A late-night knock at the door

knocker

Clara Josephine Spivey lived with her husband, Carl, in a two-story home on North Main Street in Seven Mile, Ohio. Carl, who was once the mayor of that small town, was an electrician by trade and Clara’s second husband. Her first husband had been tragically killed when, in 1918, a mere five months into their marriage, the delivery truck he was driving collided with a train in nearby Hamilton. Clara married Carl two years later.

By the spring of 1953, Clara was 54 years of age with two grown children. Son Jearl was 32 years old and married. The best I can tell, he was also an electrician living about 20 miles from his parents, in Lebanon, Ohio. Daughter Barbara was 28 and married to a man named Donald Ries. (They would divorce in 1963.) From what I can tell, the couple was also living in Seven Mile.

Late on Sunday, April 19, 1953, reportedly at about midnight, there was a knock on the Spiveys’ front door. Clara was apparently still up at that hour, along with Barbara and at least one other person whom we’ll discuss a little later in this post. Perhaps Clara was emboldened by the presence of the other night owls sitting up with her—safety in numbers, and all that. Or maybe it was just the innocence of the times. Whatever her reason, she went ahead and opened the door.

Thankfully, there was nothing to fear. Standing on her porch was a well-mannered young man with a smudge on his cheek—probably from fixing a flat tire, she presumed—and an embarrassed look on his face. The jacket he had on didn’t seem at all sufficient for the chilly temperatures, in her viewpoint, and he wasn’t wearing a hat either. He had dark, deep-set eyes and close-cropped hair—his most distinguishing characteristics in her mind’s eye. He asked for nothing except some direction.

“What town am I in?” the youth had asked her, according to the earliest news accounts. And then: “Where will I be if I go in that direction?”, pointing northeastward, toward Middletown.

Clara recalled telling the youth that he could catch the bus to Middletown, which just so happened to stop at the nearby corner at that time of night. It wasn’t until the next day that she realized the information she’d given him was in error. The bus schedule for the Oxford Coach Lines had been changed that very day, April 19, and the last run from Oxford to Middletown, which passed through Seven Mile, had been suspended.

Other than perhaps a twinge of regret for having led her visitor astray, Clara didn’t think much about the incident afterward. Then, that June, she learned about Ronald Tammen. She’d somehow missed all the ballyhoo about Tammen when he’d first disappeared, and only became aware of the story by way of a follow-up news article that, in essence, reported that A) he’d been gone for two months, and B) there were no new leads. The article, which featured a large photo of Tammen, appeared in the June 20 issue of the Hamilton Journal-News, Clara’s most likely preferred news source. The same article also appeared in the June 22 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sometime after seeing the article, she notified the Oxford police, and by June 29, her story was being reported across the Miami Valley as the first real clue in the case. Clara Spivey was convinced that the young man at her doorstep had been Tammen. That photo, which had immediately whisked her back to the night in question, served as proof.

Tammen photo
The photo of Tammen that appeared in the June 20, 1953, Hamilton Journal-News and the June 22, 1953, Cincinnati Enquirer.

Oscar Decker, Oxford’s police chief, welcomed the potential sighting with a great big bear hug. If it happened to be Ron Tammen, he reasoned, that would bolster the amnesia theory very nicely.

“Tammen disappeared about 8:30 or 9 o’clock from his room in Fisher Hall,” Decker was quoted as saying in one of the June 29th articles. (Based on the font and layout, I think it was the Cincinnati Enquirer, though my clipping doesn’t contain a reference.) “If he wandered away, it would have taken him about three hours to walk to Seven Mile.”

Sure, it was cold, it was hilly, it was late, but it was totally doable in his opinion.

Also convincing to Decker was Clara’s description of what Tammen was wearing that night. The June 29th Hamilton Journal-News article said this: “Mrs. Spivey described the youth’s wearing apparel almost perfectly, according to the chief.” Also, the September 18, 1953, issue of the Miami Student said: “Although she could not see under the dim porch light what the man was wearing, Mrs. Spivey declared that he seemed to have on a light-weight coat with a checked pattern and dark trousers.” Investigators had described Tammen as wearing a blue and tan checked or plaid wool jacket (sometimes referred to as a mackinaw) and blue pants when he disappeared.

An article in the July 3, 1953, Hamilton Journal-News stated that Henry Ciesicki, who was identified as president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, had interviewed Mrs. Spivey and found that she was indeed positive that the young man she saw was Tammen after looking at photographs of him. However, the article continued, “There were certain discrepancies as to the type of clothing the missing student was wearing and that of the man whom Mrs. Spivey saw, Ciesicki said.” The discrepancies were brought up again in an article by Joe Cella in the April 22, 1954, issue of the Hamilton Journal-News: “[Tammen’s] brother, Richard, maintains that there are some discrepancies in Mrs. Spivey’s story. The type of clothing worn and missing has come up for considerable discussion throughout the investigation.”

Was the visitor on Mrs. Spivey’s porch Ronald Tammen? Before placing your vote, here are some additional points to consider:

The route

If it was Ron who showed up on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep, he would have most likely traveled State Route 73 East to 127 South, which leads directly into Seven Mile. The terrain is hilly, and it seems as if it would require some fairly purposeful trekking as opposed to the wanderings of someone with amnesia. Moreover, if Ron had been on foot, he would have passed by numerous homes along Main Street on his way to Mrs. Spivey’s. An atlas from 1930, which shows the number of properties that existed in northern Seven Mile at that time and, presumably, a corresponding number of houses, can be viewed below. (Mrs. Spivey’s property is along Hamilton & Eaton Road, aka Main Street, near High Street.)

1930 atlas of Seven Mile
For a closer view, click on image.

An atlas of the northern part of Seven Mile from 1958 is here.

But don’t just take the Butler Co. cartographers’ word for it. Follow the route for yourself in this video, and try to picture a totally out-of-it Ronald Tammen walking these roads on a chilly, snowy night in unsuitable outerwear. Are you as convinced as Oscar Decker that it was Ron? (Uncopyrighted traveling music provided by the YouTube Audio Library. Apologies in advance for my knack for driving over every possible bump in the road.)

 The time of the encounter

As discussed earlier, the first time anyone had heard about the potential Spivey sighting was on Monday, June 29, 1953, when at least two news articles were published. The article that I believe was in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the visitor had arrived on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep at “about midnight,” while the Hamilton Journal-News reported that the time of night was “about 11 o’clock.” The time discrepancy is intriguing, because the author of both articles was Gilson Wright, a Miami journalism professor who was also an on-call correspondent for a number of area papers. (I’m certain that Wright wrote both articles because, even though there isn’t a byline for either article, the Journal-News identifies Wright as the correspondent for its Oxford section on that date, and the two articles, though not identical, have the same phrasing throughout.) That the same reporter would publish conflicting times for the encounter on the same news day is kind of, um, bizarre, considering the significance of the hour to the overall timeline. “About midnight” was the most frequently reported time over the years, including later issues of the Journal-News, which is why I repeated it in the third paragraph of this post. Also, Oscar Decker is quoted directly in the September 18, 1953, article of the Miami Student, saying that the time was “about midnight.” On the other hand, the 11 p.m. time was attributed to Mrs. Spivey (who, after all, would have been the best source), though not as a direct quote. “Mrs. Spivey said the youth came to her door about 11 o’clock…,” Wright stated in that article.

If the June 29th Hamilton Journal-News version is closer to the truth, Ron wouldn’t have had the full three hours that Oscar Decker estimated a walk to Seven Mile would have required. According to this September 2018 fitness article and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a brisk walking pace is considered to be 3 miles per hour or 20 minutes per mile. If the time was midnight, Tammen would have had 180 minutes to walk approximately 11 miles, or a little over 16 minutes per mile. That would have been a pretty good clip, but still doable. But if the time was 11 p.m.? Ron would have needed to be in a full-on run. The latter scenario wouldn’t exactly fit the storyline that everyone was selling, would it? What’s more, if Ron had been at the Delta Tau Delta song practice until around 10:30 p.m., as has been claimed by at least one person, there was no way Ron could have made it to Seven Mile by either 11 p.m. or midnight if he was walking.

But what if Ron Tammen had actually been driven to Seven Mile? If a car was involved, there are a few possible scenarios to consider:

He hitchhiked.
Ron was known to hitchhike from place to place, especially when he didn’t have a car on campus. Granted, it would have been odd for him to choose to hitchhike out of Oxford as opposed to driving his own car. However, if, for some reason, he did so and someone picked him up somewhere between Fisher Hall and Seven Mile, chances are that person would have reported it when the media began publicizing his disappearance. If Oscar Decker had received such a call, you better believe that he would have announced it to the press. From what I can tell, there were no phone calls from anyone who either picked up a hitchhiker or who spotted someone walking alongside that stretch of road on April 19, 1953. One caller did think he’d spotted Tammen in Middletown the week after the Spivey article was published, though that obviously didn’t check out.

He was “kidnapped” and left in Seven Mile as a prank.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this site, fraternities back then used to kidnap pledges and drop them off in the middle of nowhere so they would have to find their way home. Many people, including yours truly at one point, have wondered if that might have been what happened to Ron—the whole fraternity-prank-gone-awry theory. But several factors have led me to rule this theory out. First, the men in Ron’s fraternity are wonderful people and they don’t act all weird when I ask them about Ron Tammen. They really would love to know what happened to him. Second, Ron wasn’t a pledge. He was an active member of Delta Tau Delta, which means that he wouldn’t have been a target for such antics. Third, he didn’t live in the fraternity house, which, according to one of his fraternity brothers, was home base from which a guy would have been kidnapped if he were being kidnapped.

Fourth (and perhaps foremost), instead of asking Mrs. Spivey for directions, wouldn’t Ron’s more obvious first question be “Can I use your phone?” According to Carl Knox’s notes, the door to his dorm room was left open and his car keys were in his desk. He could have asked someone from Fisher Hall to pick him up. His roommate, Chuck Findlay, would have been back by then. Also, the questions the visitor asked didn’t pertain to finding his way back to Oxford. In April 1954, Mrs. Spivey would embellish her conversation with the young man to include her pointing the way to Hamilton, Middletown, and Oxford. But that wasn’t the case in June 1953. As described above, the youth asked her what town he was in and where he would be if he went in “that direction,” which was toward Middletown. She’d told him how to catch the bus to Middletown, the crucial detail that enabled her to date stamp the night he’d appeared at her door, since the bus route had ended on April 19. Based on her earliest recollection and, in my view, the one that would have probably been most accurate, there was no mention of Oxford.

Someone who knew him drove him there.
Perhaps someone else could have driven Ron to Seven Mile—someone like the mysterious woman from Hamilton, for example. If that’s true, why he would have gotten out of the car at Mrs. Spivey’s residence isn’t clear, unless, perhaps, he’d tried to escape as the car had slowed down on Main Street. But if he did escape, why (again) wouldn’t he have asked Mrs. Spivey if he could use her telephone to call for help? And where did he go after he left Mrs. Spivey’s? Perhaps someone overpowered him and pushed him back in the car. Still, the young man’s questions for Mrs. Spivey don’t exactly jive with those that might have been asked by someone who was being taken somewhere against his will. At least, they aren’t the sorts of questions that someone would have asked had he been thinking clearly.

The other people in the room

In Joe Cella’s 1976 article in the Hamilton Journal-News, we learned that Clara’s daughter Barbara, whose last name was now Jewell after a second marriage, was also present when the visitor showed up at the door. Though Clara had died in 1975, Barbara stood by her mother’s story. Here’s what Cella wrote:

“Mrs. Spivey has since died but her daughter, Mrs. Barbara Jewell of Seven Mile, remembers the night well. She was there when the knock was answered.

 ‘I still believe it was him,’ said Mrs. Jewell. When her mother viewed a photograph of Tammen at the time, she said, ‘That’s him. I know I’m not mistaken.’”

Barbara Jewell passed away in 1999. However, in 2012, Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective, informed me of someone else who was present when the visitor showed up at the door. Smith had stopped by a United Dairy Farmers store for a cup of coffee around the time that the Butler County Sheriff’s Office was getting a lot of local press for their work regarding the dead body in Georgia. According to Smith, a guy came out of the store and said he’d been reading in the paper about the Tammen case.

Recounted Smith, “He said, ‘I was there that night when the door was opened too.’”

Smith then added, “And he told me, he said that he absolutely was confident that that was not Tammen that knocked on the door that night. He thought it was one of the local ruffians that lived down the road. But he was absolutely confident.”

According to Smith, the man who approached him—as he recalled, it was Mrs. Spivey’s son—had been in the military and was battling cancer. He also said that he’d passed away shortly after they talked. I accepted this information at face value and didn’t delve further, which turned out to be a mistake. Memories, as I’ve come to learn time and again, aren’t 100 percent foolproof. If I’d done my fact checking a little sooner, I might have been able to speak with the man myself.

Several years ago, as I was doing some online research, I discovered that the man who’d approached Frank Smith couldn’t have been Clara Spivey’s son. Jearl Spivey had died in 1980, long before Smith had gotten involved in the case. Donald Ries, who, along with Carl Spivey, had passed away in the 1970s, could also be ruled out. However, another possible candidate did pop up—Paul Jewell, Barbara’s second husband. Jewell died in 2014, two years after my conversation with Smith. According to his obituary, Jewell had worked at the Champion Paper Company and, later, The Workingman’s Store, a beloved clothing and shoe store for everyday working people that his parents had opened in Hamilton and where he eventually became owner. The obit also said that he’d served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, and suggested that memorials be given to the American Cancer Society, among other charities. My guess is that Paul Jewell was the man who approached Frank Smith.

There is one puzzling aspect to placing Jewell in Mrs. Spivey’s home late at night on April 19, 1953. Paul Jewell was 13 years younger than Barbara, born in September 1937. In April 1953, Barbara was still married to Donald Ries, whereas Paul would have been 15 years of age and a sophomore at McGuffey High School in Oxford. (He graduated in 1955.) From what I can tell from old city directories, Paul and Barbara were married in the mid-1960s. So one question I have is, if it was Jewell, why would he have been at the Spiveys so late on a Sunday night when the next day was a school day for him? Another big question I have is: again, if it was Paul Jewell who spoke with Frank Smith, did he and Barbara actually see the visitor or did they just hear Clara’s account, like the rest of us, and form their own opinions? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer.

So what do you think? Was it Ronald Tammen at Mrs. Spivey’s door or merely one of Seven Mile’s local ruffians? Feel free to register your vote here:

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And now, for all you readers in the U.S., please be sure to vote for real if you haven’t already. It’s our right, our privilege, and our obligation and probably way more important than anything else we may have on our plates these days.

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

Let’s also open up the floor. Feel free to weigh in on anything Tammen-related, especially your thoughts on Mrs. Spivey’s story and why you voted one way or the other in our poll.

A dead body in Georgia

(and other perfectly good clues that were ignored by investigators)

blank headstone
Photo credit: Matthias Zomer at Pexels (cropped image)

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 practice

    Ron 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 fight

    Ron allegedly had a fight with his younger brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom of Fisher Hall the night he disappeared.

  • The woman from Hamilton

    Ron 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 book

    Ron 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 background

    Ron 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.

HHS Note

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:

Dear Sir:

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.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_70b
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/.

The open psych book

Psych book
Cover of 1951 edition of “Psychology–The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment,” by Norman L. Munn, the issue and title of the book that was open on Ronald Tammen’s desk the night he disappeared.

One of the most frequently named items that Ronald Tammen had left behind—apart from his wallet, IDs, and car keys—was the open book on his desk. Remember the book? From what I can tell, it was first brought to the public’s attention on April 25, 1953, when the Hamilton Journal-News reported “books” (plural) being “open on a study table” after he’d disappeared. On May 2, 1953, the books were narrowed down to “a textbook” that “was left open on his desk,” though some reports reverted to the plural form on occasion after that date. In April 1954, we learned from Joe Cella, also of the Hamilton Journal-News, that it was a psychology book, and in 1976, Cella reported that the psychology book was turned to “Habits.” This detail is posthumously corroborated by Carl Knox, dean of men, whose investigative notes say “Psych Book opened to HABITS,” with the last word written in all caps and underscored twice. What’s more, Knox had also noted that Tammen was spotted “Studying Psych” from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. on the day of his disappearance. How someone might have known the subject matter that Tammen had been studying, we can’t be sure, but that person must have felt reasonably confident of that detail to mention it to investigators.

Carl Knox notes -- HABITS
The HABITS reference, underlined twice, can be seen at the bottom of Carl Knox’s note.
Carl Knox notes -- studying psych
Beneath Tammen’s name is Carl Knox’s notation that Tammen had been “Studying Psych” from 3-4 p.m. that Sunday.

Juxtapose all of the above with what Dick Titus told me Tammen had said to him before Tammen had walked out of Titus’s room the evening of his disappearance: that he needed to study his own subjects. What does all of this tell you? For me, it indicates that one of the last things on Tammen’s mind before he went missing was psychology. In fact, it appears to have been the subject he felt most compelled to study during the afternoon and evening of his final day as a Miami student. The topic of “Habits” is an added bit of intrigue.

Here’s why I find the open psych book so fascinating: Ronald Tammen wasn’t taking a psychology class.

Oh, let me rephrase that. Although Ronald Tammen had been enrolled in psychology the semester that he disappeared, he’d already withdrawn from the course by the time he went missing.

The documents that I’m posting today, which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been posted online before, are Ronald Tammen’s college transcripts. Here they are.

Before we get to the topic of psychology, let’s take a look at Ronald Tammen’s grades. He was a B student—the average of the A’s, B’s, and C’s he had accumulated since he’d arrived at Miami. His much-publicized grade point average of 3.205 was from his freshman year. The A’s were in courses such as Unified Math and General Geology—he was, after all, a math and science guy. The C’s were in American Social and Economic History (first semester) and Freshman Composition (second semester). All things considered, he was doing fairly well academically his first year away from home.

transcripts-p1
Page 1 of Ronald Tammen’s transcripts

Now, let’s turn our attention to Ron’s sophomore year. W’s—withdrawals—had begun popping up like wins in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1953 baseball standings. Except Ron wasn’t winning. He was struggling. Juggling. At the start of the first semester of his sophomore year, Ron was carrying a course load of 17 credit hours, which is typical for a full-time student. At its completion, however, he was carrying only 11 hours, having dropped two 3-hour courses—an economics course and General Psychology, PSY 261. Despite the much lighter load, his grade point average had now slipped to 3.178, by my calculations.

That’s where the grades end, because at the conclusion of Tammen’s second semester, we see only a string of I’s (incompletes), a P (passing) in gym, and a W in psychology, the same course he’d dropped the previous semester. The P is of no consequence to this story. It only tells us how badly a person would have to be doing in gym to be given a failing grade. You could fall off the planet five weeks before finals and still pass the course. It’s the lone W in the line-up of I’s that was most curious to me. I needed to know the timeframe by which those I’s and W were handed out.

Our first clue is a statement at the bottom of page 3 of Tammen’s student records (made available for the first time here), that says: “DISAPPEARED FROM RESIDENCE HALL APRIL 19, 1953. GIVEN INCOMPLETES FOR SEMESTER (2ND, 1952-53).”

Ron's student records

In my mind, that would imply that when Ron disappeared, he’d already dropped his psychology course and those I’s only pertained to courses in which he was still enrolled. To make sure my reasoning was correct, I contacted the Miami University Registrar’s Office in October 2010, asking how it could be that Ron had received that W in his psychology course.

Miami’s Registrar, David Sauter, is one of the most responsive administrators I’ve encountered anywhere. He’s also interested in the Tammen case. He got right on it. The next day, an assistant contacted me with information from an old grade card. It said that if a course is dropped after seven weeks, “either ‘WP’ for withdrawn passing or ‘WF’ for withdrawn failing must be entered.”

“The old grade card for that course indicates Mr. Tammen had a midterm grade of ‘C’ for the course in Spring 1953 and that he was dropped with a ‘WP.’  It does not, however, provide a drop date,” she said in her email. She added that she and her colleagues in the Registrar’s Office believed that the reason that there is a lone W on the transcript, and not a WP, was because the columns were only one character wide.

That provided me with one endpoint to my timeframe—Ron must have withdrawn at least seven weeks into the semester. But what about the other endpoint? I contacted Miami’s archivist at that time, Bob Schmidt, who emailed me a page from the 1952-53 issue of Rules and Regulations Governing Students, Student Activities, and Student Organizations for Miami University. In addition to confirming the information that the Registrar’s Office had provided, it said that course withdrawals had to be performed through the student’s adviser, and any withdrawals after eleven weeks resulted in a WF.

So, to recap, thus far:

  • Ron Tammen had indeed already dropped his psychology course by the time he’d disappeared.
  • He’d done it between the seventh and eleventh weeks of the second semester.
  • Ron’s adviser, a professor by the name of Belden J. Dennison, knew it; Carl Knox, in his principal role as dean of men, also likely knew it; and now we know it too.

University calendars for 1952-53 show that Tuesday, February 3, was the date when second-semester classes started at Miami. Not quite seven weeks later, Saturday, March 21, 1953, was the last day a student could withdraw from a course without receiving a grade, and Saturday, April 25, 1953, a little over 11 weeks after the semester’s start, was the last day a student could withdraw from a course without receiving a WF. That means that the timeframe in which Ron had withdrawn from the course was likely sometime between Monday, March 23, and Saturday, April 18. Not only was this “drop” period within weeks of Ron’s disappearance, and possibly only a day or two before, it also overlapped with spring break, which had taken place from noon, Saturday, March 28, until Monday, April 6, with classes resuming on Tuesday, April 7. Ron wouldn’t have been able to drop his psych course during the university’s week off, so he either did it right before spring break or right after. My guess is that it would have been after spring break, because that was also the time period in which Ron had appeared to be showing signs of stress. Carl Knox had noted that Ron had been consulting the Bible several times after spring break and had also spoken of “being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”

Carl Knox notes -- signs of stress
According to Carl Knox’s notes, Ronald Tammen seemed to be showing signs of stress following spring break.

So I think the question on everyone’s minds is: why would Ronald Tammen be reading a textbook for a class he’d already dropped?

It could be that he had a general, non-school-related question he was pondering—something that led him to crack open an authoritative resource, not unlike how we now crack open our laptops to ask Google What’s romanesco? or How old is Kirk Douglas?

But why look up the very vague and arbitrary topic of habits? If Ronald Tammen had a habit he wanted to break, it would make more sense to research that specific topic somewhere, like a library, or to seek guidance from an expert. Besides, what habit would Ronald Tammen even have that needed breaking? Smoking? He didn’t smoke. Drinking? He wasn’t a drinker either. Was he a nail-biter? I doubt it. To be honest, it’s difficult to imagine what habit Ronald Tammen would want to kick with such urgency that he would interrupt his busy Sunday to consult his former textbook for a dry-as-a-bone description of habits. That would be like looking up the word Italy in an encyclopedia in hopes of finding a really good marinara recipe. It makes no sense.

HABITS

Among the boxes devoted to Ronald Tammen at the Miami University Archives are copies of textbook pages, many of which have the following notation typed on them: “Copy of textbooks left open on Ron Tammen’s desk.” The word “textbooks” is plural, but the pages are from one book: Psychology–The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment, by Norman L. Munn. At the top of one of the pages, someone has made the notation that the book was a 2nd edition, from 1951. I found it puzzling that the archived documents covered a range spanning pages 152 to 295. Typically, if a book is open on a desk, there are only two pages facing upward, not a range of 143 pages.

I purchased the 1951 issue of Munn’s textbook online. When it arrived, one of the first things I did was make sure that the nine copied pages from University Archives corresponded with my version, and they did. I felt confident that I was perusing the same textbook edition that Ron had been spotted studying. The second thing I did was check to see if there was a chapter titled “Habits,” and there isn’t one. I then took a deductive leap, and reasoned that whoever observed that Ron’s book was opened to “Habits” must have noticed the word in a section head or subhead. (We’ll discuss why I think this was the right decision a little later.) I examined each of the 143 pages looking for headings with some form of the word habit written there. I also checked the rest of Munn’s book for any other possible mentions of the word in a section head or subhead.

I found four pages in all, which happened to be among the nine archived pages. They were pages 152 (with the section head Levels of Complexity in Habit Formation), 162 (subhead: Habit Interference), 277 (section head: Man is Primarily a Creature of Habit), and 294 (section head: Force of Habit). Finally, it dawned on me. Whoever had made the archived copies was probably doing what I was doing: trying to figure out which two pages Tammen was studying before he disappeared. (That person even went a little farther than I was inclined to go, making copies of a couple additional pages that included the word habits in the regular text.) But how could I narrow down those four pages, plus the pages they were facing, to just two? If only someone had taken a photo of the open book.

As it so happens, someone had. A few days after the first anniversary of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance—April 22, 1954—the Hamilton Journal-News published an article that included photographs of Ron and Chuck’s room after Ron had disappeared. One of the photos was a close-up of the open book he’d left on his desk and a second photo was of the same book from another angle. Although we can’t be 100-percent certain that the pages in the photos are exactly as Ron had left them—a current of air or an accidental bump could have caused one or two pages to flip—nevertheless, it’s all that we have. Moreover, the article was written by Joe Cella, who likely obtained the photos from investigators. If Cella believed the photos to be accurate, who am I to second guess him?

Unfortunately, I’m not able to obtain enlarged versions of the photos. The originals no longer exist. However, you can access the article here and zoom in on the two photos. [Article is provided with the permission of the Hamilton Journal-News and Cox Media Group Ohio.]

From what I can tell, the left-hand page appears to lack any images or graphics. Therefore, at a minimum, I believe we can rule out two of the two-page spreads on the basis that there were fairly prominent photographs on the left-hand pages. They are pages 152, which had a photo of a memory drum in the upper left-hand corner, and 276, which is opposite the habits reference on page 277, and which had four photos down its left column of a mother rat and her babies. In my view, spreads 152–153 and 276–277 are no longer contenders.

The right-hand page is more difficult to discern in the Journal-News photos. It doesn’t appear to have images either, which would eliminate pages 162–163 on the basis that the latter page has a photograph on the upper left side of a student operating a card-sorter.

But there’s another, more compelling reason to remove pages 162–163 from consideration. As I mentioned earlier, Munn’s book contains both section heads and subheads. The section heads are written in all capital letters, while the subheads are written in bold type with only the first word capitalized. As I’ve already mentioned, when Carl Knox wrote the word “HABITS” in his notes, he did so in all capital letters, accentuated by a double underline. I can’t help but believe that he was imitating the style in which the words were written in the book, perhaps without even realizing what he was doing. In my opinion, Carl Knox was looking at a section head, not a subhead, which would eliminate the page spread 162–163.

HABITS 2

That leaves us with two pages that are composed entirely of text: pages 294 and 295. On the left-hand page is the section head “FORCE OF HABIT,” which Dean Knox could have shortened to “HABITS.” On the opposite page is a subject even more intriguing. Within a section titled “UNCONSCIOUS MOTIVATION” is a discussion on how someone can be influenced to behave in certain ways. The subhead is “Post-hypnotic suggestion.”

I’m not sure why investigators failed to specify the page numbers that the book was turned to or why Carl Knox chose to write “HABITS” in his notes as opposed to the actual section head. As we’ve established, no subhead or section head on any of the pages was simply called “Habits.” It’s also curious that university officials didn’t appear to question why Ron would be studying psychology, since they knew he’d already dropped the course. Did that detail somehow escape them?

Or could it be that investigators had noticed the reference to post-hypnotic suggestion and didn’t want to raise suspicions that Ronald Tammen’s disappearance could have had something to do with that phenomenon? I get it—why get everyone all riled up if it had no relevance to the case? But with Miami’s psychology department employing at least three faculty members who were hypnosis experts—two of them having collaborated with a renowned psychologist on the 1933 seminal book Hypnosis and Suggestibility, and one of those two being Ronald Tammen’s former psych professor—it seems as if that might have been something worth inquiring about.

­­­­­­­­­__________________________________

­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Yep, we’re going to go there in subsequent posts, but we’ll be proceeding slowly and cautiously. I don’t intend to point fingers at a person, department, or agency before all of the evidence is in. I also won’t be disparaging a medical practice that has helped countless people overcome personal difficulties. What I will be doing is posting relevant documents as they become available and asking questions that, as far as I know, haven’t been posed before—at least not publicly.

In the meantime, please join me today on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/agmihtf/) at 11:30 a.m. ET as I live-stream additional information concerning today’s post. Among other things, we’ll be leafing through the individual pages of Tammen’s psychology book, looking at the habits references. If you’re tied up at that time, or are discovering this website after April 19, no problem. You can access a recording after-the-fact.

 

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  — 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?

The missing fingerprints

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

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

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

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

Here they are.

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

From the year 1941.

When Ron Tammen was seven or eight years old.

FBI memo
Click on document to enlarge.

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

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

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

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

19M    17W    r12

L       3 W

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

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