Miami University’s deafening silence: proof of a cover-up, part 3

I’ll begin this blog entry by addressing an age-old conundrum head on: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I honestly don’t think so. In order for there to be a sound, you need someone to be on the receiving end. A falling tree produces vibrations—big ones—in the surrounding land, water, and air that can only be interpreted as sound by structures in the ear, be they human, bird, bunny, fox, or squirrel. Without an ear or two in the vicinity, it’s all just meaningless molecular vibrations. There’d be no crash of a trunk, no rustle of leaves, no flapping of startled wings. No sound.

Paradoxically, if you ask one or more knowledgeable sources a simple question, and no one utters a word—not one person produces a single sound vibration for your ear to hear—have they answered your question? I’d argue that they have. This time, instead of your ears doing the interpreting, it’s your brain. And my brain is telling me that if a person who’s in the know refuses to answer a reasonable and politely-asked question, then the answer may be of an incriminating nature. Somebody, prove me and my brain wrong.

I’m talking about the interview that was conducted with Carl Knox’s former secretary relatively recently by someone affiliated with the university that was summarized on one side of a laser-printed page and filed away in the university’s archives. First, I guesstimated that the timeframe of the interview was between 2001 and 2020 based mostly on computer and printer technology. Then we were able to narrow the cut-off to 2015, the year in which the Western College Memorial Archives, where the summary had been housed, were moved to University Archives. Later, I ascertained that the interview likely occurred between 2001 and 2008 after learning that the most recent document to be added to the vertical filing cabinet where the summary was kept was done so in 2008. We don’t know which document or documents was added in 2008—their record-keeping system was woefully imprecise—but we know that nothing in the file cabinet arrived after that year, so the summary can’t be any more recent. I’ll explain that discovery in a little more detail below.

But the time period in question is about to shrink again. Based on records posted on the Miami Libraries’ website as well as documents I’ve obtained through public records requests, I believe the interview with Carl Knox’s secretary happened between January 2006 and December 2008. Let’s think about that for a second. Here we have a document whose origin Miami officials have been claiming not to know anything about—a document that, I believe, was purposely undated and unsourced in order not to raise any flags with anyone who happened upon it—and we’ve narrowed it down to occurring sometime between (I believe) 2006 and 2008. I also have a pretty good idea of who wrote it. Do you think the people at the heart of this little cover-up are impressed? Maybe! Or maybe they’re really annoyed. It’s so hard to tell what they’re feeling when they’re not speaking to you.

The 2006-2008 timeframe may sound familiar to some of you. I’d first proposed it on Facebook a couple months ago, at which time a savvy Miami alum (A BIG thank you to Kristin Woosley! Guuuurl, we see you and your amazing memory!) who was a student back then was able to provide even more helpful identifying info. Her info was so helpful, in fact, I felt as if I may have a tough time promising anonymity if someone happened to come forward. For this reason, I decided to take down the post and to conduct my research out of view.

That research has been ongoing, and I’ve discovered some promising new details. But after receiving the silent treatment about those discoveries from so many people, I’ve decided to forego that strategy. What the heck, let’s bring some of this new info into the light of day, shall we? I’ll still refer to Carl Knox’s former secretary as AD (short for assistant to the dean), and I’ll continue to protect other people’s identities for various reasons as well. But whenever possible, especially when discussing people who are acting in official capacities, they’ll be named. Also, let’s do this in one of my favorite formats: Q&A. 

Why do you think the interview took place no later than 2008?

The 2008 comes from a public records request I’d submitted. As we’ve discussed, the summary is part of the Western College Memorial Archives in folder number 18, titled Ghosts and Legends. When archivists receive donations, the standard practice is to create an accessions record for that material documenting where the material came from, when it arrived, a description of the contents, the size of the collection, and other details. Since 2015, Miami University has subscribed to ArchivesSpace, an online database for cataloguing its holdings. Knowing this, I emailed the Office of the General Counsel (OGC), requesting the accessions records that, to my understanding, should have been created for the interview summary. 

What I received from the OGC was an explanatory email as well as a number of screen grabs from ArchivesSpace. The email said that the record had been created by Jacky Johnson, the university archivist, long after the document had been acquired as well as after the university’s transition to ArchivesSpace. “This document predates our cataloguing system and our current University Archives employees,” said OGC representative Aimee Smart.

The screen grabs weren’t specific to the document in question or even folder 18, but pertained to the vertical file cabinet in which the folder was housed. The vertical file was one of the most frequently visited file cabinets in the Western College Archives reading room. In addition to Ghosts and Legends, its subjects include Western College presidents, Western College faculty and staff; and Western College buildings, such as Peabody Hall and Kumler Memorial Chapel. Sadly, most of the fields of the accessions record were left blank. Johnson’s name occupied one of the fields, and in another field was an estimate that the file was two cubic yards in size. However, one section was helpful: Dates. Under “Inclusive Dates,” which is defined on an archivist website as “The dates of the oldest and most recent items in a collection, series, or folder,” the Begin date was 1810—one year after Miami was founded—and the End date was 2008. Therefore, if the recordkeeping is accurate, AD’s interview had to have taken place no later than 2008. I’m inclined to think that AD was interviewed in 2008, but let’s not pin ourselves down just yet.

Why do you think the interview happened no earlier than 2006?

This was more of a guess, but it makes so much sense. On Miami’s Special Collections and Archives website is a page titled “Miami Stories Oral” (short for Oral History Project). This page lists a number of interviews that had been conducted with past students, staff members, and administrators of the university, which seems like a natural fit for AD’s interview as well. In addition, nearly all of the interviews had taken place during a four-year period, from the beginning of 2006 through the end of 2009. When I factored in the accessions end date of 2008, I arrived at the 2006-2008 timeframe.

What “helpful identifying info” did Woosley provide?

After I posted my theory on Facebook, Woosley immediately recognized the Miami Stories/Oral History Project as being part of Miami’s bicentennial, which was officially celebrated in 2009. She mentioned how students and alumni were being videotaped during alumni reunions in the years leading up to the big event, and that detail jived with what I’d discovered in the digital archives. I’d noticed how a large chunk of the interviews had been conducted over the alumni weekends beginning in 2006, while other interviews—mostly of people who lived near Oxford—were conducted at other times of the year. (The recordings can be found online here.) This was a huge breakthrough and immediately opened up new research possibilities. 

Why was having AD’s interview potentially tied to Miami’s bicentennial so helpful to your research?

If the interview with AD had been conducted as a stand-alone effort in which some student or staff member had simply thought it would be a nice thing to do, then the missing source materials would be way too hard to track down. There wouldn’t be a trail. But if it’s tied to Miami’s bicentennial, documents would have been produced throughout the four-year process. Funders would be thanked, coordinators would be tapped, budgets would be tabulated, progress would be charted, and achievements ballyhooed—all on paper and obtainable through public records requests. And with all of those documents, new details would potentially dribble out that could lead to even more record requests, and eventually, evidence of an interview with AD.

Furthermore, because AD had been affiliated with Miami Libraries for most of her work life as well as afterward (I was told that she had a courtesy office in King Library), I’d always felt that her interview was conducted by someone with the library. Well, guess who played a major participatory role in the bicentennial? The Miami Libraries, with Jerome Conley, dean of Miami Libraries, serving on the Bicentennial Commission. So, that fits too. 

And? Did you find any evidence of AD’s missing interview?

I think so. Although I’m sure lots more documents were generated back then (and to be fair, 2009 was 12 years ago, so I’m glad to have what they were able to provide), there was one that was especially noteworthy. The document is a progress report that provided a running count of all of the taped interviews that had been conducted from 2006 up through December 2008. At the bottom of the report, above the line indicating that there were 91 recordings in all, there’s this: “Other recordings not on Website for miscellaneous reasons,” and after the tab is the number 3. Was one of those three recordings AD?

I tried to think of other possible documents that might reveal the names of the three unposted interviewees. One of the narrative updates had discussed the taping and editorial process, which required that all of the tapes first be converted from DVT to DVD format by the library’s digital staff. I submitted a request seeking any internal documents from those staff in which they tracked every video they’d converted for the Oral History Project during the 2006-2008 timeframe. That request yielded nothing. Another narrative described how consent forms had been signed ahead of time, so I requested AD’s signed consent form. After weeks of waiting, the email I received from the OGC was “Ms. Wenger, We are unable to locate records related to an interview with [AD].” I also sought a comprehensive listing of all OHP interviewees, but the list I received was incomplete, and of course, AD’s name wasn’t there. However, I did find one person or possibly two people on that list whose interviews hadn’t been posted online.

What about the people most closely associated with the Oral History Project? What did they have to say about AD and the three missing interviews?

I’ve had email conversations with several people who had worked on the Oral History Project. Our conversations were “on background” and therefore I won’t be providing their names or direct quotes. The people who responded did so quickly and said that they didn’t conduct an interview with AD. I believe them. One also said that they didn’t recall AD being interviewed for the Oral History Project (I believe that person was speaking honestly too), though the others didn’t go that far. As for the three interviews that weren’t posted online, no one could shed light on that question.

There was one retiree who didn’t respond to my email. I’ll refer to that person as Retiree A. Retiree A had interviewed several people for the project, at least one of whom wasn’t posted online.

How do you know that Retiree A even read your email? 

I don’t. However, I sent via USPS a hard copy of the email and some follow-up documents to their home, asking them to let me know either way if they had conducted the interview with AD. I also asked them if they knew about the three interviews that hadn’t been posted online and, again, to please let me know either way. That package was delivered on Monday, June 21. As of today, I haven’t heard from Retiree A.

Wasn’t there another retiree whom you thought had knowledge of the interview? Have you heard from him?

As you may recall, I discuss another retiree quite a bit in “The blog post I was hoping never to write.”  To help avoid confusion, let’s refer to that person as Retiree B. To date, he has not responded to my email. But again, as some of you have pointed out, there’s no way to be sure that he read it.

To help address that question, this past April, I Fed-Exed a follow-up letter with additional background information to Retiree B’s home, once again promising anonymity and asking him to check his university email account and to let me know if he knew anything about AD’s interview. I’m still waiting to hear from him. I also promised Retiree B that I wouldn’t be approaching him ever again with that question. People have a right to live their lives without forever being bothered by the likes of me. He knows I’d like to speak with him. I’m just hoping he decides to come forward on his own. If I’m off base, I’d very much like to know that. And if he has information about the Tammen case, well, I think he knows by now that I’d like to hear that too. 

What about the higher-ups? What do they have to say?

William Modrow’s response

Do you remember back in February 2021, when I was asking Bill Modrow, head of Special Collections, about AD’s interview? In an effort to find someone who knew something about it, I was trying to get a handle on how they went about conducting interviews of former employees. The exact words I used were: “how staff members arrange and conduct interviews with former employees for a project spearheaded by Collections, such as for the oral history project, and how those interview materials are subsequently processed.” I’d actually used those three words with him: Oral History Project.

Do you know what Modrow didn’t mention to me? He didn’t mention Miami’s bicentennial to me, which would have been a normal response. You know, like “Oh, the Oral History Project was a short-term project for the bicentennial. We don’t do those interviews routinely.”

No, his response to me was “We do not conduct oral history interviews. I do not have the resources to do this nor do we have an Oral History program. What we have done in the past – Freedom Summer for example came with the resources and partners to accomplish.”

I specifically asked about the Oral History Project and he answers with Freedom Summer. Was he trying to throw me off course by diverting my attention away from the bicentennial? I don’t know. Maybe the obvious response didn’t occur to him at that moment, but it certainly looks that way to me.

Jerome Conley’s response

Several weeks ago, I emailed Dr. Conley, dean of Miami Libraries, providing my evidence concerning the Oral History Project videos that hadn’t been posted online. (The 2008 progress report states there were three, but a tally up through 2009 indicates that there may be four.) Because Dr. Conley sat on the Presidential Bicentennial Commission, a leading endeavor of which was the Oral History Project, I felt he would be in a position to answer the question. If he didn’t know the answer, he would know who would.

I asked him or a spokesperson to let me know about who the individuals were and why their interviews weren’t posted. I didn’t mention AD’s name in that email and I didn’t provide a deadline, saying that I figured it may take some time to track down those answers. This past Wednesday at around 11:30 a.m., I wrote him again, letting him know that I’d be posting my blog entry sometime this weekend, and requesting his response by Friday at 5 p.m. ET. His response at a little after noon was:

I would like to thank you for your note. I was on vacation with my family earlier this month. I am unaware of the videos that you mentioned.  

At about 2:30 p.m. that day, I followed up with this email: 

Dr. Conley,

Thank you so much for getting back to me. Here’s what I’m attempting to ascertain: Do you know of any reason that I shouldn’t believe that one of the three unposted OHP interviews was with [AD]? 

In other words, the 2008 progress report (attached) states that there were three “recordings not on Website for miscellaneous reasons.” Was [AD] one of these three recordings?

Again, thank you.

5 p.m. has come and gone and, so far, I haven’t heard back from him.

Do you know who put the kibosh on AD’s interview?

We still don’t know if AD’s interview was one of the three Oral History Project interviews that weren’t posted, but for this question, let’s say hypothetically that it was. I’d asked organizers of the Oral History Project who had veto power over the videos—namely who might have made the decision not to post a particular interview, for whatever reason. No one knew of any measures that were in place for pulling a video. 

After a tape was converted to DVD, only light technical editing would be performed, if needed. Somewhere in the process, University Archives staff reviewed the digitized tape and Web copy before it was posted online. By the sound of it, University Archives was one of the last stops before a video was posted to the website. Though that doesn’t mean they would have been the ones who decided not to post a video, they may have had a good idea regarding why the decision was made. 

Do you know who wrote the summary?

I can’t say for sure who wrote AD’s interview summary, but I think it was someone from University Archives. Here’s why:

The location of the document

The summary sheet was originally stored in the Western College Memorial Archives, which had been a satellite to the University Archives. (Those archives are now housed on the third floor of King Library along with the University Archives.) It’s weird that it would have been placed there, though, since the Western College archives is intended to cover topics related specifically to Western College. Regardless, because it was part of the archives and because AD was a long-time friend of the library, I’ve always felt that someone from University Archives had typed it up and placed it there. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, you know where to find me.

AD’s job title

When I made my initial guess as to when the interview summary was typed up, one consideration was AD’s job title. Because AD was Carl Knox’s secretary—that’s how she referred to herself in a memo—I found it telling that whoever typed up the summary referred to her as the assistant to the dean of men. That sounded more recent, since the word secretary was mothballed sometime around 2001. That’s why I had 2001 at the lower end of my timeframe. (It’s a moot point now since we’ve moved it up to 2006.)

As luck would have it, I was looking through a 1952-53 Miami University Directory one day when I landed on AD’s name. Even though she informally went by the title of secretary, in the directory, she’s referred to as “asst. in office of dean of men and to freshman advisers.” “Assistant to the Dean of Men” sounds a lot like “asst. in office of dean of men,” which leads me to believe that whoever was typing up the summary sheet had access to the 1952-53 directory. The 1952-53 phone directory, as with other directories, can be found in University Archives.

The font

Here we go again, right? 😉 Even though I’m not the best person at analyzing typefaces (see the blog post on St. Clair Switzer’s typewriter), maybe I’m better at recognizing laser printer fonts than typewriter fonts? This could be a very minor point, which is why I’m placing it here, near the bottom of this blog post, but I believe the font used in the summary matches the font of the Oral History Project reports.

Hear me out. When I first wrote about AD’s interview summary in December 2020, I said that the font seemed to be Times New Roman. And what do you know, when I typed the summary in Times New Roman and compared that to the photo I took of the summary from the archives, they looked the same to me. So far, so good.

WELL, when the OGC sent me the reports I’d requested from the Oral History Project, most were written in Times New Roman. I know…it’s a popular font choice for some. It’s also rather, um…dull, shall we say? But the point here is that whoever typed up the summary could have also been a central player with the Oral History Project, and the folks in University Archives certainly occupied a pivotal position on that team.

Times New Roman sample for comparison
Summary of AD interview

Are you OK? You seem down.

Oh, gosh. I was trying to hide it, but yeah, I’m bummed. Here’s me, a wannabe author who relies on archival information for this book I’m working on, and I’ve found myself in a faceoff with what used to be my favorite place on campus. Every trip to Oxford used to include a visit to University Archives. While, at this point, it’s difficult for me to determine what else I can do to get to the bottom of the Miami Libraries’ interview with AD, I don’t plan to walk away. But I’m not gonna lie. It’s disheartening. 

Why do you think the university is acting this way? 

Actually, I think it’s important to look at the actions of individuals versus thinking of the university as some sort of impenetrable monolith, though sometimes it feels like the latter. The two most common responses from people who I think may know something about AD’s interview is to not respond at all, or to attempt to answer as much as they can honestly, leaving out anything that would put them in danger of lying. Because—and I truly believe this—most people don’t like to lie, especially people who work in a library. 

However, I also think that some individuals at the university have been deceptive, and in a couple instances, untruthful. (They know who they are.) I will also say this: Whatever it is that’s keeping people from coming forward must be pretty damn big. 

That cryptic note about H.H. Stephenson? It was probably written in 1976, NOT 1953

By now, you know that my aim is to post only truthful statements about the Ron Tammen case on this blog site. If I can’t provide supporting evidence—if the best I can do is speculate about some finding, for example—I’ll attempt to do so as transparently as possible, using the necessary qualifiers. That’s how we roll. Conversely, if I should discover I’ve jumped to a conclusion that is even the slightest bit untrue, it’s my belief that I should announce the correction loud and clear, and, if it’s significant enough, with fanfare. 

Music from https://www.zapsplat.com

So, you know how I’ve been harping on Carl Knox for writing that cryptic note regarding H.H. Stephenson? The note looks like this:

That H.H.S. note has always bothered me. Not only did Knox appear to ignore Stephenson’s possible Ron sighting when Stephenson returned from his vacay in Wellsville, NY, but it seemed as though, by only jotting down Stephenson’s initials, he didn’t want anyone else to find out about it.

Today, I’m announcing that it’s my strong belief that neither Carl Knox nor one of his assistants wrote that note in August 1953. My reason for thinking so has to do with the name that’s written above that note, on the same piece of paper. It’s the contact information for one James E. Larkins, who was then an associate professor at Wright State University. (The note erroneously says Larkins is affiliated with Wright-Patt.) I’ve blackened the phone number because I don’t know who owns it now, and, well, who needs to experience the fresh hell of having their phone number published online?

As it so happens, James (Jim) Larkins was a sophomore counselor in Fisher Hall with Ron, which is where he would have been in 1953, not teaching Spanish at Wright State. Therefore, the note had to have been written much later. 

But when was it written, and why was it written, and who wrote it?

Here’s the timeline I’ve pieced together:

In November 1975, Larkins wrote a letter to Everett Lykins, who was Miami’s assistant dean of student life at that time. Although the letter is dated November 3, 1975, it’s stamped “RECEIVED” by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs on January 12, 1976. That seems late, but maybe the holidays had something to do with it.

In the letter, Larkins relays his experience regarding Ron’s disappearance, including a wild story about being shot at while trying to chase down the strange “phantom” voice that students occasionally heard after Tammen disappeared. Larkins also mentions Joe Maneri, who was the head of Fisher Hall at the time Ron disappeared. 

As luck would have it, 1976 was a busy year in Tammen world. In April 1976, Joe Cella, reporter for the Hamilton Journal News, revealed that H.H. Stephenson, a housing official who had known Ron, believed he saw him on August 5, 1953, in Wellsville, NY. People first read about Stephenson’s encounter in Cella’s news article on April 18, 1976, and then heard the story straight out of Stephenson’s mouth in the Phantom of Oxford, which aired the next night, on the 23rd anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance. [Stephenson is in Part 2, at the 04:15 mark.]

You know who else was interviewed in the documentary? Jim Larkins. [Larkins is in Part 1, at the 08:30 mark.]

Here’s what I think happened: 

Jim Larkins wrote his letter, which Dean Lykins likely received in January 1976. 

Around that same time, Joe Cella and Channel 2 producer Ed Hart, who were collaborating on the Phantom of Oxford, probably contacted the university seeking spokespersons to be interviewed on camera. Dean Lykins might have said, “Hey, I have this letter. We could put them in touch with Jim Larkins and Joe Maneri.” 

Someone then pulled together the contact info for both Larkins and Maneri, who worked at the Columbus Technical Institute at that time. This seems like a no-brainer, since the contact info for both men are written on similar pieces of paper in the same handwriting. Apparently, Jim Larkins said yes to the documentary, but Joe Maneri wasn’t able. (Unfortunately, both men are now deceased—Maneri in 2007 and Larkins in 2015. Although Maneri had already passed away by the time I began my research, I did have the opportunity to speak with Larkins.)

Meanwhile, Stephenson, who still worked in Housing at Miami and therefore answered to Dean Lykins, may have heard about the documentary project and stepped forward with his story about seeing Ron in Wellsville—first to Lykins, and then to Cella, or possibly vice versa. Even though the H.H.S. note isn’t in the same handwriting as the Larkins and Maneri notes, its position below the Larkins note indicates it was written during the same period in 1976.

But in 1976, Carl Knox was no longer at Miami. He’d left Oxford in 1959, so he couldn’t have been the H.H.S. note’s author.

What does all of this mean? In my view, the Larkins/Maneri/H.H.S. notes tell us a trifle more about how the Tammen saga played out over the years—nothing earth shattering, but something more to ponder during a pandemic on a Friday night. Still, two questions stand out. First, there’s this old chestnut: why did the note writer use Stephenson’s initials instead of writing out his full name? And now a new one: did Carl Knox do anything at all when Stephenson first told him about his encounter in Wellsville?

Proof of a cover-up, part 2: hidden buzzers, forbidden words

Joe Cella, the Hamilton Journal News reporter who never let the Tammen story die and who unearthed essential details about the case even decades later, would be turning 100 today if he were still alive. In April 1977, Joe was quoted in an article in the Dayton Daily News saying: “The university covered it up. They wouldn’t give you any answers.” On Joe’s centennial birthday, I thought it would be fitting to post some additional evidence that supports his cover-up theory.

For a long, long while, I used to believe that Miami University’s administrators and the Oxford PD didn’t have the slightest notion of what happened to Ron Tammen in the days following his disappearance. When they were quoted in the press bemoaning the lack of clues while actively ignoring, you know, actual clues, I just figured they were letting their inexperience show through. They were new at this, you guys. Cut ‘em some slack. 

But then, as I discussed in my post “Proof of a cover-up,” it started appearing as if university administrators were purposely withholding key details. First and foremost: No one seemed to want the psychology book that was open on Tammen’s desk to make its way into a news article. Gilson Wright, the Miami journalism professor who also worked as a stringer for area papers, was how they conveniently managed to keep that info away from the interested public. Wright never mentioned the word psychology in any of his stories—ever—even though he would have known about the open textbook’s subject matter at the very latest by April 1954, when Joe Cella, of the Hamilton Journal News, introduced that detail into his one-year anniversary article. In the first 23 years of Tammen coverage, only two reporters—Cella and Murray Seeger, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer—ever mentioned the psychology book in their articles.

That discovery has led me to ask: what else was the university doing to keep details of the case away from the press, and—OK, I’ll say it—namely one member of the press? Although Seeger wrote a nice piece in 1956, he was primarily a political reporter for the Plain Dealer before moving on to bigger outlets, and he wasn’t keeping up with the story like Cella was. Cella was the only non-university-paid reporter who was following the story from the very beginning until 1976, and quite probably until his death in 1980. 

Was the university doing anything to keep certain information out of Cella’s hands? For sure.

Last year, before Covid-19 reared its spikey little head, I was spending some time in Miami University’s Archives, and found something I didn’t recall seeing there before. Or, if I had seen it before, it didn’t seem nearly as significant as it does now. Tucked among a hodgepodge of Tammen-related news and magazine articles is an undated, unsourced, one-page sheet that appears innocent enough—a dishy “story behind the story” that someone had typed up on a computer. The font looks like Times New Roman and it was printed on a laser printer. The printer paper looks bright white, not yellowed with age. For these and a few other reasons, which I’ll be getting to in a moment, it appears to have been written fairly recently—long after I graduated from Miami in 1980 and certainly post-Cella. It could have been produced in the last 20 years, or perhaps even more recently than that. It’s too hard to tell.

The write-up has to do with an interview that was conducted with someone who worked for Carl Knox at the time that Ron Tammen disappeared. She was his secretary—that was her official job title—though the write-up refers to her as the “Assistant to the Dean of Men, Carl Knox.” (That’s another clue that the write-up was more recent: over the decades, the terms administrative assistant or administrative professional replaced the word secretary, with the professional association making the change only roughly 20 years ago, in the late 1990s and 2000.) 

This memo on an unrelated topic was signed by “AD,” who was employed as Carl Knox’s secretary at the time of Ron Tammen’s disappearance. I won’t be identifying her by name on this blog site.

A sad, albeit surprising aspect of this story is that this person passed away only this year. What I’m driving at here is that it appears that someone who’d worked closely with Carl Knox when Ronald Tammen disappeared was interviewed by someone from the university relatively recently in my estimation, though I don’t know when or by whom. In Tammen world, this was the “get” of all gets. It would have been the closest thing to talking to Carl himself. 

I’m not going to share the name of the assistant on this blog site out of respect for the family, who couldn’t recall ever hearing their mother comment on the Tammen case. But I will include the details that this person shared during her interview, which were typed up in bulleted format. The document reads as follows, with the only difference being that I’ve substituted “AD” (short for assistant to the dean) for the woman’s name:

—Beginning—

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON RON TAMMEN, Jr.

From an interview with AD, Assistant to the Dean of Men, Carl Knox, at the time of Tammen’s disappearance on April 19, 1953

  • At the time, Hueston Woods held a work-camp for prisoners who were about to be released; they worked at clearing away brush from the future site of the lake. These prisoners assisted in the search for Ron Tammen.
  • AD’s office was across the hall from Dean Knox’s, with a bench across from her desk. After the disappearance, news reporters would sit on this bench awaiting any new information. On one occasion, AD called across the hall to Dean Knox that he had a telephone call from New York. Although the call had nothing to do with Ron Tammen, the reporters assumed it did, and this is how the rumor started that Tammen had been found in New York.
  • As a result of the false New York story (above), a buzzer was installed on AD’s desk so she could notify Dean Knox of his calls without calling out across the hall for the reporters to hear. She was also given a list of words that she should not say aloud in front of reporters.
  • After Fisher Hall was demolished in 1978, the wells and cisterns under the building were searched, since they had not been easy to search at the time of the disappearance. No signs of Ron Tammen, Jr. were found.

—End—

Before I begin dissecting the summary, please understand that I don’t think AD was in on every single convo surrounding the university’s investigation. Rather, in my view, her comments reflect what Dean Knox and perhaps others would have said to her. That’s what I’m commenting on—the words and actions of AD’s superiors based on her personal account. I’ll also add that the above summary is only someone’s interpretation of what she said during the interview. Unless we have the original transcript or recording, we can’t be sure that whoever wrote these notes did so with 100% accuracy. Plus, they may have left out some important details. 

OK, let’s get to it:

1). The date of the interview 

The author decided not to add his or her name to the summary, which is aggravating enough for someone like me who likes to contact people who know things about the Tammen case. But it would have been really helpful if they had thought to date it—either typed it in or scribbled it at the top to let us all know when it was written, and in turn, roughly when AD was interviewed. Instead, the first line is so confusing that it takes a couple reads to realize that they’re saying she was the “Assistant to the Dean of Men, Carl Knox, at the time of Tammen’s disappearance,” as opposed to being interviewed at that time, as one Miami staff member had speculated when I’d inquired about it. Based on the evidence I’ve described plus what I’m about to discuss—particularly regarding bullet #3 above—I’ve concluded that it’s a poorly worded phrase, and there’s simply no way the interview happened in 1953. It was later. We just don’t know how much later. I don’t want to get all conspiracy theory–minded on you this early in my blog post, but I mean…did they MEAN to throw us off by not dating it?

Credit: Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

2). The work-camp prisoners

Yeah, yawn, we already knew about the prisoners. Good for them. Moving on.

Hueston Woods State Park
Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources Flickr account

3). The New York rumor

A couple weeks after Ron Tammen disappeared, a rumor had spread across campus about Tammen being spotted in New York. I’ve tried like crazy to find out what the rumor was—it was one of my standby questions for anyone I interviewed who was on campus at the time. No one with whom I spoke could recall the rumor. In fact the only other evidence I’ve had of the rumor was a May 8, 1953, editorial in the Miami Student (p. 2, top left) that stated that a rumor had been circulating that “…Tammen had been located, under conditions that were defamatory to his character.” But according to the same editorial, the rumor was started by an “enterprising student,” and the purpose was to see how fast it would spread. Other than that editorial, which chastised fellow students for disseminating the rumor in the first place (its title was “Must Tongues Wag”), no reporter ever mentioned the New York rumor in an article—not Joe Cella, not Gilson Wright, not even a student reporter. 

As we all know, there was another possible New York connection to the Tammen story, though this one came several months later, in August 1953. Could housing official H.H. Stephenson’s potential Ron sighting in Wellsville, NY, have been the basis behind the phone call that Carl Knox had received? Perhaps Cella or Wright or someone else was in the vicinity when the call came in, and Knox was concerned that they’d heard something that he felt shouldn’t be made public. The only person who reported that potential sighting, however, was Cella in 1976, and that article was not based on a rumor or an overheard phone call. It was based on a conversation with H.H. Stephenson, who had worked directly for Carl Knox in 1953. (His title then was director of men’s housing and student employment.)

Credit: Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

4). The bench across from her desk

The summary says that reporters—plural—used to sit on a bench across from AD’s desk waiting for updates. That’s rather hard to imagine, given the fact that there were so few clues to begin with and only two newspaper reporters who were covering the story from the beginning: Gilson Wright and Joe Cella. Wright, being a university employee, seemed to have an inside track with Carl Knox. Why would he have to sit on the bench waiting for updates? Besides, with all the university jobs he was juggling—teaching courses, advising student journalists, heading up the news bureau—he had other places to be. 

Perhaps a Miami Student reporter had been occupying the bench. But students have classes to attend, and, moreover, there were no bylined Miami Student articles during the spring of 1953. Also, the early Student articles were similar to the articles Wright was submitting to area newspapers, which has led me to infer that Wright authored those as well. 

That leaves Joe Cella, although I’m sure Joe was too busy to plant himself outside of Carl Knox’s office for hours on end. Besides, Joe’s best sources seemed to be the students and staff members who were closest to the action as opposed to seated behind a desk in Benton Hall.

As far as radio and TV coverage, there likely was some of that too, especially early on, though any trace of what was broadcast over the airwaves is gone. However, their reporting would have probably been bare-bones, with most of their info coming from Miami’s news bureau, courtesy of Gilson Wright and company. In short, I can’t imagine they’d be camped out either.

My hunch is that whoever was seated there when the New York phone call came in had set up an interview with Knox and was merely waiting…if a reporter was sitting there at all. More on that theory in a second. 

5). The buzzer on her desk

Regardless of who was calling from New York and for what purpose, university administrators had clearly been shaken up about it—so much so that they decided to install a buzzer on AD’s desk. 

For what it’s worth, the buzzer technology wouldn’t have been a huge technological feat in those days, according to two electrical engineers who weighed in after I put out a call for help on Facebook. (Thanks, Chris and Travis!) People have been ringing doorbells on a widespread basis since the early 1900s, which would basically accomplish the same thing—pressing a button and having it ring, or buzz, in another room with the aid of an electrical wire. (A similar concept is turning lights on and off using a button or toggle switch, connected to a light source by an electrical wire.) For this reason, AD’s buzzer would have been fairly simple for someone with that skill set to put together. 

Credit: Cropped image from LEEROY Agency from Pixabay

6). More on the bench, the buzzer, and the rumor

But seriously, you guys, how many reporters could there have been sitting on AD’s bench, day in and day out, and were they really creating such havoc around the office that it warranted instituting a secret buzzer system? 

To be sure, a missing student is a very big deal. But installing a secret desk buzzer seems to be more like the act of someone who wants to play spy or top-secret government insider. Who were they protecting with their desk buzzer? Not Ron. Not the Tammen family. And honestly, so what if someone from the press overheard that Carl Knox had received a call from New York. No reporter worth his or her stripes would file a story based on that meager amount of info. They’d first ask Knox if the call pertained to Tammen, Knox would say no, and the potential misinformation would be squelched then and there, amIright?

I’m going to propose a different scenario: AD may have been told by Knox that her new buzzer system was because of reporters spreading the New York rumor—which, again, never made its way into newspapers—but I think it went beyond that. Remember that Carl Knox had jotted in his notes the name “Prof. Switzer,” Ron’s psychology professor who I believe was working for the CIA at the time Tammen disappeared. Switzer had even told one of my sources that he had indeed spoken with investigators at that time as well. What if Switzer had informed Carl Knox that Tammen’s disappearance involved a classified government program that’s important for protecting the nation’s security? Knox might have decided that a buzzer system would be a simple, effective way to do his patriotic duty. Incoming phone calls—from New York, D.C., or wherever—would be handled with utmost secrecy, no matter who happened to be standing nearby.

7). The list of words that she should not say aloud in front of reporters

OH. MY. LORD. Talk about burying a lede—this one got pushed to the tail end of bullet #3, after the work-camp prisoners but before the cisterns and wells.

Do you have any idea what I would give to know the words AD was instructed not to say in front of reporters? A lot. I would give a lot. Was one of the words “Switzer”? “Psychology”? “Hypnosis”? Or better yet “Post-hypnotic suggestion”? Or how about “MKULTRA” or “Project ARTICHOKE”? I mean, did AD’s interviewer think to ask the obvious follow-up question: What words were on the list? And if they did ask that question, why would they leave the most important part out of their summary page? Why indeed.

You guys, I’ve worked in several press offices in my career, and have fielded calls on topics that were considered political hot potatoes in their day. But I can’t think of a single time when I was instructed not to say certain words. Were they trying to protect Ron’s reputation? To avoid putting the university in an embarrassing light? Would the words have steered reporters too close to a probable cause for his disappearance? Whatever the reason, if the university was prohibiting the use of certain words to prevent a reporter from learning an inconvenient but potentially significant truth, that’s a cover-up. 

Incidentally, I’m quite certain that AD would have never mentioned the forbidden words list back in 1953, when she was working for Carl Knox and the investigation was in full swing. That’s another reason that I feel that the interview was relatively recent.

One word that I’m pretty sure wasn’t on the forbidden list? Cisterns. 

8). The cisterns

Speaking of cisterns, in part one (2:47) of the two-part segment on Ron Tammen last month from WXIX (Cincinnati), we were introduced to the concept of open cisterns on Miami’s campus by a Miami University spokesperson. Cisterns are generally described as large tanks that store water, though the cistern that was shown in the news segment was built in the 1800s and looked like a large open hole leading to a bricked-in area underground. I’ll tell you here and now, I had no idea that they were considered a safety problem back then. But I’m not sure students in those days felt that way either. If you type the search term “cistern” (singular) into the Miami Student digital archive for the time period of 1900 to 2020, two articles will pop up, one from 1903 and one from September 1986. The 1986 article discusses a cistern that the university had installed under Yager Stadium to conserve water when maintaining the athletic fields. The 1903 article was about a wrongly translated Latin passage and had nothing to do with cisterns on campus. The term “cisterns” (plural) yielded an article from 2000 about brick cisterns that were discovered during the construction of a park in uptown Oxford. 

What AD said, however, was that they’d checked the wells and cisterns under Fisher Hall after the building was torn down in 1978 because they were difficult to get to. Of course, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned in my research, and that includes learning more about the university’s cisterns. Earlier this month, I emailed the spokesperson seeking background materials or a conversation on the topic, and so far, I haven’t heard back from him. I’ll keep you posted. 

9). The full interview 

Although the “Cliff Notes” version of AD’s interview is better than nothing, I really want to read the full transcript. Or better yet, I’d love to hear the recording. At the very least, I want to know when the interview was conducted and by whom so I can reach out to the interviewer for a conversation about all they remember that AD said, including, hopefully, at least one or two choice forbidden words.

I’ve reached out to senior administration officials for Miami University Libraries as well as Marketing and Communications, including the News Office, for assistance. Currently, the head of the libraries’ department that oversees Special Collections, Preservation and The University Archives is having his staff look for the source materials, though it may take a while due to Covid-19 restrictions. I’ll be touching base with them every so often for updates.

Here’s why I believe the university should still have the source materials: AD and her husband were well known, beloved figures at the university for many years. Although I still don’t know the reason behind the interview, it would make sense if someone had requested it for historical purposes. If that were the case, then tossing the original tape or transcript would be very, very strange, to put it mildly. I can’t say that that’s what happened at this point, but it’s a concern of mine.

Furthermore, as someone who believes in transparency in our public and governmental institutions, let me be transparent regarding my current thinking. In discussing the possibility of a university cover-up, I always gave the people in later administrations a pass. How could they have been privy to information that Carl Knox and his team were discussing off-the-record and in real time? If there was a cover-up, I used to think, it would have been the people who were making those judgment calls back then. Once they died, any evidence of wrongdoing would have died with them. 

However, if someone who’d been around at that time briefed someone fairly recently, filling them in on forbidden words, for example, and any other pertinent intel from 1953, and if that interview was reduced to a few tamed-down bullet points and the original source materials were discarded to prevent someone like me from finding them? Well, the cover-up would live on. Is that what’s happening? I sincerely hope not. That’s why finding the source materials is so important.

I can only imagine what the late, great Joe Cella would say to me about the possibility of an ongoing cover-up. Probably something like: “Welcome to my world.” And then he’d add, “Keep on it.”

Post-Script:

In light of the new revelations, I rewatched the 1976 documentary “The Phantom of Oxford” to listen again to what Carl Knox had to say 23 years after Tammen had disappeared. By then, Knox had moved to Boca Raton, Florida, and was serving as professor of education and vice president for student affairs at Florida Atlantic University.

In Part 1 (9:18), Knox briefly discusses Tammen having left his car behind with his bass inside, which is 100% true, but it doesn’t add anything to today’s topic. In Part 2 (2:40), he says this:

Carl Knox: In other campuses where I’ve been located, there have been disappearances, and there have been tragedies, but nothing which has sort of popped out of, no background of explanation, no way of reasonable anticipation, but just suddenly happening, and there you were with egg on your face, deep-felt concerns, and yet no answers for any part of it.

Ed Hart: And yet something tells you Ron Tammen is alive.

Carl Knox: Yes, I feel this. I feel it keenly.

Knox is believable in the interview, and his facial expressions could best be described as: deeply concerned, which is consistent with what he has to say. But, as we now know, there’s a lot of information concerning the university’s investigation that he’s chosen not to say here. Twenty-three years later, he has elected to keep his mouth shut—about open psychology books and dropped courses, about hypnosis studies, about three amnesiac Ohio youths, about Ron’s proneness to dissociation, about Dr. Switzer, about hidden buzzers and forbidden words. 

In fact, the only time Carl Knox truly opens up about the case is in his last sentence. Knowing everything he knew back then, he keenly felt that Ron was alive—in 1953 as well as in 1976. And you know what? I keenly feel it too.

Happy holidays, everyone! Comments are now open. You’re also welcome to air a grievance or two (non-political please) in honor of Festivus, which also happens to be today.

Post-Christmas Post-Script (Dec. 27, 2020)

Hi, all! I’m back. I forgot to make a point in the above post that probably appears like a gaping, cistern-sized hole and it’s been eating at me. It concerns the fourth bullet point that discusses the cisterns and wells. There I was, offering up my reasoning regarding why the interview with AD couldn’t have been conducted in 1953, and I didn’t even bring up the fact that the fourth bullet discusses how they’d searched the cisterns and wells in 1978, when they tore down Fisher Hall. Did anyone else catch that? I mean, clearly, the interview occurred after 1978.

Sorry for the oversight!

I should also add that the same university rep who felt that the interview was conducted at the time of Tammen’s disappearance said that she didn’t think the fourth bullet was related to the interview with AD. But that’s not what the document says. The document says that the additional information was from the interview. So, it occurred after 1978, but, again, I think it was much more recent than that. I’m just hoping to find someone with the institutional memory to recall when the interview took place and with whom.

Was Ron being blackmailed?

Our recent discussions about Ron’s finances, loans, and faculty co-signers on those loans reminded me of something this morning: a letter that Ron’s father had written to Ron back in the fall of Ron’s sophomore year. Mr. Tammen wrote the letter on September 19, 1952—a Friday. Although his handwriting is beautifully legible, a remnant of days gone by, I’ve typed it out for you here:

19 Sept. 1952

Dear Ron: —

We have been waiting more or less to hear from you, but realize that you must be extremely busy not only with your studies, but also with your other activities: — such as, counselor and the Owls.

Mom picked up your checks today so we thought we would forward them as quickly as possible so you could get your “Savings Account” started. We are going along with you on this deal as we feel you are old enough and should have the experience of handling your own money. We hope you will be wise and remember that practically all of it will have to be used for next semester.

I am retaining your check stubs for your tax purposes, but will put down exactly what the stub shows:

All in all, it was slightly more than you expected and you were paid for that day.

When you do find time to write, please give us a brief on expenses and expenditures.

Love, 

Dad.

Mr. Tammen seemed to have a question concerning the dates of Ron’s bus-washing services. In addition, written in pencil at the bottom in the left-hand column is the following:

When I first read his letter, I was struck by how parental it sounded, but not in a warm way. It felt formal. The sentence that stood out most was the one about Ron being paid for that day, underlined twice. What could have happened at his city job that was so terrible, Mr. Tammen didn’t even want to put it in writing? Did Ron roll a truck? Did he get into a fistfight with another bus washer? The mind reeled. I tried to find out—I really did. I asked Ron’s siblings if they remembered some incident that happened to Ron at work that summer, and no one had any idea. I contacted the City of Maple Heights to see if they still had an employment record for Ron, but they didn’t. I visited the city’s museum where they store boxes of old books and city papers to see if his employment record might have been there. It wasn’t. 

The rest of the letter didn’t interest me that much. It sounded like Ron was just trying to become more independent by handling his own finances, which only seemed fair. Ron was responsible for putting himself through college, just like his two brothers, John and Richard. Mr. Tammen wasn’t contributing a dime to his education. I filed the letter and didn’t think much more about it. 

Until today.

Several things stand out for me in light of what we now know:

First, the “Savings Account” that Mr. Tammen alludes to in the letter wasn’t mentioned by Mr. Shera of the Oxford National Bank when he wrote to Carl Knox about the $87.25 balance he’d mailed to Miami’s bursar. Mr. Shera calls it a “commercial account,” singular, and we already know that Ron was writing checks. I don’t think Ron had a savings account—I think it was just checking. In addition, a “commercial account” is defined as a business account where funds are readily accessible, as with a checking account. According to his brother John, in addition to playing with the Campus Owls, Ron was known to manage gigs on the side. Perhaps this is the reason his account is referred to as commercial? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.

Second, Mr. Tammen’s last sentence, where he’s requesting a “brief on expenses and expenditures” is telling. He seems like a micromanager and, I’ll say it, a bit of a pain. With Ron taking over his own finances, perhaps he thought he could somehow avoid his father’s scrutinizing every little expenditure. This could be Ron’s way of making sure that Mr. Tammen didn’t know about every single check he wrote.

And that’s when it occurred to me. Perhaps Ron wasn’t seeking to manage his own finances so that he could expedite adulthood. Maybe he wanted to keep some expenses hidden from his father. 

But what expenses? Ron was so busy working, he barely had time to spend his money. Nevertheless, he was always in need of money.

Here’s where my head is right now: blackmail.

Several of you have suggested this possibility and I think you may be right. Think about it: Ron’s freshman year at Miami went fairly well, but his sophomore year was pretty much a bust from the get-go. Even beginning that first semester, he started to drop courses and was no longer considered full-time. He was always working and his grades were slipping.

During the summer of 1952, Ron was working for the City of Maple Heights doing a number of assorted jobs. Could it be that sometime during that summer, Ron and another male were caught in a tryst and the witness decided to make it lucrative? Maybe the blackmailer said that he could be paid on the installment plan.

So how might this have played out: At the beginning of the fall semester, Ron asks his father to let him handle his own finances. That way, his dad wouldn’t know about any checks Ron might have written to his newfound “friend.”

He struggles to make it work, again taking on jobs and securing loans. Perhaps he even volunteered for the Psychology Department’s hypnosis study, both to make some money as well as to see if they could change him somehow, to prevent this situation from happening again.

When Ron went home during spring break, however, something happened. Maybe he saw his blackmailer and the person upped his amount. Whatever happened, when Ron returned to school the following week, people noticed a change in Ron’s behavior. According to Carl Knox’s notes, he was seen reading the Bible 5 or 6 times, and, he “spoke of being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”

He was in a crisis. Someone may have been threatening to out him if he didn’t pay up, and he was way over his head in debt. Crazy as it sounds, this could have been what brought the CIA to his rescue.

A couple other thoughts:

I’m not sure who penciled in the calculations at the bottom of Mr. Tammen’s letter. It may have been Ron, though, based on another note page, the numbers appear to match those made by Carl Knox. 

It amazes me that Ron had held onto his father’s letter for so long and that the university was able to obtain it. In addition, Carl Knox’s penciled-in notes asking “Did he owe Univ any money?” or telling himself to “Follow up re Check Book” clearly show that the university found Ron’s money issues to be as interesting as we do. 

Follow the lie$, part 2: But wait, there’s more

Sorry to be a bother, you guys, but I can’t keep this in. This afternoon, I was busy working on — what else? — Tammen research when I discovered something pertinent to our topic du jour. In the summer of 2019, I was visiting University Archives (sigh…I really miss road trips) going through a bunch of documents. On that particular day, I was leafing through issues of their Information Bulletin for Faculty and Staff from the early 1950s — 1950 and 1952 to be exact. As I recall, the university didn’t produce a new bulletin every year. Sometimes they just produced an addendum. Fortunately, I had taken photos of numerous pages — some relevant to the topic I was obsessing about at that moment, and a couple having to do with what I’m obsessing about now: student loans.

Here’s what they had to say about student loans in the 1950 issue (apologies for the bad photos, but I’m guessing you’re used to that by now):

And here’s what they had to say about them in the 1952 addendum, right around the time when Ron would have been applying for one:

Here are the points I want to leave you with today:

  1. Student loans were a big deal.
  2. Since Ron was a sophomore, his loan would have been limited to $100.
  3. I’m guessing that Ron had been a recipient of this loan, and it’s the same one that Mr. Alden had written up when discussing Ron’s outstanding debt.
  4. And the juiciest tidbit of all: our friend H.H. Stephenson oversaw the student loan program.

So H.H. Stephenson was overseeing the student loan program when Ron received his loan. That loan may have even been relatively recent, since Carl Knox’s notes indicate that Ron had recently deposited a $100 check from a loan. What this tells me is that H.H. Stephenson was even better acquainted with Ron than we had previously known. Sure, sure, H.H. knew him because he’d given him a car permit. But he’d also just handed him $100! Could that be one of the reasons the university kept a lid on H.H.’s potential Ron sighting — they didn’t want the money issue to come out? What’s more, for me at least, it also makes the potential sighting more believable.

What does it tell you?

Follow the lie$

Purposely lying to a member of the press is a big fat no-no for a spokesperson of any stripe. Obfuscating—intentionally throwing up smokescreens—is really bad too. But to look a reporter in the eye and say something that’s not in the least bit true takes a special kind of moxie. It also requires a motive. Otherwise, why not just tell the truth? For those with nothing to hide, honesty is so much easier.

So for someone like Carl Knox—who, from what I’ve been told, was an aboveboard kind of guy—to introduce an untruth with a reporter when discussing Tammen’s case seems especially bizarre. Wouldn’t he and other university officials have wanted to get everything out in the open in hopes that it might help them find Ron? What’s more, Knox was still in his first year as dean of men at Miami—a brand new post. He would have wanted to pour everything he had into a task that held such high visibility. Lying about it? That would be the last thing he would have wanted to do.

But then, nobody starts out planning to lie. 

Lately, after finding tangible evidence of a university cover-up, I’ve been examining all of the old news articles for what feels like the zillionth time. I’ve been tracking any lies and obfuscations that are quoted—directly or indirectly— from university officials, knowing what they knew at the time. 

We already know about a couple of them. We know that Gilson Wright (and others) chose to mislead the public about the psychology textbook on Ron’s desk, most likely to direct attention away from Dr. Switzer. We also know that they tried to depict Ron as doing very well in his classes. Once we saw his transcripts, however, we knew that Ron had recently dropped his psychology course for the second time in a year and was slipping far behind in his degree program. Again, the motive behind the deception was most likely to avoid shining a big bright light on Switzer.

There were the other lies and obfuscations too. Among the greatest hits are:

  • When Carl Knox decided not to divulge Paul’s (not his real name) story about his walk back to the dorms after song practice with Ron and Chip Anderson the night Ron disappeared.
  • When Gilson Wright disclosed in a news article that three amnesiac youths had wandered off and later returned, but never mentioned the youths in his articles again. 
  • When Oscar Decker added an hour to the time of arrival of the young man who appeared on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared.

Living your life with one lie can be hard enough. But juggling all of those lies and obfuscations TOGETHER? That’s practically a full-time job. 

Today, I want to discuss another lie that officials opted to tell about Ron—the one about his finances. 

On April 25, 1953, the Saturday after Ron disappeared, Carl Knox was quoted in the Hamilton Journal-News by Gilson Wright, with the following matter-of-fact pronouncement: 

“‘He was not in financial difficulties,’ Dean Knox said after a checkup Friday. ‘But he could not have had more than $10 or $11 in his possession when he left Fisher Hall.’”

On April 29, 1953, Wright wrote this in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“A sizable balance was left in a downtown bank.”

And on May 4, 1953, Wright wrote this in the Hamilton Journal-News:

“…he took only $10 or $11 and left more than $100 in a local checking account.”

I don’t know how much money Ron had in his pocket when he disappeared, but I do believe Carl Knox fibbed about Tammen’s finances. Ron Tammen was experiencing financial difficulties. Despite the fact that Ron was always busy earning money as well as looking for ways to earn more money, he still owed a lot of money, with one of his primary creditors being the university. Also, his bank balance wasn’t “more than $100”—it was $87.25.

Here’s what was going on behind the scenes:

On May 26, 1953, Miami’s bursar, a guy named David C. Alden, wrote a memo to Carl Knox summarizing Tammen’s standing with the university. He said that Tammen still owed the university $100 in board (dining hall fees) and $100 on a “loan fund note,” minus the pay Ron was due as a residence hall counselor ($29.41) and a refund on his room rent and laundry ($29.10). The total Tammen owed, therefore, would be $141.49.

(We’ll get more into that boarding fee and loan fund note in a second.)

Mr. Alden added: “If the brother is still in town and the father and brother have approved the transfer of the account at the Oxford National Bank against the University account, the balance could be reduced by the amount of the account at the bank.”

The Tammens must have agreed to the transfer of funds. On July 2, 1953, Don Shera, vice president of the Oxford National Bank, wrote to Carl Knox letting him know that Ron’s balance of $87.25 had been sent via a certificate of deposit to bursar Alden to help defray the balance owed to the university.

That same day—July 2, which was a Thursday—Alden wrote to Mr. Tammen letting him know that the board fee was actually $110, not $100, and that, with the money from Ron’s bank account applied to the balance, the amount owed by Mr. and Mrs. Tammen was now $64.24. That might not sound like much, but if you plug the numbers into the inflation calculator, you’ll see that $64 in 1953 was worth almost ten times as much as it is today, or $624.

But that’s not my favorite part of Alden’s letter. Here’s the best part:

“I was sorry not to have had a chance to talk with you when I stopped at your residence on Monday. Please be assured that this communication is not being written to press for payment on the balance. Whatever time you need to clear it is satisfactory.”

Um, excuse me? At a time when the Tammens were at a perpetual Red Alert readiness level, hoping and praying with every doorbell and telephone ring for news of Ron, Miami’s bursar thought it would be a swell idea to hop into his car and drive to the Tammens’ house at least 4 hours away (probably longer back then) to discuss Ron’s outstanding balance. What’s more, it sounds as though he did it unannounced. A surprise pop-in! Let me put it thusly: if the university thought the situation warranted the bursar’s driving from Oxford to Maple Heights to personally discuss Ron’s balance, then please don’t tell me that Ron wasn’t in financial difficulties. If $64 meant that much to the university, then think about how much more it must have meant to Ron and Ron’s parents.

But let’s also talk about the university’s initial bill. The bursar said that Ron’s outstanding debts equaled $110 for board plus another $100 for a loan. According to the 1952-53 M Book, every semester, in-state male students who lived in the dorms had to pony up $315.88 for all of their expenses, which included tuition, residence hall rent, board, laundry, and other fees. The most expensive cost was board—eating in the dining hall—which for males came to $175. Although the university asked students to pay the entire amount upfront at the start of each semester, they did allow students to pay board in installments, as Ron chose to do.

Page from the 1952-53 M Book

But Ron wasn’t keeping up very well with the installment plan either. The second semester was almost exactly four months long, starting February 3 and ending with the last day of finals on June 4. Ron should have paid more than two months’ worth in board ($43.75/month), and possibly three months’ worth, yet he’d only paid $65 when he disappeared. (If you think that doesn’t sound like much, I’ll just direct you to Mr. Alden, who felt differently. And don’t forget to use the inflation calculator.)

Now here’s the weirdest part of the university’s bill: that $100 loan fund note. Ron had received a loan from the university for some unnamed purpose. Could this be the same loan that Willis Wertz and Glen Yankee had co-signed, according to Carl Knox’s notes? However, when you take a closer look at what Knox had written, you see that next to Wertz’s name, he wrote “co-signed a note at bank” while next to Yankee’s name, he wrote “co-signed a note.” It appears as if there may have been two loans, one a bank loan signed by Wertz and the other a university loan, ostensibly signed by Yankee. Or maybe Yankee’s note and the university note are different, in which case he may have had three notes.

Which leads me to my next question: why was Ron struggling so much financially when he was bringing in money from residence hall counseling, playing the bass, donating blood, and who knows what else? During the summers and breaks, he worked his butt off at decent-paying jobs as well. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Didn’t go out much with friends. Didn’t date much. He didn’t drive his car much. Even with his car on campus, he was known to hitchhike and bum rides from other people. Where was his money going? 

In his notes, Knox scribbled in some expenses that Ron had incurred here and there with little explanation. Here’s my best attempt at a summary:

Deposits

Of the most recently deposited money, Ron deposited a total of $40 from playing jobs (band gigs) and he also deposited a $100 check on a loan. (Could this be the university loan?)  There was no “activity” in Ron’s bank account—and by “activity,” I think Knox means bank deposits—after April 6, 1953.

Checks written

According to Knox, here were the checks that Ron had written the week before he disappeared. 

4/13/53     $24.45       Delta Tau Delta 

4/13/53     $4.07         Shillitos (clothing store)

4/15/53     $15.00       Cleveland Trust Co., Cleveland, Ohio, American Express Co.

4/16/53     $5.00         Check cash, John Minnis (drug store)

Knox also noted that in December 1952, Ron had obtained a $50 loan to clear up a “Housebill,” which I think means that he needed the loan to pay off his board from the first semester. Knox also noted that he “planned to repay [the loan] after Christmas work.”

By far, the most sizable payment had to do with Ron’s car, a green 1939 Chevy sedan, for which he needed to pay approximately $175 sometime before Christmas 1952. That was a major expense that may have involved some servicing problem—an engine, brakes, or something equally huge. From what I can tell, Ron had paid for the car in full after trading in his first car, a 1929 Ford. (His first car was really old-timey. These days, they’re cute in parades, but compared to what wealthier guys his age were driving, I’m sure he felt the need to upgrade asap.) Thanks to reporter Joe Cella, we know that Ron also paid his car insurance on the Friday night before he disappeared for $17.45. Both the $175 car bill and the $50 housebill expenses had also been paid.

But let’s be real. Ron wasn’t just juggling his grades, he was juggling his finances as well—taking out loans to pay his bills and other loans, which I suppose would be fine if it weren’t for the other bills and loans that lay in wait. See how cyclical debt can be? Ron was drowning in it, and Knox and the others in Miami’s administration knew it. But for some reason, they didn’t want anyone else to know. 

The Tammens weren’t made of money either. I think they were a little freaked out by the bursar’s in-your-face manner of doing business—wouldn’t you be?—and said so to Carl Knox, which prompted Knox to send a follow-up letter on July 6, backing up what Alden had said in his letter and cushioning it with some hopeful news about Mrs. Spivey’s possible sighting. On August 17, 1953, roughly 4 months after Ron disappeared and 12 days after Ron was possibly spotted in Wellsville, NY, Mr. Tammen submitted his check for $64.24, thus closing the university’s ledger on Ronald Tammen, and making Mr. Alden a very, very happy man.

So why did university officials feel the need to lie about Ron’s finances in addition to everything else they lied about? My feeling is that they already had their narrative in place and didn’t want to deviate from it. In their imaginary world, Ron was a stellar student with no failings, therefore, he MUST have walked away with amnesia. If he was having problems—with grades, with money, with his personal life, or anything else—then that would just raise problematic questions from troublesome reporters. And if someone wielding a lot of power was requiring the university to cover up the truth, maybe Carl Knox and the others didn’t have any choice in the matter.

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

Monday, 11/16/20, add-on:

Because Mr. Alden’s visit and July 2, 1953, letter to the Tammens was of particular interest to readers, I thought I’d also post Carl Knox’s follow-up letter to Mr. and Mrs. Tammen from July 6, 1953. Although I paraphrased the letter in my write-up, perhaps I didn’t do it justice.

Is it just me, or do you detect a certain officiousness/harshness/annoyance in his tone concerning payment, even while telling them to take whatever amount of time they need? Perhaps his decision to open with the words “It was my understanding” is what gives it a less-than-fuzzy feel, despite the “hoping and praying” that comes later, in the 3rd paragraph.

My theory on Ron Tammen’s exact location the moment he disappeared, and other thoughts*

(Supplement to season 2, episode 3 of The One That Got Away)

*This post was formerly titled “More thoughts on two ignored clues,” but that was really boring, so I changed it. The URL remains the same, however.

I’m not gonna lie—podcasting has been fun. Not only is it helping me cope with my covid-fueled despair in a meaningful and productive way, but it inspires me to revisit some of the old blog posts and think new thoughts in light of findings that came out a little later in the process. (Please note: I won’t be producing a supplemental blog post for every podcast episode; I’ll only create a new post if we cover territory there that I haven’t discussed here.) 

What I’m about to share is discussed in season 2, episode 3 of the podcast The One That Got Away, which I encourage you to listen to when you have a few idle minutes on your hands. Josh and Tyler are delightful human beings and they’re becoming quite the avid Tammen fans as well. But if you prefer to get your Tammen news by way of written words on a screen, no problem. I love that you like to read. Here are my latest ruminations regarding two questions that you may have already wondered about but were too polite to ask. I’m also going to share some brand new info that was released by Josh and Tyler during episode 3.

Question 1: Why did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story so quickly?

Let’s talk about those two extra hours we discovered in Ron’s timeline. Remember when Paul (not his real name) swore up and down that he and a guy named Chip Anderson (real name, but deceased) walked home with Ron after song practice on the night of April 19, and that they didn’t arrive until around 10:30 p.m.? And remember how university reps and the police interviewed them but completely ignored their story, instead telling everyone that Ron disappeared from his room at around 8:30 p.m.?

In a subsequent post, I discussed my theory of why investigators embraced Mrs. Spivey’s story so wholeheartedly. I even demonstrated—using my sweet ride, a 2011 Mazda 3, and the calculator on my phone—how Ron could have feasibly (though improbably) ended up in Seven Mile on foot under the 8:30 scenario, but most definitely not the 10:30 p.m. scenario. If he left at 10:30, and if it was Ron Tammen at Mrs. Spivey’s door, someone would have had to drive him there, which would complicate matters in ways investigators probably didn’t wish to imagine.

But Mrs. Spivey didn’t come forward until June. Why then did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story right off the bat?

I think the answer has to do with their favorite theory as to how Tammen disappeared. Very early in the investigation, by Friday, April 24, the university had declared in several Miami Valley and Cleveland papers that Ronald Tammen probably had amnesia. “Officials believe that he might have suffered an attack of amnesia,” an article in the Hamilton Journal News read. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “University officials said Tammen might be suffering from amnesia as he took no clothing or personal articles with him.” (Neither article contained a byline, but my guess is that they were penned by Gilson Wright, since he wrote for both papers.) At least the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed some healthy journalistic skepticism about the university’s conclusion. It read “The dean [Carl Knox] believed the youth might have suffered an attack of amnesia, but had nothing to back that theory.”

So, amnesia. Now let’s consider how investigators would have tried to explain their amnesia theory under both estimated times of departure. Under the 8:30 p.m. scenario, Ron would have developed his amnesia at some point while he was in his dorm room, after he’d changed his sheets. Maybe it had hit him while he was studying at his desk. No one could possibly know the reason, because no one was there. He was alone, so anything was possible. In their view, he just, you know, cracked.

Under the 10:30 p.m. scenario, Ron had walked back to the dorms with Paul and Chip. He dropped them both off at Symmes Hall, and then headed toward Fisher Hall. But Ron never made it back to his room in Fisher. How do we know that? We know it because that’s roughly when his roommate, Chuck Findlay, had returned from his weekend in Dayton. Chuck never saw Ron.

Therefore, and this is crucial: Ron would have been struck by amnesia at some point between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall.

Below is a map that shows you how close the two buildings were to one another, circled in red. Symmes is building #37, and Fisher is building #36. In my driving video on Ron’s possible trip to Seven Mile, that’s Symmes Hall on the left, immediately after I exited the circular driveway that’s now in front of Marcum Hotel and Conference Center. That driveway used to be in front of Fisher. You guys…Symmes and Fisher are super close.

Which scenario do you think investigators gravitated toward? While both are a little tough to swallow, wouldn’t it be easier to explain the one in which Ron went wandering off when no one was watching as opposed to walking with two people and then forgetting who he was immediately afterward? Exactly. Scenario A was the one they chose: 8:30ish. This brings me to the second question.

1952-53 map of Miami marked up
1952-53 map of Miami University; circled in red is Fisher Hall (Bldg #36) and Symmes Hall (Bldg #37); Click on map for closer view.

Symmes Hall from video
Symmes Hall, as taken in my car trip from Marcum Conference Center to Mrs. Spivey’s home. Note that this screen shot is 41 seconds into the video. You can watch as I drive on the circular driveway, then pass Symmes in the video on YouTube.

Question 2: Why did no one follow up on the clue regarding the woman in the car?

In July 2017, I learned about an astonishing lead. I learned that Ron had reportedly been spotted sitting in a car with a woman from Hamilton late on April 19 and, after about 45 minutes or so, the two had driven away. I learned this after I’d met with a former member of the Oxford police force—someone who had actually worked for police chief Oscar Decker in 1953, when Tammen disappeared. In my blog post, I refer to this man as Ralph Smith, but that was just a pseudonym. I was keeping his identity secret.

Until now.

In preparing for the podcast, I checked online to see if my source was still alive, and unfortunately, I found his very brief obituary. My source’s true name was Logan Corbin, and he passed away at the age of 97 on December 16, 2017, five months after our meeting. I’m posting his photo below as well as a link to an audio clip of him telling me about the purported woman in the car.

Logan Corbin
Logan Corbin, formerly with the Oxford Police Department, 1952-1959; photo taken in July 2017

Logan was African American. In those days, it was virtually unheard of for a rural, small-town, predominantly white community such as Oxford to hire a Black cop, and, for that reason, I give the city credit for taking a step toward progress in the early-1950s. Nevertheless, racism was rampant there, and Logan endured daily doses of slurs from his fellow officers, sometimes over the police radio. Eventually, he decided to leave that position for another job, though he remained with the Oxford PD for seven years, from 1952 to 1959.

When you listen to Logan tell the story, one of the points he keeps repeating is that the lead concerning the woman in the car was never checked out. To that I say, WTfreakinF, Oscar Decker?! Logan wasn’t sure how the police had found out about it—”word just got out,” he’d told me. Granted, it would have taken some detective work to follow the lead. They didn’t know the woman’s name, the make or model of her car, its color, the exact time she drove away, any of that. But it would have been way easier to check out those details then, when all the major players were still alive and well, and walking around that small section of campus, as opposed to six decades later. The cops could have publicized the possible sighting far and wide, asking anyone with information to come forward. For some reason, they chose not to.

If, as I believe, Ron Tammen disappeared from somewhere between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall, that circular driveway between the two buildings could have been ground zero to where it all happened.

So, again I ask, why wouldn’t investigators follow the one lead that places Tammen in that exact location—in a car, in the driveway between Symmes and Fisher Halls? For some reason, investigators felt the need to steer everyone in a different direction.

 

 

 

 

 

A chance encounter in Wellsville

One question that’s been floating around for decades is whether housing official Heber Hiram (aka H.H., aka Hi) Stephenson actually bumped into Ronald Tammen at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. If it did happen to be Ron, the next question would be: who were the men he was with? And third: why were they there?

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, these questions could have been fairly answerable back in 1953, after Hi told Carl Knox, dean of men at Miami who oversaw the university’s investigation, about his encounter. Knox could have helped spur the process along by asking H.H. this no-brainer: “Which hotel, Hi?”, and then calling his contact at the FBI. The FBI’s Buffalo office could have chased down some of those details and, if they determined that it was likely Ron, they would have had a super hot lead on their hands. If they decided it wasn’t Ron, they would have reported that info back as well. It’s what they do. But, for some reason, Carl Knox didn’t get that ball rolling. 

For what it’s worth, I believe H.H. saw Ronald Tammen that day. I believe it for three reasons. One is that H.H. knew Ron and, as his son has told me, he never forgot a face. That’s big, in my view—much bigger than a stranger who saw a photo in a newspaper and thought that same person had showed up at her doorstep late at night two months prior. 

My second reason has to do with human behavior. H.H.’s account is consistent with how two people who think they recognize each other in an out-of-context location would normally act. I mean, we stare, don’t we? We wait for eye contact, assessing whether the other person recognizes us too, and if they do, then we say something. And that’s what they both did—they stared at each other. Because it was less than four months since his disappearance, Ron would have looked about the same, as did H.H. And although we wish he would have acted differently, even H.H.’s decision to not approach the young men’s table seems consistent with what many people would have done in that situation. 

OK, perhaps that wouldn’t apply to readers of this blog. Members of our little clique would have likely spoken up. Maybe something like: “Pardon my intrusion, but you look like someone I know. I don’t suppose your name is Ron Tammen?” Or, as one reader pointed out, he would have expected a 1950s version of “WTF, Ron?!?” Either would have been a normal response. But H.H.’s decision to walk out the door and immediately regretting it is normal too. And what did Ron’s lookalike do? He got the heck out of there before H.H. returned. If it were Ron, isn’t that what you’d expect him to do—to run as soon as he had an opening?

The third reason is that H.H. reported his encounter to Carl Knox the next day. If Stephenson had any reservations about who the young man was, he might have said something like, “Wow—I just saw a guy who, if I didn’t know better, looked exactly like Ronald Tammen.” But H.H. fully expected Knox to act on the tip. Considering the fact that they were colleagues and he was putting his credibility on the line, he obviously had no doubt in his mind that it was Ron. 

“I was sure it was him,” he told reporter Joe Cella in April 1976.

There is, however, one thing I learned about Hi Stephenson that doesn’t quite jive with my theory. According to his son, Hi Stephenson kept a journal throughout his life, and, as of our phone conversation in February 2013, his son still had the collection. Needless to say, when his son shared this news with me, I was stoked. To obtain a more complete accounting of that encounter in Wellsville would be amazing, would it not? Maybe Stephenson would have described the table of guys a little more—their appearance, their demeanor. Maybe he’d included the name of the hotel and what the daily special was. (The latter tidbit wouldn’t add much to the mystery, but it’s the sort of color I adore.)

Unfortunately, a couple weeks after we spoke, his son sent me an email saying that, after looking through his father’s journal for the date in question, he couldn’t find an entry regarding the Ron Tammen sighting. Of course I was profoundly disappointed, not to mention surprised. On a day when most of Hi’s time was spent reading road signs and counting miles, how he could have thought to write anything other than “Gadzooks—I just spotted Ron Tammen!” is beyond me. 

In September 2014, I took a little trip to Wellsville myself.

When I’m on one of my typical Ronald Tammen road trips, there’s one song on my playlist that I crank up louder and more often than the others. It’s Brandi Carlile’s The Story. The studio version is great, but the version with the Seattle Symphony is my all-time favorite. The reason I love this song so much is that A.) It allows me to scream like a rock goddess when she hits that high note, and B.) I feel the lyrics apply to my search for Tammen. I mean, I’ve literally or figuratively done all of those things (which I won’t name, for copyright reasons) for Ron. And that thing she says about her, um, creases in her countenance? After dedicating nearly nine years of my life to this project, well, let’s just say that that hits home in a very big way too. 

So there I was, one sunshiny fall Tuesday, blasting Brandi along the highways between my then-home in D.C. and Wellsville, NY. Wellsville is the name of both a village and surrounding town totaling around 7400 people in the southwest part of the state, just eight miles north of the Pennsylvania border. As I neared my destination, I had a strong sense that I was passing the same houses and barns that Ron would have passed by—if indeed it was Ron in that hotel restaurant. 

Even a billboard for a restaurant called Texas Hot, which has been serving up chili dogs to Wellsvillians since 1921, looked as if it had been standing along that stretch of road for decades. I knew as soon as I passed it that I’d be eating dinner there that night on the off chance that Ron might have eaten there too. 

Texas Hot is named for a type of hot dog topped with mustard, chili sauce, and chopped onions, all on a soft, steamed bun. They are, culinarily speaking, ridiculously delicious. The iconic restaurant has been owned and operated all these years by the same two families, and is now run by the grandsons of the longtime partners and Greek immigrants who got it all started, James Rigas and George Raptis. If you’re anywhere near Wellsville, you have to go. (No, seriously, promise me.)

Texas Hot in the early years. Used with permission of the Allegany County Historical Society.
Texas Hot in September 2014.

After finishing off the specialty of the house, accompanied by french fries and gravy, I roamed the town and was soon drawn to the old train station located one block north of Main Street on the corner of Pearl and Depot Streets. The red brick building, once bustling with visitors and the people who welcomed them or bid them goodbye, was boarded up and rimmed with weeds. Located in the center of town, it ostensibly had been a pipeline that helped power Wellsville’s prosperity in the early part of the 20th century. 

Wellsville Erie Depot in September 2014.

Most noticeably, the train station was steps away from one of the four hotels that, with the help of a 1953 phone directory, I’d narrowed down as being H.H.’s and Ron’s most likely meeting spots. That was the Hotel Brunswick, at the corner of North Main and Pearl Streets, which now houses a real estate office among other businesses. The other three possible hotels, all of which are no longer standing, were the Fassett Hotel, which was a short walk southeastward on Main Street (55 North Main), Pickup’s Hotel (38-40 North Main), and, a little less than a mile to the north, the Wellsville Hotel (470 North Main), where the Lutheran church now stands. 

The building formerly known as the Hotel Brunswick, September 2014.

The proximity of the train station to the Hotel Brunswick led me to wonder: Could Ron have been journeying by train and stopped off at Wellsville for a quick bite or to spend the night? Before that little epiphany, I’d been operating under the assumption that Ron was temporarily living in Wellsville—that perhaps he and his associates were being prepped for some clandestine purpose in a nearby government facility. But if Ron was traveling by train to parts unknown, then the odds of Ron and Hi Stephenson bumping into one another were even more astronomical than I’d originally thought. 

The next morning, I paid a visit to the office of Craig Braack, Allegany County’s historian, whose building was located one town over in Belmont, the county seat. Braack, who has since retired, seemed genuinely intrigued by the Ron Tammen mystery, and he ventured a guess that the hotel in which the sighting occurred was probably the Fassett or Brunswick, which had been my top two choices at that point as well. In addition to occupying space among the businesses that lined Main Street, both hotels seemed upscale enough that they would offer the type of restaurant that might suit the tastes of a woman in her mid-thirties—Hi’s wife Kay. Then again, the restaurant couldn’t be too fancy, or it might have discouraged a group of young men from eating there, at least one of whom was on the lam and possibly didn’t have a lot of cash on him.

The Hotel Fassett. Used with permission of the Allegany County Historical Society.

Braack wasn’t aware of any government training facility, covert or overt, in Wellsville. He was more inclined to believe that Ron was just passing through town, by road or by rail. He informed me that before the Interstate system, Main Street was part of State Route 17, a major east-west thoroughfare at the time. (State Route 17 has since been replaced by 417, which circumvents Main Street.)

“Route 17 goes parallel to our New York-Pennsylvania state line, so it’s possible that they could have been on that,” he suggested. 

“Sounds reasonable,” I replied, “as long as they had access to a car.” 

I explained that Ron had left his car parked outside of his dorm the night he disappeared, though there was also a chance that he could have been riding in someone else’s vehicle. The other option would have been the train. Braack pointed out that Wellsville’s train station was a major stop along the Erie Railroad, which, like Route 17, ran east and west. Each day, three or four passenger trains would arrive in Wellsville, connecting Chicago to New York City and places in between. 

“If they were taking the train, that would have been a way to easily travel a long distance in a very short period,” he said. “That could also be why he was at the hotel.”

Later that afternoon, I stopped by Wellsville’s Nathanial Dyke museum. I was greeted by Mary Rhodes, who was town historian when I met with her, but who recently moved to South Carolina, and Jane Pinney, then-president of the Thelma Rogers Genealogical and Historical Society. (A September 18, 2018, article in the Wellsville Daily Reporter describes Rhodes’ and Pinney’s commitment to preserving the history of the area and their many contributions.) They agreed with Braack that the Erie Railroad and State Route 17 were the two most likely means by which Ron might have rolled into town, since that’s how most people did it back then. Pinney recounted how neighborhood kids peddling lemonade on Main Street would play the license plate game, making a list of the states that were represented as cars either barreled by or pulled over to make a purchase.

“They had every state in the union by the end of the summer,” she said.

But there were plenty of reasons for people to stay in Wellsville as opposed to just passing through. There were jobs there—lots of them. In the late 1800s, oil was discovered in the region, and a refinery was built, which, in 1953, was owned and operated by Sinclair Oil. The refinery was shut down in 1958 after a fire, but the remnants of oil money are still evident by the string of mansions, oozing with opulence, along the roadside north of town.

“OK. Now the name Wellsville makes sense,” I said. As if by reflex, both women jumped in to correct me, something they’d no-doubt done with out-of-towners many times before. Wellsville wasn’t named for its oil wells, but rather for Gardiner Wells, who was the principal landowner when residents were deciding upon the important matter of what to call themselves.

Other major industries in 1953 were the Air Preheater Company, which produced equipment for improving the efficiency of electrical power plants, and the Worthington Corporation, which produced steam turbines, also used in energy production. According to Pinney and Rhodes, the companies were frequent recipients of federal contracts, especially during WWII, and it wasn’t uncommon for hotels to be filled with clients who wished to tour the facilities, to inspect the product, or to be trained in operations. Pinney recalls driving to her job at 7:00 a.m. each day and seeing 20 or 30 executives who were visiting from China performing their exercises on the sidewalk in front of the Fassett Hotel.

In other words, at the time that Ron was potentially spotted by Hi Stephenson, Wellsville was by no means just a tranquil little town along the Genesee River. It was a player, both nationally and internationally. 

“The place was booming,” said Rhodes. 

Even so, I couldn’t see Ron throwing his old life away to reinvent himself in Wellsville, NY. I mean no disrespect to the good people of Wellsville. It’s just that I don’t understand why there would be any urgency for a young man to run away, cutting off all ties to friends and family to pursue a career in the power industry. I asked if they had any idea which hotel Ron might have been more likely to eat or spend the night in—if, again, it was Ron. Mary said that she thought that the Brunswick was being used as a residence hotel by then, so the sighting probably wouldn’t have been there. Jane’s husband Dave, who’d grown up in Wellsville and who’d joined our conversation by that time, agreed, and added that he didn’t think the Brunswick had a dining room then. The three decided that the Fassett was a more likely candidate. Or Pickup’s. Or the Hotel Wellsville. 

Hotel Wellsville. Used with permission of the Allegany County Historical Society.

Months after my visit, in an email, Mary let me know that she had followed up with one of the town’s residents, who said that the Hotel Brunswick only had a coffee shop and a bar. “Not a real dinner place,” she told me.I decided to eliminate it from consideration, narrowing the options to three.

The coffee shop in the Hotel Brunswick. Used with permission of the Allegany County Historical Society.

In Joe Cella’s 1976 news article, Hi had remarked that “he and his wife walked out of the hotel onto the street” when he told Kay about his possible Ron sighting, which is consistent with the locations of the Brunswick, Fassett, and Pickup’s hotels. The Hotel Wellsville, however, was set farther back from the main road, on landscaped grounds. I eliminated it from consideration as well. I was now down to two possibilities: Pickup’s Hotel and the Fassett Hotel.

Pickup’s might seem a little weird for the name of a hotel, but it was named for the family who bought the building in 1936. Constructed in 1852, it was the oldest building in the Main Street business district, though the owners had modernized it. The building had a big sign that said “RESTAURANT” out front that would have been a draw for travelers. An article describing a 1961 fire that “ravaged” the hotel noted that very little of the building was devoted to hotel space and the “principal business activity…centered around its restaurant on the ground floor.” For these reasons—the prominence of the restaurant, and its nice-but-not-too-nice modern touches—Pickup’s was becoming more appealing to me as the backdrop of Hi’s potential Tammen sighting. Plus, it would have likely been the first restaurant Hi would have seen driving into town.

Pickup’s Hotel. Used with permission of the Allegany County Historical Society.

But the Fassett Hotel had its pluses too. Built in 1870, it was a stately brick building whose ground floor had been updated in the 1940s with eye-catching window treatments. It, too, was a popular place for dining—it advertised a “Dining Room” on the sign facing Main Street—in addition to hosting other events. 

 “You don’t happen to know where I could get my hands on some old hotel registries, do you?” I asked the trio as I was getting up to leave. At once, I felt silly for suggesting that anyone would hold onto 60-year-old hotel registries—even there, in a museum, among people who were fanatical about preserving their town’s history.

Mary said that the former owner of the Fassett Hotel still lived in town and she promised to ask him for me. I thanked her, but I knew the chances were next to nil he would have stored them away somewhere. Unfortunately, I was right. 

And that’s where I’m afraid we’ve hit a dead end. My best guess for where Hi Stephenson saw Ronald Tammen or Tammen’s lookalike is at Pickup’s Hotel or the Fassett Hotel, with my personal choice being Pickup’s. 

Either it was a run-of-the-mill doppelganger sighting, nothing more, or it was a coincidence beyond all coincidences—an encounter whose odds of occurring are so remarkably small that it appears that something or someone bigger than all of us may have stepped in to make it happen. Call it fate. Call it the universe. Call it a supreme being overriding free will and moving a couple human chess pieces himself. I can think of no other explanation for why two people so close to the Tammen mystery—one being Tammen himself—would land 480 miles away from Oxford in the tiny town of Wellsville, on the same day, at the same hour, and in the same hotel restaurant. But that’s exactly what Hi Stephenson believed had happened. 

And Carl Knox? Regardless of whether it was Ronald Tammen or not, the only reasonable explanation for his inaction is that his investigation into Tammen’s disappearance had taken a back seat to his other university responsibilities sometime between June 29, 1953, when newspapers reported Clara Spivey’s possible Ron sighting, and August 6, when Hi Stephenson reported his. Did someone of a higher ranking step in during that period to call off the search? That’s my best guess too.

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 practiceRon is alleged to have been to song practice at the Delt house the night he disappeared and had walked back to the dorms with two other guys at around 10:30 p.m. If true, Ron disappeared more than two hours later than what was widely reported.
  • The fightRon allegedly had a fight with his younger brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom of Fisher Hall the night he disappeared.
  • The woman from HamiltonRon was supposedly seen seated in a car with a woman from Hamilton for a long time and then driving away with her late that night.
  • The psych bookRon had been reported reading his psychology book the afternoon that he disappeared, and his psychology book was left open on his desk, even though he’d dropped his psychology course earlier that semester.
  • The things in Ron’s backgroundRon Tammen might have had “things in his background” that were consistent with his having experienced dissociation (amnesia).
  • The dead fish
    Ron likely hadn’t slept in his bed at least one night, and possibly two, before his disappearance. We know this because Dick Titus had put the fish in Ron’s bed after class on Saturday or perhaps even Friday.

All of the above (and probably more) were known by university officials and Oxford police. If they viewed these details as clues, they chose not to make them public. But from what I can tell, they didn’t do much more than the most perfunctory of probes either. In particular, they could have pursued the rumor about the woman from Hamilton more enthusiastically, enlisting the news media for help. The Journal-News could have run the headline “Tammen allegedly last seen in car with woman from Hamilton,” and the accompanying article could have closed with “Anyone with information is asked to call this number.” But, nah.

And, let’s not forget Heber Hiram (H.H.) Stephenson, the housing official who swore up and down that he’d seen Tammen sitting in a hotel restaurant with a small group of men in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. Stephenson had shared this information with university officials immediately upon his return—the next day, he said—and we see the cryptic “H.H.S., Aug. 5, 1953, Wellsville, New York” in Knox’s notes to confirm that a conversation had indeed taken place. Again, if it hadn’t been for Joe Cella revealing the detail in 1976, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now.

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/.