Closing a couple loops: Why Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a child, and why the FBI considered his prints ‘criminal’

 

photo of child Hal Gatewood
Photo credit: Hal Gatewood at Unsplash

Before our big reveal later this month, I’d like to close the loop on a couple lingering questions I’ve had over the years concerning Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. The first question, which you’ve probably been wondering about too, is: why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a young child? (I can now say with reasonable certainty that he would have been seven at the time.) The second question pertains to something you may or may not be aware of, since I haven’t really discussed it in detail up to this point. That question is: why were those prints designated by the FBI as criminal?

Why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a child?

To arrive at the first answer, I was fortunate enough to find a resource by the name of Chris Gerrett, a tenacious history buff and president of the Fairview Park Historical Society. Fairview Park is a suburb that borders the western side of Cleveland and is only a few minutes’ drive from the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Before becoming the City of Fairview Park, it was called the Village of Fairview Park, and before that, Fairview Village, which is where the Tammens lived in 1941, the year Tammen was fingerprinted. You may recall that Ron’s mother told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Ron was in the second grade when he was fingerprinted, which would have been during the 1940-41 school year. However, when I asked Ron’s older brother John if he recalled being fingerprinted as a child, he told me no, and he couldn’t remember Ron being fingerprinted either.

Based on the family’s address, Chris quickly determined that the Tammen boys would have attended Garnett Elementary School, one of two public elementary schools serving the village at that time. When I asked her if she knew anyone in Tammen’s age group who might remember being fingerprinted in grade school, she said she’d ask around.

Chris is the type of person who, when she tells you that she intends to do some digging and will get back to you, she means it. She was able to locate several people who remembered being fingerprinted as children in the early 1940s, and she even found fingerprint cards for two brothers. One was fingerprinted at age seven in 1942 and the other was fingerprinted at six in 1943. Why children in Fairview Village were being fingerprinted at a stage of life when they were still mastering basic skills such as shoe-tying and time-telling was still unclear. Some people floated the idea that it might have something to do with the Cold War, and the need to identify bodies after an attack. But the Cold War didn’t start until 1947, a couple years after WWII ended. Others proposed that it was because of the Nike missile sites that had been located in Cleveland, part of our nation’s defense against a potential Soviet attack. But again, the Nike bases were Cold War–related, and weren’t in place until 1955, long after 1941.

In another email, Chris passed along the happy news that the Fairview Park Museum, which is run by the historical society, had been offered a load of boxes containing documents from the Fairview Park Parent Teachers Association (PTA). The documents went as far back as 1928, she told me.

“The PTA seemed to handle all activities for the schools: wellness check, hearing check, eye check, parties, food drives, etc.,” she informed me. “We just might find that the PTA arranged the fingerprinting.”

I met Chris at the museum on a Monday morning in March, and we soon commenced rummaging through the boxes. After several hours of searching and a mid-day burger break at the local diner, we finally found what we were looking for. Under the heading of “Safety,” a mimeographed newsletter dated May 1942 had this to report:

“Finger printing of 253 pupils was done in Fairview Schools this past year. The P.T.A. wishes to express to Mr. H. A. Walton its appreciation of his willingness to give both time and service to the finger printing of our boys and girls.”

Newsletters for the spring of 1943 and 1944 also provided fingerprint tallies. Unfortunately, it appears that no statistics were made available for Ron’s year, 1941. However, perhaps the best find was from a newsletter dating back to October 1938. In it, under “Safety Department,” was an excerpt from an FBI publication on the importance of maintaining noncriminal fingerprints—citing reasons such as identification disputes, catastrophes, “kidnaping” (spelled the old-fashioned way), and amnesia. A second paragraph informs readers that fingerprinting in the schools would soon begin. Here’s the buried gem:

“Through the efforts of Mr. Henry Walton, Deputy Marshall [sic] of Fairview, who has made an extensive study of fingerprinting, we will soon be able to have any children in this community fingerprinted, a record of which will be kept in a ‘Personal Identification’ file, and a copy of same to be sent on to Washington, for their ‘Personal Identification’ files.”

Thanks to an old newsletter that might have been tossed out if not for Chris Gerrett, the Fairview Park Historical Society, and the Fairview Park PTA, we are now able to establish: 1) why Tammen’s fingerprints were taken at such a young age, and 2) why Ron’s prints were already at FBI Headquarters by the time he’d disappeared. It was all because of an industrious, forward-thinking Fairview Village cop. Much obliged, Henry Walton, much obliged!

You can read the relevant section here:

why fingerprint kids
For closer view, click on image.
Why were Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints designated as criminal?

Nowadays, any law-abiding citizen who has their fingerprints taken—federal employees, people in the U.S. military, people who undergo background checks for work or volunteer activities—is given a criminal identification number. I have one. My husband has one. If you’ve ever been fingerprinted, you have one too. In addition, as of February 2015, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is housing all fingerprints—the lawful and the lawless, the free and the incarcerated—in one electronically searchable database.

But back in Hoover’s day, things were different. From what I can tell, the term “criminal identification number” wasn’t in use back then, or at least it wasn’t the favored term. Rather, the number assigned to a person’s fingerprints was their “FBI number.” Also, there was a criminal file system and a noncriminal, or civil, file system. I came to these conclusions as I was perusing a 1963 FBI paperback, titled The Science of Fingerprints: Classification and Uses, which featured an introduction from J. Edgar himself. Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, confirmed the two-file system in an April 2015 email to me, saying:

“A Civil Fingerprint File was begun in the 1930s and civilians, especially children (and their parents on their behalf), were encouraged to add their prints to it on FBI Tours, at expositions, and many other events. The idea was to have a collection of identification records to be referred to in the cases of missing persons, kidnappings, and massive disasters/tragedies.  It is through this program that Mr. Tammen’s prints were first taken.”

So, at a time when the FBI was keeping its civilian and criminal fingerprints separate, why were Tammen’s fingerprints eventually lumped in with the criminals? One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is the November 16, 1959, form letter from Hoover to Tammen’s parents, which has the notation “crim” in front of Tammen’s FBI number. The October 30, 1961, letter has a “cr” notation above his FBI number, though, admittedly, that’s pretty cryptic, and we can’t be 100% sure of what it means. (Come to think of it, the “cr” might as well stand for cryptic.)

After taking a look at the November 16 form letter, Dr. Fox also concluded that Tammen’s prints had been filed with the criminals. In the same email, he hypothesized that Tammen was possibly arrested before he’d disappeared or even sometime after 1959, “likely around 6/1973.” He was only guessing though. He didn’t have proof.

I asked Ron’s family members if they knew if Ron had ever been arrested, and their answer was no. I then contacted law enforcement and clerks of courts in the cities and counties in which Tammen had lived or that were a short drive from Cleveland or Oxford, Ohio. I even contacted the attorney general’s office for the state of Ohio. I found no arrest records on Tammen anywhere, other than the ticket he’d received for running a red light in Oxford a month before he disappeared.

Another theory was that Tammen’s fingerprints might have been moved to the criminal files after the Selective Service changed his classification to 1-A and he failed to show up to the draft board for his physical. I conducted a review of documents for other men who violated the Selective Service Act of 1948 during that time period to find out if they were somehow marked criminal too, but it was difficult to find an apples-to-apples comparison. Words like fraudulent, forged, and stolen showed up in their documents—nothing that pertained to Ron’s situation, in my view. I also wondered why I was able to obtain their documents at all, since their Selective Service violations occurred before Ron’s, yet the FBI had destroyed Ron’s file more than 20 years ago.

Recently, I found two people who could speak more knowledgeably than most about the FBI’s fingerprint operation. They’d both worked in the former Identification Division, “Ident” for short, when Hoover was still in charge, though I don’t think they worked there at the same time. By then, the Identification Division was located at Second and D Streets, SW, in Washington, D.C.

Both individuals—who prefer not to be named—had some remarkable stories to share about those days. They talked about how tightly Hoover ran his ship. They spoke of how Hoover had established strict rules governing where employees could live, who they could see (Person A said they checked out her husband before hiring her), and how they should look on the job—their attire, their facial hair, their height, their weight. Person B recalled how his life’s goal to become an agent was almost sabotaged by the fact that he didn’t make the height requirement, which was 5’7” at that time (the same height as J. Edgar Hoover, according to Alexa). His sheer determination and knowledge of the subject matter, together with elevator shoes, eventually convinced Hoover and his number two man, Clyde Tolson, that he was up to the job.

Both Person A and Person B had experience handling the fingerprint cards, which was important but grueling work. Person A recounted how she and her fellow “Ident” employees would be assigned a fingerprint card, which they would classify according to the prints’ arches, loops, and whorls. They then searched among the other cards—numbering in the millions—for a possible match. They didn’t use computers back then, just their two eyes and maybe a magnifying glass. Of course, there was quite a bit of training involved. Of the two fingerprint files that they consulted—civil and criminal—the criminal file was always the first stop, since potential employers, local law enforcement, and Hoover himself would want to know immediately whether a newly arrived print belonged to a fugitive. As for possible mistakes, Hoover used the same rule as the sport he loved: three strikes and you were out.

It was Person B who offered up the most likely reason why Ron’s fingerprints would have been found in the criminal file. Backing Person A’s claim that the criminal file was the first place to look, he said:

“I think missing persons are placed in the criminal file because that’s the most active file. So, if you want to find the guy, and somebody gets arrested and a print comes in, it doesn’t get searched through civil files. It gets searched through criminal files.”

And there you have it. The explanations for why Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were taken at the age of seven and then later maintained in the criminal file after he disappeared are probably that innocuous and ho-hum. But they’re also the explanations that, in my view, are most conceivable, which means we can now focus on some bigger matters. See you on the 19th.

 

 

Was Ronald Tammen hiding out as a technician at Welco Industries in 1973?

Welco brass plate
Photo credit: Government Liquidation

On Thursday, April 26, 1973, someone placed an anonymous phone call to the Cincinnati office of the FBI. According to a memo from the special agent in charge (SAC), the caller said that “he was aware the FBI has an interest in one Ronald H. Tammen. The caller advised he has strong reason to believe that captioned subject is identical with one [whited out], who is employed with Welco Industry, 9027 Shell Avenue, Blue Ash, Ohio.” The SAC went on to say that “The caller based his opinion upon physical description and ‘other reasons which he cared not to discuss.’” The caller then hung up the phone.

We’ll never know what additional reasons the caller had for thinking that a man who worked at a plant that built motors for the aerospace industry in a Cincinnati suburb was Tammen or, moreover, why he didn’t care to discuss those reasons with the FBI. Did the Tammen lookalike act all weird and evasive when asked if he went to college? Did he drive around with a string bass in his back seat? Did he have an irrational aversion to fish? Or perhaps had the man pulled the caller aside one day and said, “Don’t tell anyone, but the guy they’re talking about in this news article? Yeah, that’s me.”

One thing that we can be pretty sure of is what triggered the unknown man to make his anonymous phone call on that particular day. Note that his call took place one week to the day following the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance. It was also three days following the article that ran in the Hamilton Journal News—the same article in which Joe Cella revealed that Ron had visited Dr. Garret Boone requesting a blood type test five months before he disappeared. (From what I can tell, no anniversary articles ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Tammen that year.) Although no physical description of Tammen was included in that article, it did provide a college photo, which is probably why the SAC referred to the “captioned subject.” So it’s not a stretch to conclude that the FBI’s caller first learned about Tammen in the newspaper and thought the photo looked a lot like someone he knew.

Which is totally fine. In fact, that’s how many missing persons cases are actually solved. Someone spots an old photo of an acquaintance in a news article or on TV and alerts the authorities. It’s the FBI’s actions after that call was placed, however, that are most telling.

Let’s examine the two FBI memos that I received from my FOIA request pertaining to this potential lead. (Link to them here.)

The first memo was written on 5/9/73—almost two weeks after the initial call had been made. The memo was from the SAC in Cincinnati to the acting director of the FBI, who, thanks to Google, we are able to ascertain was William D. Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the EPA who was subsequently brought over to the FBI as Watergate was heating up. He was only in his position as acting director for a couple of months, before continuing on with his esteemed career (he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015). But for our purposes, he was the man in charge when the question about the guy at Welco came to the forefront; in parentheses, the SAC had added “ATTN: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION.”

The first line reads: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.”

This cryptic little sentence fragment is an example of FBI codespeak, a system of pretend words and abbreviations that keeps their employees informed and the rest of us in the dark. Thankfully, through a variety of means, I’ve been able to decipher at least some of what the G-men of yore were communicating to one another through their typewritten words and their scribbles and scrawls all over my FOIA documents.

In FBI parlance, “Re” is easy. It means “in reference to,” just as it does in any email or memo you might read these days. “Bureau,” as you probably already know, is an unofficial way of referring to the FBI. “Airtel” might sound like a trendy type of overnight accommodations, but it was one of the methods that the FBI used to communicate internally back then. Think of it as a letter that, according to Wikipedia, is mailed the same day that it was typed, which doesn’t sound all that extraordinary, but it is what it is.

So who is “CI”? Fortunately, I own a book titled “Unlocking the Files of the FBI: A Guide to Its Records and Classification System,” written by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart, and published in 1993. According to Haines and Langbart, CI does not mean “criminal informant” or “counterintelligence” or anything exciting like that, at least not in this case. No, the abbreviation CI stands for the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, just as the abbreviation for the Cleveland field office is CV.

Last but not least comes the date, 12/19/58. The SAC was referring to an airtel that had been sent from Headquarters (most likely) to the Cincinnati field office about 5 1/2 years after Tammen disappeared. Don’t bother looking for that airtel in the FOIA documents I’ve posted online, however. It wasn’t included in the first batch of documents that the FBI sent me in December 2010, nor was it in the documents sent to me on appeal or in my lawsuit settlement. Ostensibly, the FBI doesn’t have it anymore. As its name might indicate, that airtel seems to have been teleported into thin air. (If you’re thinking that I should ask the Cincinnati office directly if they might have the memo, I’d already contacted them and the Cleveland office before I filed my lawsuit. Both said that FBI Headquarters had everything on the Tammen case.)

The second and third paragraphs refer to some personal information about the Welco employee that the Cincinnati field office had sent to Headquarters for both its use and the use of the folks in Cleveland. We learn in the accompanying pages (which are almost entirely redacted) that they’d obtained this information from his personnel file, when a special agent paid a visit to the company the same day in which they’d received the phone call.

Paragraphs four and five summarize Tammen’s case, though the SAC erroneously states that a missing persons notice was filed with the Identification Division on 5/26/58, when it was actually filed 5/26/53. (Does that mean that our 12/19 airtel was also from 1953 instead of 1958? We’ll never know, although I don’t have a document from 12/19/53 either.) The writer also says that the Cleveland office was the “Office of Origin in SSA, 1948 case.” Translation: The writer is referencing the Selective Service Act of 1948 and he’s saying that the Cleveland field office had opened an investigation into why Ron didn’t show up for the draft after he disappeared. The FBI called off that investigation on 4/29/1955. The SAC also mentioned Ron’s fingerprint file from 1941, #358 406 B.

The last paragraph on page one and the first paragraph on page 2 discuss the phone call concerning the Welco employee, the details of which we’ve already mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The memo ends with this:

“The Identification Division is requested to compare the fingerprints of [whited out] with those of subject and advise Cincinnati and Cleveland of the results.”

In memo #2, dated 5-22-73, Acting Director Ruckelshaus responded to Cincinnati’s SAC. True to FBI form, he opened with the pretend word “Reurlet,” which, according to Haines and Langbart, means “Reference is made to your letter.” He then said that, in a nutshell, they compared the Welco guy’s fingerprints with Tammen’s prints, and there was no match. In a note at the bottom he’s included some background information on the case that we already know and, in the last sentence, he said “MP,” which stands for missing person, “placed in 1953 to be brought up to date.”

And that’s it. If you were to glance at the next memo to appear in our FOIA docs, you’d see that there is nothing more until 2008, when the Walker County Sheriff’s Office in LaFayette, Georgia, contacted the FBI about the dead body that had been found in a ravine in June 1953, and they were checking to see if it might have been Tammen.

As we’ve already discussed in the January 16, 2018, post, Tammen’s father had written the FBI in October 1967, saying that he could swear a soldier in an AP photo might be his son. But J. Edgar Hoover didn’t bother asking his Identification Division to compare the soldier’s fingerprints with Ron’s, even though he was a big believer in fingerprints for solving missing persons cases and they could have easily run the comparison. Five and a half years later, with Hoover out of the picture, the Cincinnati office had approached the Identification Division directly with the request to compare Ron’s prints with the Welco employee’s. This time, the Identification Division ran the comparison and it turned up negative. FBI Headquarters wrote its memo to Cincinnati’s SAC on Tuesday, May 22, 1973. Two weeks later, on June 4 or 5, 1973 (there are notations that mention both dates, but most say June 5), something related to Ronald Tammen’s case was “Removed from the Ident files.”

Removed from Ident files

Coincidentally or not, June 5, 1973, also happened to be exactly 20 years after the memo was sent from Headquarters to the Cleveland office in which they acknowledged that the young man who had been reported missing by his mother was the same person who had been fingerprinted back in 1941. For this reason, some readers may conclude that the removal of whatever it was from Ron’s record is not coincidental—that the FBI may have had a protocol in which, if there were no promising leads in 20 years, the FBI would make some sort of status change in the case, perhaps to the point of calling off the search.

This makes sense, except for a couple factors: I’ve received no indication from any source that there ever was a 20-year cut-off. When I asked Stephen Fischer, chief of multimedia productions and the media liaison for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS), if he had a suggestion regarding the meaning of the phrase “Removed from Ident files,” he said, “Sorry, but we do not.” If they had a 20-year rule, it would have been easy enough for him to say so. Also, if there were a 20-year deadline, wouldn’t it have coincided with the date in which the missing person report was filed, which was May 26, 1953?

I do think that the 20-year timeframe is significant, but not because of FBI protocol. I think it’s significant because of the news article that ran on the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which brought about the Welco lead.

So the question remained: What was removed from the Ident. files, and why?

There’s something that I need to share with you at this point, and I do so with a great deal of embarrassment. Sometimes, when a lot of information comes at me firehose style, I’ll focus on what I believe to be the most crucial take-home message—such as the fact that Ron’s fingerprints were expunged in 2002 and the FBI had probably confirmed him dead seven years prior—while accidentally letting some of the other details slip by, even though they may be even more important in answering a question at hand. As I was writing this blog post, I revisited emails from 2015 in which I was discussing the “Removed from Ident files” language with members of the FBI. Even though Stephen Fischer said that they didn’t know what it could refer to, Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, did have something interesting to say.

“The reference to ‘Removed from Ident File,’” he wrote to me in an email, “refers to the missing person notice on file.”

Ron’s missing person file was the one that begins with the number 79—#7931966, to be exact—that you see scribbled on many of the FOIA documents, and it contained correspondence between FBI Headquarters and its field offices as well as the Tammens. It was different from the fingerprint card that was contained in Ron’s #358 406 B file. Fox also said that Tammen’s missing person file was managed by the Identification Division.

At that moment, nearly three years after first reading Fox’s email, the significance of the Identification Division became clear to me. John Fox wasn’t telling me anything that I hadn’t read many times elsewhere. The division’s name had been written in the 5th paragraph of the 5/9/73 memo and in the first paragraph of every form letter leading up to it. It had been written at the top of the May 26, 1953, document in which the Cleveland office summed up its conversation with Mrs. Tammen—ATT: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION. For so long, I had been fixated on the fact that the Identification Division was known informally as the fingerprint division, which housed the hundreds of thousands of fingerprint cards in the enormous building that’s now the D.C. Armory. (Listen to two brief audio clips about the history of the Identification Division and its fingerprint records: Part I and Part II.) All along, I had been grappling with the question of how the FBI could remove Ron’s fingerprints from the Identification Division, but not expunge them until 2002. But it wasn’t just Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints that were maintained by the Identification Division. It was also Ron’s missing person file.

Could it be that Ron’s entire missing person file was removed from the Identification Division on June 5, 1973? Nearly every one of the letters of correspondence regarding Tammen’s case had the words “Removed from Ident files” written on them. In addition, stamped at the bottom of the June 5, 1953, memo are the words “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room,” and a number that looks like 429. The October 11, 1967, letter from Hoover to Mr. Tammen and the 5-22-73 memo from Ruckelshaus to the Cincinnati field office have a similar stamp, but the room has been moved to 1126. In all cases, the stamps are crossed out.

I believe that the reason for the removal of all of those pages was that Ronald Tammen was no longer considered by the FBI to be missing.

Here’s my theory: When J. Edgar Hoover chose not to compare the soldier’s prints with Ron’s in October 1967, he likely already knew what had happened to Tammen and he felt it would have been a waste of time to compare the two men’s fingerprints. It’s also my belief that Ron’s whereabouts were to be kept secret, even from his family members, for whatever reason. (Heck, 65 years after Tammen’s disappearance, I believe that’s still the case.)

In 1973, the Cincinnati SAC didn’t know what Hoover had known. He innocently submitted the fingerprints to Headquarters, and, just as innocently, the Identification Division ran their comparison. But something happened between May 22 and June 5, which led to the FBI’s decision to remove Ron’s missing person file from the Identification Division. Could that be what Ruckelshaus (or whoever authored the 5-22-73 letter for the acting director’s signature) had meant when he said that “MP placed in 1953 to be brought up to date”?

I think someone discovered what Hoover had known in 1967 and ordered that Ron’s missing person file be placed elsewhere, so they would no longer be bothered by additional MP-related requests. His fingerprints, on the other hand, would remain on file with the Identification Division, and later CJIS, until 2002, at which point the prints were expunged.

To sum up where my head is right now: not only do I think that the FBI knew when Ronald Tammen had died—seven years prior to 2002, or around 1995—but I also believe they knew what he was doing when he was still very much alive. They just don’t want us to know they knew.

But it’s still just a theory. I need to talk to a few more people.

________________

On a side note, I’ve come to learn the name of the person who worked at Welco as well as the details that were included in his personnel file. I won’t be revealing his name in order to protect his privacy and the privacy of his family, but I will say this: his name had a similar ring to Tammen’s. It would have been logical for the caller to make that connection because people who run away and change their names often use new names that sound like the old ones. The other details I’ll divulge here are his height and weight, which were recorded in his personnel file as 6 ft. 2 ½ in. and 185 pounds, respectively. Unless Tammen had experienced a major growth spurt after he disappeared—his medical records at Miami listed him as 5 ft. 9 in. in April of ‘53—there was no way this man could be confused with Tammen.

 

 

Hoover, JFK, and the day the FBI stopped writing to the Tammens

Over these next several posts, we’ll be continuing to focus our attention on what’s in the documents that were sent to me by the FBI as a result of my 2010 FOIA request, and what, if anything, they might add to the story.

________________________________

 

JFK funeral
Jacqueline, Caroline, and John Kennedy, Jr., among other family members, on the day of Kennedy’s funeral. Photo credit: National Archives; Photographer: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service

On the morning of Tuesday, May 2, 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover didn’t wake up. His body was discovered at around 8:30 a.m. by his maid, who had arrived at his home to make his breakfast. He’d worked all day at the office the day before, had dinner with his long-time companion and deputy director, Clyde Tolson, and then died of a heart attack sometime during the night or early morning.

Immediately upon Hoover’s death, and at his instruction, his secretary, Helen Gandy, went into high gear destroying what she later claimed to a House subcommittee to be “letters to and from friends, personal friends, a lot of letters.”

Yes. How very thoughtful of this man who’d made an art form of gathering the goods on the powerful, famous, and nonconforming to preserve the trust of those he held most dear by having his secretary tear up, and then send away for further shredding, all of those friendly, personal letters.

Hoover’s death also seemed to bring an end to a different kind of letter—something more relevant to those of us who are concerned with what happened to Ronald Tammen: the form letters. You may recall that the FBI would send a form letter to the Tammens every two or three years, usually in the autumn, to ask if they should continue looking for Tammen. Mr. or Mrs. Tammen would check the box marked “Is still missing,” sign the bottom, and mail the letter back to the FBI. After Hoover died, however, the letters came to a halt, even though, in the final letter, the “Is still missing” box was checked by Ron’s father.

While Hoover was still alive, the FBI had been fairly consistent about sticking to the schedule—jarringly so in 1963. That letter was dated November 29, just seven days after President Kennedy had been assassinated, and the last day of a grueling week in which the country had bid their tearful goodbyes to him. On a day when the nation was still mired in the shock and grief of having seen their young, energetic leader being carried around in a flag-draped casket, someone in Hoover’s employ had the clarity of mind to glance at the calendar and say to him or herself, “Time to send the Tammen family another form letter.”

To put the above action into context, let’s take a quick look at the timeline of that unspeakably sad week, juxtaposed with a few of the more tangible ways in which J. Edgar Hoover had busied himself.

Friday, Nov. 22, 1963

President John F. Kennedy is murdered in Dallas; President Johnson is sworn in. Hoover speaks with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and later sends a memo to his executive staff summarizing his conversation: that the person whom he believed shot and killed the president was in custody at Dallas Police headquarters, and the name of the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, who was “working in the building from which the shots were fired.” He concluded, “I told the Attorney General that, since the Secret Service is tied up, I thought we should move into the case.”

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963

President Kennedy’s casket is on display in the East Room of the White House. President Johnson declares Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, a National Day of Mourning. J. Edgar Hoover briefs LBJ about the FBI’s investigation (transcript — 3 pages), telling him, among other things: they had charged “this man in Dallas” with the president’s murder; they had the rifle that killed the president, the bullet, and the gun that killed the policeman; and “one angle that’s confusing”: a person who showed up at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963 using Oswald’s name was not Oswald.

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963

JFK’s casket lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda for 21 hours. Roughly 250,000 mourners wait in long lines to pay their respects. At Dallas Police headquarters, as he is being transferred to the county jail, Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, and he later dies. At 4:00 p.m. ET, J. Edgar Hoover dictates a summary of the investigation, saying that Oswald is dead, and that he was shot in the stomach by Jack Ruby. “The thing that I am concerned about, and so is [deputy attorney general] Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin,” he said.

Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 – National Day of Mourning

Beginning at roughly 11 a.m., there is a procession and funeral for John F. Kennedy, after which he is buried at Arlington Cemetery at roughly 3:30 p.m. (View Associated Press footage.) President Johnson calls J. Edgar Hoover at 10:30 a.m., to speak about his concern that people are calling for a presidential commission to look into the assassination. “Some lawyer in Justice is lobbying with the [Washington] Post because that’s where the suggestion came from for this presidential commission, which we think would be very bad,” (Hoover: “I do too,”)…“and put it right in the White House. We can’t be checking up on every uh, every uh, shooting scrape in the country…” Johnson then said that they planned to do two things: 1) Hoover would give a full report to the attorney general, which would be made available to the public, and 2) the attorney general of Texas would “run a court of inquiry.” Listen to the conversation (20:23) or read the transcript.

Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1963

President Johnson gives his “Let Us Continue” speech before Congress.

Thursday, Nov. 28, 1963Thanksgiving

(Unbelievably, Americans that year had to celebrate Thanksgiving three days after watching the funeral of their president.)

That evening, President Johnson delivers a televised speech to the nation asking Americans for their help, strength, and prayers, “that God may guard this Republic and guide my every labor.” (See transcript.)

Friday, Nov. 29, 1963

On Friday evening, President Johnson names the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy.

 

Earlier that day, at 1:49 p.m., President Johnson and Hoover discuss possible members of the presidential commission. When they move on to the FBI investigation, Hoover says “We hope to have this thing wrapped up today, but could be we probably won’t get it before the first of the week.”  Listen to Part 1 (10:06) and Part 2 (10:24) of the taped conversation or read the transcript.

Oh, and one more thing: a form letter signed by Hoover is mailed to the Tammen family.

I don’t know about you, but I find it extraordinary that the FBI was even thinking about Ronald Tammen during that momentous week in our nation’s history.

Of course, Hoover may not have been aware that a letter with his name and signature was mailed to the Tammens on November 29, 1963. It could be that a low-level civil servant had readied the memo and had it signed with an autopen while Hoover was on the phone with the president telling him about Oswald’s ties to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or the ACLU. Regardless, what this says to me is that in a week when the FBI should have been firing on every cylinder in an effort to determine who killed our president and why, someone within the organization had a more menial task on his or her plate. Even if that person’s job had nothing to do with helping with the Kennedy assassination investigation, even if his or her only job was sending out missing person memos, in my view, it was rather unseemly to be going off-topic so soon. For the rest of the country, the week was rife with cancellations, postponements, and closings in somber reflection of the upheaval we’d experienced. Why couldn’t the FBI—the nation’s top law enforcement agency—have held off on some of its other public duties until, say, after the weekend? Apparently, the bureau had moved on, and they didn’t seem to care if anyone outside its walls knew it.

One last point about the 1963 memo: it wasn’t as if there was a firm date when the memos were mailed out. Nope, the dates were all over the map, as can be seen here:

August 25, 1955

October 1, 1957

November 16, 1959

October 30, 1961

November 29, 1963

January 19, 1967

October 1, 1970

I’m sure the Tammens wouldn’t have minded if the FBI had waited another week or two before sending the letter.

Here’s the other thing that I want to point out about those dates. Based on the above pattern (other than the blip in January 1967), it would be logical to conclude that Mr. Tammen was due to receive another letter in 1972 or 1973, probably in October or November. But then Hoover died in May 1972 and the letter was never mailed. In fact, if these documents are telling us what I think they are, the FBI never wrote the Tammens again. Either Tammen’s case had fallen by the wayside or someone had made the decision that it was time to put a stop to the form letters.

________________________________

In my next post, I’ll discuss the two documents from May 1973.

 

 

The dog handler, the dad, and the director

Director Hoover Portrait
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director from 1924 to 1972 — Photo credit: FBI

Let’s take a few steps back to the year 2010, when the FBI had sent me their first round of FOIA documents on the Tammen case. What do the FBI’s officially sanctioned records say and how might that information offer up some additional clues into the case, knowing everything else we know now?

For a quick recap, here are the FBI documents we’ve mentioned so far:

  • This is the initial report that was submitted roughly a month after Marjorie Tammen contacted the FBI informing them of her missing son.
  • This document shows that the FBI had Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints on file as early as 1941 “for personal identification.”
  • This form letter (as well as this one) sent by the FBI to Ron’s parents features the notations used to describe Ron’s fingerprints.

The document that I want to focus on today is the below letter, written to J. Edgar Hoover from Ronald Tammen’s father, Ronald H. Tammen, Sr.:

Mr. Tammen's letter to JEH on AP photo
Click on link for closer view

The document isn’t dated, however it references an Associated Press photo that appeared in the October 2, 1967, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as numerous other newspapers around the country. The photo was of a dog handler and his dog in Vietnam.

Here’s the photo:

Vietnam South U.S.  Forces  Dogs
ASSOCIATED PRESS — For Editorial Use  — http://www.apimages.com

 And here’s the caption that ran beneath it:

COOLING OFF IN VIETNAM – A dog handler attached to the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade and his dog take a cooling swim in a stream near the unit’s home base at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. They had just returned from a patrol and both leaped into the water.

Mr. Tammen had this to say about the photo: “From the few features I can see of this soldier, I would swear it is my son.”

Although I can see a resemblance, I have no idea if the soldier in that photo was Ronald Tammen, who would have been 34 at that time. However, the letter does tell me a couple things about Mr. Tammen. First, counter to the FBI FOIA liaison’s claim that Mr. and Mrs. Tammen thought Ron “to be deceased given some suspicious facts” (the FBI’s supposed reason for sending me the FOIA documents without requiring proof of death or third-party authorization), as of October 1967, Mr. Tammen was still hopeful that his son was alive. (Mrs. Tammen had passed away by then, in 1964.) Second, the letter shows that Mr. Tammen had no idea what had happened to his son. If any readers have been secretly wondering if Ron’s parents might have known something by that time, this letter should put those suspicions to rest.

Now let’s review the response from then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, dated October 11, 1967:

Hoover response to Mr. Tammen
Click on link for closer view

I’m going to go ahead and say it: That was one lame-o response, J. Edgar Hoover! Why do I think so? This was a disappearance in which the FBI had, at least at one time, more than a little interest. It was a case on which they’d staked their fabled reputation, one they’d sunk some serious tax dollars into, dispersing agents hither and yon to investigate what might have happened to Ron. Then, after 14 years with (supposedly) little to no new evidence, Ron’s father—someone who knew Tammen about as well as anyone could—writes in to tell them, Hey fellas! I could swear the person in this photo is my son! Can you check it out? Mr. Tammen hadn’t asked that much of the FBI up until that point. It wasn’t as if he’d been calling them once a week asking for an update. I’m no expert, but I’d call this a potential lead.

But is J. Edgar intrigued? Does he put a couple of his dark-suited G-men back on the trail to follow up in hopes that he can wrap up this case, while getting some great P.R.? No, he does not. Instead, Hoover responds with a tepid, “In reference to the newspaper item you enclosed, you may wish to write directly to The Adjutant General, Department of the Army, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 20310, for possible assistance.”

That, Good Man readers, is what I would call a first-class, grade-A, top-of-the-line brush-off.  If Mr. Hoover had truly been interested in finding out if the soldier in the photo was Ronald Tammen, don’t you think he would have made a phone call of his own to the Adjutant General? After all, in 1967, Tammen’s fingerprints were still on file with the FBI, and the Army obviously would have taken the soldier’s fingerprints when he enlisted. If the FBI didn’t already have the dog handler’s prints in their identification files (a big if), the Army could have sent them a copy, and, bada bing bada boom, question answered. But Hoover didn’t take that simple step. Why not?

I’ll venture a guess. By 1967, I think Hoover had stopped caring about what happened to Ronald Tammen. Either that, or he already had a good idea what the answer was. And if it was the latter, there must have been some reason that he didn’t want that information to be made public.

__________________

Congratulations! You’ve just completed post #20 of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After reading some of the new details presented on this website, you may have begun forming an opinion of your own about what happened to Ronald Tammen—or maybe your opinion has evolved. If you wish to discuss your views, the floor is always open, and, at this stage of the game, there are no wrong answers. Also, don’t forget to share this blog with friends and family members! The more followers we have, the more people we can involve in the discussion, which could produce more leads and possibly more answers.

Did Ronald Tammen cross paths with Richard Colvin Cox?

Richard Cox
Richard C. Cox

Happy New Year, Good Man followers! Did you know that January 2018 marks the 68th anniversary of another person’s disappearance from his college dorm? That individual is Richard Colvin Cox, from Mansfield, Ohio, who was a sophomore cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in New York, in 1950, the year he disappeared. On the day he went missing, Cox had been watching a basketball game with roommate Deane Welch, and, on their return to their room in the North Barracks, he took a detour to check his grades. While in that vicinity, Cox ran into an acquaintance who had visited him the previous weekend—a person he’d known in Germany while he was in the Army who supposedly went by the name of George. After a brief conversation, Cox headed back to his room to change into the requisite uniform before going to dinner at the Thayer Hotel with his visitor. At 6:18 p.m., he said a quick goodbye as Welch preceded him out the door, and was never heard from again.

Although the two young men’s stories have their differences, there are plenty of parallels. Here’s a short list:

Personal/Family Characteristics

  • Both were from Ohio. Tammen was from Maple Heights, a Cleveland suburb, while Cox was from Mansfield, a small town between Cleveland and Columbus.
  • Both were intelligent and studious.
  • Both were considered leaders in their class. Tammen was a counselor in Fisher Hall, and Cox was voted by his classmates as the highest-ranking yearling (the term used for sophomores at West Point) in his company.
  • Their birthdays were only two days apart, though Tammen was five years younger than Cox. Cox was born July 25, 1928, and Tammen was born July 23, 1933.
  • Both were considered friendly, but private. They tended to keep things to themselves.
  • Both were handsome with similar smallish builds. Cox was 5’8” and 165 lb.; Tammen was 5’9” and 175 lb.
  • Both came from families of modest means. Cox’s family owned an insurance agency in Mansfield, however Mr. Cox had passed away when Richard was 10. Tammen’s father worked as a clerk for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen in Cleveland.

Conditions of Disappearance

  • Both disappeared while they were sophomores in college.
  • They disappeared within three years of each other. Cox disappeared Jan. 14, 1950, and Tammen disappeared April 19, 1953.
  • They disappeared on a weekend—Cox on a Saturday, and Tammen on a Sunday.
  • They disappeared at the end of the day. Cox disappeared a little after 6:15 p.m., while Tammen disappeared sometime between 8:00 and 10:30 p.m., based on varying accounts of his final moments.
  • Both young men appeared to be showing signs of stress or inner conflict. Cox sometimes shared that he was growing fed up with West Point, while Tammen had spoken of being “tired lately” and had been seen reading the Bible several times, which was considered out of character.
  • Both seemed to be in good spirits on the day of their disappearance.
  • Both walked away with just the clothes on their backs and little money.
  • Both had supposedly been sighted after-the-fact by people who knew them. Cox was reportedly spotted in March 1952 at a restaurant in the Greyhound bus terminal at 11th Street and New York Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C. Ernest Shotwell, a friend of Cox’s from their days at the Stewart Field Prep School in New York, had seen him sitting at a table, and they spoke briefly, though Cox appeared uncomfortable and left shortly thereafter. (The Greyhound building is still there, a curvy, Art Deco blast from the past now bordered on three sides by more modern—and boring—structures.) Tammen was potentially seen in a restaurant in Wellsville, NY, in August 1953, by H. H. Stephenson, the housing administrator at Miami who had given Tammen permission to have a car on campus. Stephenson had walked out of the restaurant without saying anything to the young man.
  • Both men’s fingerprints were on file with the FBI when they’d disappeared. Tammen’s had been on file since 1941, when he was in the second grade, and Cox’s was on file at least since he’d enlisted in the Army in September 1946.
  • After committing significant resources and manpower into finding the young men, the FBI ostensibly, failed to solve either case.
IMG_0314 New York Ave terminal
The Greyhound bus terminal, in Washington, D.C., where there had been a potential sighting of Richard Cox in 1952.

Finding the similarities compelling, in June 2011, I submitted a FOIA request to the FBI seeking all documents that they had on the Richard Cox investigation. At that time, I hadn’t yet come to fully appreciate the nuances of FOIA—and by “nuances,” I mean, well, let’s just say that it isn’t an exact science. People at the agency of interest are likely to make judgment calls on a regular basis. Some decisions may hinge on the topic in general, the way a request is phrased, and any number of factors.

With that said, the FBI saw fit to send me 24 pages on the Cox case within the same month of my request. (They told me that they were sending me information that had already been processed for another requester, which is the probable reason behind the quick turnaround.) As with my FOIA documents on Tammen, the amount seemed surprisingly small to me, considering the fact that Cox had been affiliated with the U.S. Army, and the military doesn’t take disappearances from its ranks lightly. Nevertheless, I moved on without submitting an appeal. I had little knowledge of the case at that point and 20-odd pages seemed to be the FBI’s M.O. when it came to men who’d gone missing in the 1950s.

And then I dug deeper. What I found was that two people had done a good deal of digging ahead of me, and they got much, much more from the FBI. One person was James Underwood, who, as a reporter for the Mansfield News Journal, wrote an in-depth investigative series on Cox’s disappearance in 1982. (In 2012, Mr. Underwood appeared on the History Channel’s episode on West Point and the Cox disappearance.) The second person was Marshall Jacobs, a retired Florida teacher who began investigating Cox’s disappearance several years after Underwood. Jacobs eventually collaborated on a book, titled Oblivion, with Harry J. Maihafer, a graduate of West Point. Jacobs had conducted the research, while Maihafer did the writing. In their respective publications, Underwood and Marshall/Maihafer had disclosed that they’d both received thousands of pages from the government—some from the Army, some from the FBI—which provided me with ammunition for a follow-up FOIA request. In 2013, I wrote (in part):

…after reading the attached article from the 8-1-1982 issue of the Mansfield (OH) News Journal, I’d like to make a second FOIA request for FBI Bureau file 79-23729 as well as file #79-25 from the Cleveland field office. I understand that Mr. Underwood and another researcher (Marshall Jacobs, who is now deceased) received more than 1200 pages [I guesstimated] on the Cox disappearance from their FBI FOIA requests, and I would like to receive the same documents they received…

Of course, I realized that it had also been roughly 30 years since they’d submitted their FOIA requests, and a lot of purging can happen in that amount of time. Still, I thought it was worth a try. The one thing I had going for me was that, because Richard Cox had been declared dead by the state of Ohio in 1957, there was no need to provide proof of death or third-party authorization.

With little fanfare, and no apology whatsoever, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the FBI’s parent agency, sent me three CDs with 1631 pages of documents on them—which is a far cry from the original 24 pages the FBI had sent me in 2011, and serves to underscore the oft-repeated advice that one should always appeal his or her FOIA request. Why my Cox FOIA was bumped up all the way to the DOJ, I’m not sure. At the time, we were still in the middle of my FOIA lawsuit on Tammen, and they seemed to be tying the two cases together, even though they’re unrelated. (As for the Army, they’ve been harder to crack than the FBI. So far, they’ve sent me a smattering of documents, though I’m currently following up on one FOIA request.)

Incidentally, I wasn’t re-requesting the Cox files to be a thorn in anyone’s side or because I didn’t have anything better to do. I was trying to locate the source of a certain piece of information that had been mentioned on page 97 of Marshall and Maihafer’s book. What to most readers appeared as a footnote of little consequence seized my attention as if it had been written in blazing, buzzing neon.

Maihafer wrote: “Meanwhile, tips about Cox had continued to come in at the rate of nearly three a day. One report said a man resembling Cox was working at Miami University in Ohio…”

What kind of a crazy coincidence would it be to have one inexplicably missing person turning up in the same tiny university town just prior to someone else going inexplicably missing? What’s more, wouldn’t it be incredible if Richard Cox and Ronald Tammen had actually known one another? The book said that all of the leads turned up nothing. Still, I had to see the documents for myself.

I feel compelled to point out here that the documents I received from the FBI weren’t electronically searchable. They’re PDFs of old, difficult-to-decipher pages that require reading. Lots and lots of reading. On evenings and weekends, and even during a trip to Switzerland, I’d insert one of the CDs into my laptop and, folder by folder, wade through the bureaucratic minutia of names, places, and dates, until I was bored out of my mind, my lower neck muscles were screaming, or both. Periodically, I’d have to reassure myself that this wasn’t a colossal waste of my time. It took months for me to get through them all. As I was nearing the end of the third CD, when I’d just about given up hope, I found the reference to Oxford, Ohio.

The first document to catch my eye was an FBI report recounting a visit to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Curtis Sandage, of Lombard, Illinois, by agent William H. Gray. The report was dated November 21, 1952, and the visit was in response to a letter that Mr. Sandage had written to the Army’s 10th Criminal Investigation Detachment in New York, NY, on August 5, 1952. A few details of the letter were included, such as the fact that the couple had recognized Cox’s photo from a recent article in Life magazine. Although Mr. Gray didn’t specify the date of the magazine, I can tell you that it was the April 14, 1952 issue. The article can be read here (albeit not easily), beginning on page 147.

FBI report
For closer view, click on link

Gray indicated that the visit yielded no new information, as Mrs. Sandage had “nothing pertinent” to add to what her husband had written in the letter. In the main narrative, however, he also mentioned that the Sandages didn’t know the young man by name, but that both felt sure that “the man they knew was employed in some public or semi-public place such as a restaurant or filling station in Oxford, Ohio and that he wore sport clothing.”

About 20 pages later, I arrived at the letter, which had been reproduced in a summarizing document by the Army and thus the reason that there’s no signature. Here it is:

Page 1:

Sandage letter to CID, page 1
For closer view, click on link.

Page 2:

Sandage letter to CID, page 2
For closer view, click on link.

As the letter states, the Sandages, who were both faculty members at Miami, remember seeing Cox (or someone who looked like Cox) between January and September 1950, before they moved to Illinois. During that same winter and spring, Ronald Tammen was a junior in high school, and, that September, he was just beginning his senior year. If it were Richard Cox and he was pumping gas over the next couple years, when Ronald Tammen was at Miami, I’d think that the chances would have been pretty good that they would have bumped into one another, especially since Tammen was one of the few students with a car on campus during his sophomore year. Those are a lot of “ifs,” I know, but it’s interesting to ponder.

The Sandages have both passed away, however, I contacted a son to find out if he was aware of their potential sighting of Richard Cox. He was interested, but knew nothing about it.

I won’t be discussing Jacobs’ theory regarding what may have happened to Richard Cox in this post. Cox’s family feels strongly that the assertions made in his and Maihafer’s book are untrue, so I’ll be steering clear of that debate for now.

I will say this: Nothing I read in the FBI files indicated that they had followed up on the Oxford sighting after the November 1952 visit to the Sandages’ home. (The pages I’ve received from the Army don’t mention the potential sighting.) That also means that I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the FBI had ruled out whether the person in Oxford might have been Cox.

Although we can’t be sure that the person the Sandages knew in Oxford was Richard Cox, here’s what I come away with as a result of their story:

  • There’s a chance that Richard Cox and Ronald Tammen may have known one another or perhaps had a common acquaintance.
  • It’s also possible that their disappearances might have been related to one another.
  • It’s intriguing how, just five months after their visit with the Sandages to discuss a possible sighting of Richard Cox in Oxford, Ohio, the FBI was brought in to search for Tammen, who happened to disappear from, of all places, Oxford, Ohio. If anyone at the FBI wondered if there was a connection between two high-profile cases of missing college men and the town of Oxford, they didn’t put it in writing.

What does their story tell you?

 

 

 

The missing fingerprints, part 4*

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

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

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

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

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

Background:

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

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

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

Questions for Comment:

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

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

IF YES:

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

IF NO:

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

IF YES:

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

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

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

Instead, I received this email:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It opened like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Fred?”

“Yeah, Barney?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The missing fingerprints, part 3*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened next was pretty telling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The missing fingerprints, part 2

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

Here’s what I heard:

[crickets]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald Tammen would have been 68 or 69.

Whaaaaaa?, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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