have them straightened.”
“Furthermore, he had a couple of broken bones that could be identified. When he was three, he got a broken collarbone jumping off a bed. Later, playing football in the street, he broke one of the small bones in one of his hands.”
As you’ll recall, the dead soldier in Georgia appeared to have had no dental work and no evidence of having broken any bones. Plus, there was no mention of an overlap of the front teeth. Based on the fact that Ron had had several fillings plus the overlap plus a couple broken bones, it’s obvious that, even before the DNA test, the person buried in Walker County, Georgia, wasn’t Tammen. The DNA evidence sealed the deal.
Miami and Oxford officials couldn’t have stated the above so unequivocally. In fact, it almost seems as if they’d given up looking for Tammen not long after he disappeared. Did someone in a position of authority tell them to stop their investigation? I wonder.
Oh, and P.S. As for the dead guy in Georgia, could it have been Richard Cox? I wonder about that sometimes too…
**NOTE: For those who prefer to vote early, the Mrs. Spivey post is now up! You can find it here: https://ronaldtammen.com/2018/11/01/a-late-night-knock-at-the-door/.