(And also: what happened to it?)
Greetings! Today, I’d like to further discuss the memo that was written on May 9, 1973, by the special agent in charge (SAC) of the Cincinnati Field Office to the acting director of the FBI, who was then William Ruckelshaus. As you probably know by now, the memo concerns the anonymous phone call they’d received claiming that Ron Tammen was working at Welco Industries in Blue Ash, Ohio.
“Oh, geez, that thing again?” some of you may be thinking.
Yeah, that. Sorry, but I still have unresolved issues.
In the last write-up, we discussed how shaky that lead was to begin with. The guy who’d called had refused to provide his name and then he told the FBI rep that a coworker of his might be Ron based on his physical description and “other reasons which he cared not to discuss.” He then “terminated the telephone call,” which sounds as if he hung up in the rep’s ear—a noisy click followed by the long, low waaaaaah of a dial tone. (Hanging up on someone was more dramatic back then.) Apparently, that’s all that was needed for an agent to be assigned to check things out that same day.
Here’s the question that keeps rolling around in my brain: If the FBI didn’t investigate missing person cases, as they claim not to do, why would they have assigned someone to fingerprint the guy at Welco just because some unnamed caller thought he fit Ron’s description? According to an unredacted version of the 1973 memo, the Welco man was an electronic technician from Virginia who’d served his country honorably from 1951 until 1960—a period that covers the time right before Ron entered Miami and extends until seven years after he’d disappeared.
I’d think that the FBI agent would have done his background research on the Welco guy before he made his trip to Blue Ash. The FBI has records on all sorts of people. If a person has a criminal record, they can access it, and they can also access a person’s military service records. Did they do any initial research or did they just pull a surprise pop-in and obtain his bio information there? According to the May 1973 memo, many of the biographical details were provided by the company’s vice president after pulling his employee’s personnel file. Pop-in, it is!
Out of respect for his family, I won’t be sharing the name of the Welco guy who was fingerprinted. His name sounds a little like Ron’s name, which is probably why the anonymous caller thought of him when he read the 20th anniversary article on Tammen’s disappearance and decided to alert the FBI. (I mean, who does that?) And despite whatever physical characteristics the Welco guy had that might have resembled Ron’s, one characteristic stands out that isn’t the least bit similar. It’s also an attribute that is far less likely to change after a person reaches adulthood: his height. The Welco guy was 6 feet 2 ½ inches tall. Ron was roughly 5 feet 9 inches tall. Nevertheless, the special agent fingerprinted the strapping electronic technician from Virginia and a couple weeks later, the Cincinnati Field Office was told that the fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s prints. Not the same guy, said they. (The Identification Division also did some curious things after arriving at their conclusion, which I discuss in the post The Ident Files.)
So there’s that. But the 1973 memo has introduced another small mystery in the Ron Tammen story, and that mystery has to do with the first sentence. It says: “Re Bureau airtel to CI, dated 12/19/58.” The CI stands for Cincinnati Field Office, and an “airtel” was one of the ways in which the FBI communicated internally, especially, I imagine, with its field offices. Think of it as a glorified memo. Most importantly, I wonder if the 12/19/58 airtel is the reason that a special agent was sent to Welco versus ignoring the call altogether, which would have been my inclination had I been on phone duty.
In light of that possibility, the airtel strikes me as important. Unfortunately, there are no 12/19/58 airtels anywhere in the documents I’ve received from the FBI. Back in 2011, I quoted that sentence as a reason for my appeal, when I felt the FBI was withholding documents on Ron. (I still feel that way, by the by.) Even though I won the appeal, I never received a 12/19/58 airtel. I only received documents having to do with DNA testing after Butler County, Ohio, and Walker County, Georgia, reopened their respective cold cases in 2008 to see if a dead body found in the summer of 1953 in Georgia might be Ron.
Although I can’t tell you what the nonexistent memo says, I can deduce a few things about it:
It likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.
Whenever I’ve discussed Ron’s case with retired FBI folks, the issue of Ron’s avoiding the draft has become their go-to hypothesis as to why the FBI would have investigated his case at all. They can’t imagine why the FBI would spend person-hours, car mileage, or long-distance charges on Ron’s missing person case.
But I’m not convinced. First, we’ve learned that the FBI was indeed visiting people in their homes and dorm rooms shortly after Ron went missing, before his draft status had changed, and also that the FBI had been sitting in on faculty conferences at Miami by May 1953. Second, one FBI retiree told me that he or she didn’t think they had the staffing to seriously investigate Selective Service cases. They might have posted a record with the National Crime Information Center, so that, if the person was arrested, the FBI would let law enforcement know that there was a Selective Service violation against him as well. But this person doesn’t remember the FBI actively searching for someone who didn’t report for induction.
So I don’t think that Ron’s Selective Service violation—case #25-381754— was the reason that the FBI investigated Ron’s disappearance, or at least not the sole reason. I also don’t think it’s the topic of the 12/19/58 airtel. Here’s why:
When FBI Headquarters responded on 5/22/73 saying that the Welco guy’s fingerprints didn’t match Ron’s, someone added a note at the bottom, which included this information:
Was a subj of SSA violation in 1953. Canceled in 1955 (USA Cleveland closed case).
Allow me to interpret by writing out all of the words: It says that Ron was the subject of a Selective Service Act violation in 1953, however, his case was canceled, or closed, in 1955 by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland.
I don’t know how weird it is for a U.S. Attorney, who is part of the Department of Justice (DOJ), to request that an SSA case be closed. That’s probably a question for another day. (Actually, I’ll be submitting a FOIA request seeking all SSA cases that were closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland in 1955 to find out how weird it was.)
For now, let’s concentrate on the timeframe. For whatever reason, in 1955, Ron’s case had been closed by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, which is part of the DOJ, which is the parent agency of the FBI. Because the airtel was written in 1958, three years later, the airtel likely had nothing to do with Ron’s Selective Service Act violation.
The 12/19/58 airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati in January 2008.
In May 1973, the Cincinnati Field Office possessed the 12/19/58 airtel. We know this because they referred to it in their memo. And that makes perfect sense. If FBI Headquarters sends you an airtel, you file it somewhere in case you need it, and they needed it in 1973.
But in 2008, the airtel didn’t seem to be in Cincinnati anymore. I think this because I obtained a set of the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office after cold case detective Frank Smith had retired. It’s the set that Smith had obtained from the Cincinnati Field Office in January 2008. Just like my FOIA documents, Butler County’s set doesn’t include the 12/19/58 airtel either.
I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking: Perhaps the airtel reached its record retention date, and Cincinnati destroyed it according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) records schedule. Thank you for raising this important point. You’ve obviously become experts on the topic of NARA and records retention schedules, thanks to the FBI’s early expungement of Ron’s fingerprints in 2002, 30 years ahead of their normal schedule.
While it’s true that the 1958 airtel may have been destroyed, the FBI hasn’t admitted to destroying very much on Tammen, at least not to me. Through my lawsuit settlement, I was provided with an in-depth declaration of all the places in which the FBI had searched for documents on Tammen. And in that search, they told me the approximate dates when certain documents had been destroyed.
For example, although FBI Headquarters destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file “on or about 2/1/1997,” they also reported that the Cincinnati Field Office destroyed Ron’s Selective Service file in 1964. Ostensibly, the 1958 airtel was not in that file, otherwise Cincinnati’s SAC would not have referenced it in 1973. So that supports our conclusion that the 12/19/58 airtel didn’t have anything to do with Ron’s Selective Service violation.
The only other document that the FBI’s declaration claims was destroyed is Ron’s Classification 190 document, which had to do with either the Privacy Act or the Freedom of Information Act and which had originated in the Cincinnati Field Office. That document was destroyed “on or about 5/17/2008”—several months after Smith had reopened his investigation. But no matter what purpose the destroyed document had served when it was still with us on earth, it couldn’t have been the 12/19/58 airtel, since the latter document originated from FBI Headquarters, not Cincinnati.
In their declaration, the FBI also says that one file on Ronald H. Tammen, file #252-IR-C5652, is missing and unable to be located (see top chart). Perhaps the 12/19/58 airtel is in that lost file? I have some thoughts on this question, but I can’t print them here just yet. Based on the file’s number, it has to do with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and/or its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP. It’s important that we not let our imaginations run wild regarding the missing file. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything pertaining to Ron that would be helpful. If there ever comes a time when I’m at liberty to discuss this topic, I will. But I also don’t think it has anything to do with the 12/19/58 airtel, particularly since the center wasn’t started until 1984.
The airtel may not have pertained to Ron specifically.
So where’s the 12/19/58 airtel and what might it have said? You got me. But it occurs to me that the reason neither Frank Smith nor I received the airtel in our FOIA documents could be because it wasn’t stored along with the Tammen documents. Maybe the airtel dealt with a separate topic. For example, perhaps it was an instructional document for how to handle anonymous phone calls.
For this reason, I’ve filed a FOIA request seeking “ALL FBI BUREAU AIRTELS dated 12/19/1958 that were addressed to the Cincinnati Field Office.” I’ll keep you posted.
I’m going to end things here for now. If I should hear back from any of my public records requests over the next week or two, you may hear from me again. Otherwise, I wish you all peaceful and healthy holidays (emphasis on the healthy), including a Belated Healthy Hanukkah, a Healthy Christmas, a Healthy Kwanzaa, and a Healthy New Year, not to mention a Healthy Boxing Day, Winter Solstice, and (of course) Festivus!