One was assigned in 1953; the other was assigned in 1973
There’s something incredibly embarrassing about blogging investigative research in real time, and that incredibly embarrassing something is this: with each new discovery, my earlier hypotheses will continue to be accessible to all until the internet ceases to be. And that means that all my mistakes, oversights, and rushes to judgment are posted in full-frontal view and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
Today I’d like to talk about Ron Tammen’s missing person number…or, rather, his missing person numbers…as in with an ‘s’…as in very, very plural.
I honestly cannot believe I missed this earlier.
Because I have a couple other deadlines to worry about, I need to write this up fast. Let’s do it as a quick Q&A:
Wow! Are you sure?
Pretty darned sure—sure enough to sit down and write this blog post when, as I said, I have some other stuff I need to get to tonight.
Remind us: which one is Ron’s missing person number…or numbers?
As you may recall, all FBI files begin with a classification number, from 1 to 281, and all missing person cases begin with the number 79. And the 79 number that’s written all over Ron’s FBI documents is 79-31966. That’s the one I’ve been reporting since Day 1.
Recently, I was going over his FBI documents again and I was focusing on the report written by the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Cleveland field office after receiving a phone call from Marjorie Tammen. At the top of page 1, written in small, neat penmanship, under the words “ATT: IDENTIFICATION DIVISION” is this:
Although I’m not 100 percent sure of the last two letters—I think they’re “Jh”—the number is unmistakable. The 79 has been left off—because why not? All missing person numbers begin with 79. The most important part of the number is 17699.
Are you sure that wasn’t the missing person number that Cleveland had assigned to him?
You’re correct that field offices would assign their own case numbers, but no, it’s not theirs. I know this because at the top of the memo in parentheses after the words “SAC, Cleveland” is the number 79-0-615 B. In Cleveland, they’d placed Ron’s file in their 0 file, which means that it was placed in the front of the missing person cases because it was a stand-alone report. There was nothing else available on Ron to warrant creating its own folder. Therefore, in Cleveland, Ron’s report was the 615th report in their missing person 0 file. (The “B” probably represents a subcategory of some sort.)
On June 2, 1953, when the FBI’s Identification Division received the report, they listed his case as MP# 17699— obviously, undoubtedly, and most assuredly under classification 79.
Your headline says that one missing person number was assigned in 1953 and the other was assigned in 1973. How did you figure that out?
Remember my July 4, 2022, post where I told you about a box of FBI missing person records that are now housed in the National Archives? I’d submitted a public records request to view those records as soon as they became available. Recently, they wrote to me with the names, dates, and case numbers of the people who are in that file, along with an estimate of the time it would take (they’re still processing orders from February 2014!) and dollars it would cost me ($760!) in order to view them all.
It’s a smattering of missing persons cases, comparatively. In the 1993 book “Unlocking the Files of the FBI,” by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart, the authors stated that the FBI had on its books roughly 20,000 missing person cases in 1980. The number of case files in this box is 87, which is 0.4 percent of the total. None of the people we’ve come to know are in the box: no Ron, no Richard Cox, and not the two people I spoke of in my July 4 post—Charles McCullar, a 19-year-old man who disappeared in January 1975, or Dennis Martin, age 6, who disappeared in June 1969.
However, I started noticing how Ron’s, and Richard’s, and Charles’, and Dennis’ case numbers fit in with the rest of the people listed there. And the numbering system seems kind of chronological.
Oh, that’s good.
Yeah, well, hold on—it’s not perfect. God forbid that a numbering system should ever be perfectly chronological. But you can see patterns regarding when they assigned people’s numbers, including Ron’s two numbers. And I think it gives us a clue as to why they gave him the second number.
What sorts of patterns?
Included below is the table that NARA sent to me with the names of the people I plan to seek records on highlighted in yellow.
As you can see, the case numbers are listed in numerical order, and they’re also generally listed in chronological order. That means that the lower numbers are generally indicative of the older cases, which began in the 1930s (John Kallapure’s case is likely a typo and should probably read 12/36 instead of 12/16) and the higher numbers are of the more recent cases, which end in 1980. But there are distinct outliers, like Willie McNeal Love and Edward Theodore Myers.
When we insert the case numbers of our four missing persons into the table, here’s what happens:
Ronald Tammen #1: 79-17699
Missing 4/19/53; posted 6/2/53
Ron’s number 79-17699 is a little out of chronological order with his neighbors, and it’s weird that his number precedes those of people who went missing in the late 1940s and early 50s, including Richard Cox. Nevertheless, he’s still relatively in the ballpark of the year in which he disappeared.
Ronald Tammen #2: 79-31966
Date of Cincinnati report seeking comparison of Ron’s fingerprints: 5/9/73
Ron’s missing person number that’s written all over his FBI documents is 79-31966. This number appears where you’d predict him to be in the FBI’s ordering system, between Don L. Ray, who went missing in 12/72, and Ronnie D. York, who disappeared in 1/75. Ron’s number is only 7 digits higher than Mr. Ray’s, so it’s logical to conclude that he received it in 1973. Furthermore, it’s written on documents that are dated May 1973, shortly after the Cincinnati field office had sent a man’s fingerprints to FBI Headquarters to compare them to Tammen’s prints.
Richard Cox: 79-23729
Missing 1/14/50; posted 2/8/50
Richard Cox’s number 70-23729 is in the spot you’d expect him to be, between William H. Doyle, who went missing in 2/49, and George E. Robinson, who went missing in 12/50.
Dennis Martin: 79-31142
Dennis Martin’s missing person number is slightly out of order, between Melanie Ray, who went missing in 7/69, and Rosemary Calandriello, who went missing in 8/69. But it’s very close, and the discrepancy probably has to do with when his missing person notice was posted in comparison to the two women’s notices. Because there is so much written on Martin, I’m unable to tell when his number was officially assigned.
Charles McCullar: 79-32359
Missing 1/30/75; date in which the FBI was contacted 3/25/76
Although Charles McCullar disappeared in January of 1975, the FBI was first contacted regarding his disappearance on March 25, 1976. For this reason, his missing person number is exactly where you’d expect it to be—between Linda L. Dow, who went missing in 3/76, and Richard W. Miller, who went missing in 5/76.
What do you think this means?
Honestly? I think that sometime between June 2, 1953, and May 9, 1973, Ron’s original missing person number, number 79-17699, was retired. When the Cincinnati field office sent in the fingerprints of the man from Welco Industries, asking the Identification Division to compare them to Tammen’s, I think the folks in Ident were a little stymied.
Here’s my imagined reenactment:
Employee #1: Um, Cincinnati is asking us to compare these fingerprints to a college guy from Ohio who’s supposedly still missing. But I’m not finding his missing person number filed anywhere. It’s like…gone or something.
Employee #2: That’s really weird. What do you think we should do?
Emp #1: Can we give him a new missing person number?
Emp #2: Brilliant!
And so, sometime in the vicinity of May 22, 1973, I believe the FBI assigned Ron Tammen his new number, 79-31966. As we all know, shortly thereafter, on June 5, 1973, there was a lot more activity in Ron’s missing person case, as his documents were “Removed from Ident files.” After that, however, all activity on his missing person case ended.
Is there anything else we can learn from this?
I think this helps explain why the number 79-31966 is written in the same exact handwriting on all of Ron’s documents, even the earlier ones. I think the person who wrote “Removed from Ident files” also wrote his new missing person number on those documents in 1973.
It could also explain why the Cincinnati field office used Ron’s Selective Service violation case number (25-381754) to identify him as opposed to his missing person number, even though his Selective Service case had been canceled in 1955. I don’t think they could find Ron’s missing person number.
Oh, and this: I guess by now you know that I don’t think Ron was still considered missing by the FBI in 1973. What this new information tells me is that I think at least some individuals at the Bureau had indeed figured it out before the Cincinnati field office had sent in the Welco employee’s fingerprints. And I also think there’s a good chance that J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972, knew a lot more about Ron’s case when he was at the helm, even as he continued exchanging letters with Ron’s tortured mother and father. Granted, it’s just a theory.
It’s the fourth of July, and hoo boy, looks like I’m another year older. How old is that, you ask? Let’s just say that I can now relate to that song by the Beatles where Paul McCartney sings about reaching this impossibly far-off age and he wonders if his significant other will still need him and feed him while she’s knitting his sweaters and he’s weeding the garden. [Note to readers: I never do the former and rarely the latter. Besides, this Beatles tune is more up my alley.]
Do you know who else’s birthday it is? The Freedom of Information Act. FOIA was signed into law on July 4, 1966, so it’s a sprightly 56. Comparatively speaking, FOIA is the Shania Twain to my Gloria Estefan, the Ben Stiller to my Alec Baldwin, the Benzino to my Ice-T.
In celebration, I’d like to discuss a few of the discoveries I’ve made recently about Ron’s missing person documents thanks to other people’s FOIA requests. Because that’s one of the coolest things about FOIA—the information one person obtains can benefit lots of people in numerous unforeseeable ways.
Of course, because it’s my birthday, I’ll be writing in my favorite format—Q&A. Let’s go!
Have you learned anything more about the Missing Person File Room?
You’re referring to the stamp on a few of Ron’s documents that said “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room”? Yes—yes, I have.
Care to tell us?
As you know, the room number they’d specified was 1126. Although they didn’t say which building, I recently reported that room 1126 was on the first floor of the Identification Building, which was located at Second and D Streets SW, in DC. In that same post, I also attempted to make the case that the Ident Missing Person File Room was probably overseen by the Files and Communications Division, which was responsible for managing most of the FBI’s files and had occupied much of the first floor of the Ident Building.
Thanks to a FOIA request on another missing person case submitted by The Black Vault’s John Greenewald, Jr., I now know more about the Ident Missing Person File Room. The case concerned Charles McCullar, a 19-year-old Virginia man who was reported missing in February 1975 after he was expected home from a hiking trip to Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. When you look through Mr. McCullar’s missing person documents, you’ll see that several of those documents were also maintained in the Ident Missing Person File Room. But his documents weren’t in the Identification Building. Rather, they were held in a room in the J. Edgar Hoover Building after that building was completed in 1975. (Sadly, McCullar’s remains were later discovered near Bybee Creek, inside the park, and it was determined that the probable cause of death was exposure to the elements.)
Do you know where in the J. Edgar Hoover Building the Missing Person File Room was located?
The writing on the stamps is extremely difficult to read, but yes, I do believe I’ve figured it out. Here are four stamps that are on Mr. McCullar’s documents.
Images 1 and 4 are clearest and the numbers look the most similar. Image 2 is practically useless. Nevertheless I compared them all in making the following assessment:
Let’s start with the easiest part. The letters JEH, the FBI’s abbreviation for the J. Edgar Hoover building, are clearly present at the end, as you can see in images 1, 3, and 4.
Also, there appear to be four numbers preceding the letters, which eliminates floors 10 and 11, because the room numbers on those floors had five digits.
As for the actual numbers, let’s begin with the second number, which appears to be 9 (images 1 and 4).
The third number looks like a 6 (image 4, possibly 1).
The fourth number seems to be 1 (hard slash in images 1, 3, and 4).
And if you look closely at image 4, the first and second numbers appear to be the same and in parallel, written at a severe slant. Therefore, I think the first number is also a 9.
My conclusion: after 1975, I believe the room number for the Ident Missing Person File Room was Room 9961 JEH Building.
Now that you know where the Ident Missing Person File Room was after 1975, is it possible to learn why some missing person files were kept there but not others?
I’ve been doing a couple things to get to that answer. First, through FOIA, I’ve been attempting to obtain a list of all the files that were maintained in that room. I’d started by asking the FBI for an inventory that would have been created prior to the move into the JEH Building, but they told me that my request wasn’t searchable in their indices. I then submitted a request for an inventory of that room that was developed by someone in the Inspection Division during one of its annual inspections. If I’m told that that request is also unsearchable, I’ll be requesting all inspection reports for the Identification Division as well as the Files and Communications Division for the years 1970 through 1980. They won’t be able to wriggle out of that one, since the whole purpose of the Inspection Division was to conduct annual inspections of all FBI divisions and field offices to make sure things were up to snuff. Also, according to the Department of Justice, inspection reports are considered public information. I highly doubt that there will be complete listings of every file in those reports, but there could be more information to help me figure out my next FOIA request.
I’m also attempting to determine the room’s purpose by learning more about the people who were stationed there. In the 1975 telephone directory, I found three staff members—all women, all affiliated with the Identification Division—who occupied Room 9961 that year. Two had generic names, which makes them tough to trace. The third person had a distinctive name, so I was able to learn more about her life and career, and also that, sadly, she’d passed away at a young age in 2002. I’ve submitted a FOIA request for her personnel records to see if I can determine which section of the Identification Division she was part of.
If the Ident Missing Person File Room is part of the Identification Division, is it possible that all missing person files were kept in that room?
To the best of my knowledge, the answer is no. As I’ve mentioned in past blog posts, a credible source who used to work in the Records Management Division told me that missing person documents were generally housed in the Central Records System, aka the main files, under classification number 79. Also, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin stated that, if the Identification Division happened to have the missing person’s fingerprints on file, as they did in Ron’s case, that person’s documents would be maintained in their fingerprint jacket. This is supported by the following stamp on Ron’s documents:
In addition, in my experience, the Ident Missing Person File Room stamp on someone’s missing person documents is a rare find. So far, I’ve only found it on missing person documents for two people: Ron Tammen and Charles McCullar. I haven’t even found it on Richard Cox’s missing person documents.
Lastly, documents from another missing person case—again, released because of someone else’s FOIA request—helps prove this point. The child’s name was Dennis Martin, a 6-year-old who’d disappeared in 1969 while on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with his family. None of his documents had the Ident Missing Person File Room stamp on them. (The case is so tragic, it’s hard to read through them. What a nightmare.)
Furthermore, I’ve noticed that the documents that tended to have the stamp on them in Tammen’s and McCullar’s cases involved letters from the FBI director (for both men) or a concerned member of Congress (for McCullar). But the stamp is not on those types of letters in Dennis Martin’s case file.
Interesting. As I was looking at Dennis Martin’s and Charles McCullar’s documents, I noticed the “Referred to Records Branch” stamp on some of them, just like the one on Ron’s documents. Were you able to learn anything about that stamp?
That stamp is confusing on so many levels. A large area of confusion for me is how it seems to provide a choice of destinations within the Records Branch—as if the staffer is supposed to check either the “Main File” or “79-1.” But if a missing person file is placed in the main files, it is filed under classification 79. There is no either/or—they’re one and the same. (By the way, if you’re wondering what the “-1” signifies after the 79, that’s the first file after the “zero” files, which are always at the front of each classification. You may recall from earlier posts that a “0” file includes random reports on people or subjects that don’t yet have enough information for their own file, while a “00” file includes bureau communications about protocol.)
I’ve compared how that stamp was marked for Tammen’s vs. McCullar’s vs. Martin’s files. For Tammen, they consistently checked the blank next to “Main File.” For McCullar, they consistently wrote the number 79 in the blank next to “Main File.” And for Martin, they mixed it up—sometimes checking 79-1, but usually checking “Main File.”
I honestly don’t know what it means. I’ve tried asking two people who would know the answer for a confidential conversation about the meaning of this stamp as well as the Ident Missing Person File Room stamp. Neither have responded.
In my blog post on The Ident Files, I speculated that the “Referred to Records Branch” stamp was primarily linked to the documents in Ron’s fingerprint jacket. In other words, I thought that the documents that were “Removed from Ident files” were the same ones that had been removed from his fingerprint jacket and then handed over to the Records Branch. The monkey wrench in this theory is that I don’t believe Charles McCullar or Dennis Martin had fingerprints on file. Why were their missing person documents being referred to the Records Branch, when I’d think that they would have been there all along? I welcome any and all hypotheses to this conundrum.
I’ll ponder on that and get back to you.
In the meantime, it seems as though the documents that were held in the Ident Missing Person File Room were super tame. Why would they need their own special file room?
This is the part where I get to hypothesize my head off with very little back-up data. We know that there was at least one Tammen document that had been in room 1126 Ident that I never received through my FOIA request: a photo had been added to his file on 6-5-73, the same day that documents were “Removed from Ident files.” I don’t believe that we’re seeing everything that had been filed in the Ident Missing Person File Room.
In a recent post, I suggested that the Missing Person File Room may have been a storage place for any unsolicited tips that might have come in on various missing person cases and I also said that some of those unsolicited tips might have been of the steamy or illicit variety. So isn’t it interesting that the two people who did have a file in the Ident Missing Person File Room were adult men, whom I’d think could have generated a phone call or two, whether credible or not, while the one who didn’t have a file in that room was a 6-year-old child? As I said, I think the more interesting reading is likely long gone.
Are there other missing person files you can compare these with to get more answers?
Yes! Thanks to information obtained from a FOIA request submitted by GovernmentAttic.org, I will soon have access to a box of missing person files from the years 1947 through 1980, the year when the FBI turned over its missing person activities to the National Crime Information Center. The files are now housed in the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, MD. They’ve added me to their queue, and will let me know when I can drive out to visit them. The size of the box is too small to be complete, but I wonder if Ron Tammen’s and Richard Cox’s files are in there. Anyway, I can’t wait.
Any additional updates?
Just that I have a second mediation meeting coming up on July 5 concerning several remaining unposted recordings that I’ve requested from Miami University’s Oral History Project. As opposed to the last time, in which I tried to cram in about ten pages’ worth of talking points into an hour-long phone call, I have one talking point that I plan to repeat over and over. We’ll see how it goes.
Happy fourth, y’all. Be safe out there, and that includes wearing earplugs if you’re close to the noise.
P.S. Just saw this on Twitter and had to post. Looks like I’m in good company.
…and the answer has been on page 1 of Ron’s FOIA docs this whole entire time
One of the ongoing questions of my search for what happened to Ron Tammen has been the location of the “Ident Missing Person File Room”—the string of words that had been stamped on some, though not all, of Ron’s missing person documents. We’ve known that the Ident Missing Person File Room was in room 1126 of some building, ostensibly in the Washington, D.C. region, though we didn’t know which building.
For months, I’ve been expending some serious brainpower—and not just my brainpower, but yours too—trying to come up with ways that I might discover the location of room 1126. Thanks to your creative suggestions, I’ve submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking phone directories, floor plans, key receipts, custodial routes, maintenance requests, installation orders, you name it, for some of the more likely contenders. You may recall reading blog posts in which I advanced hypotheses for the location of room 1126—first, inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and, on second thought, the Department of Justice Building.
Why would I do all of that? Because I believe room 1126 is significant to Ron’s story.
But lately, I’ve grown weary of FOIA. So much back-and-forthing with the FBI has thrown buckets of water on my inner fire. They always have the final word, and that word (or words) has been: “unable to identify records that are responsive to your request.” So I thought I’d switch up my game a little. I decided to Google what’s already out there—but not your typical, run-of-the-mill Googling. I mean level-10 Googling. I mean cracking open “Google Books” and diving into the decades-old, government-produced publications that various librarians of sundry institutions have taken the time to copy, cover to cover. And let me tell you…what’s already out there has been illuminating. If you want to get an authentic picture of how things worked back in the day of J. Edgar Hoover, it’s best to consult what the key players had written or said, preferably under oath.
Before we address what makes room 1126 so special, let’s talk about the FBI’s filing system. Honestly, from everything I’ve read, it hasn’t changed that much since Hoover ran the place. OK, yeah, sure, computers. But the overall organization of the files and the related vocabulary are the same today as when Edgar discussed them with his associates and underlings. (Did you know that that’s what he called himself informally? I feel like such an idiot, but I’ve thought of him as J. Edgar for so long that I never knew that his friends called him Edgar.)
For the most part, Edgar Hoover believed in filing everything together. In most cases, every single file representing every single investigation has been lumped together into one ginormous records system, which is referred to as the Central Records System. In Edgar’s idealistic world, everyone’s records should be treated the exact same way—whether you’re a habitual law breaker or a squeaky clean job applicant in need of a routine background check. Then as now, they commonly refer to these files as the “main files,” or the “main bureau files.”
What divides them are the classification numbers that precede every FBI case number. Missing person cases start with the number 79. Crime on the high seas begins with 45; fraud against the government is 46; and impersonation, 47. If you had the number 53 in front of your case file, you were being investigated for “excess profits on wool,” which I guess was a problem around World War I, but they don’t use that one anymore. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s not all kidnappings (7), extortion (9), and counterfeiting (55). There are respectable classifications too—like 66 (administrative matters), 67 (personnel matters), and 240 (FBI training). As of this writing, there are 281 classifications in all, which you can peruse here.
To help FBI staff locate files, they created indexes, 3” X 5” cards arranged alphabetically by subject on which pertinent case numbers were written. Let’s say you worked in the Files and Communications Division and you were asked to name check someone. You’d look up that person’s name on a card in the general index, and there, on that card, would be numbers of relevant case files to check. It gets way more complicated, with multiple indexes and cross-references, but for our purposes, the indexes helped FBI staff find pertinent case files on a given subject.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What about fingerprints?”
Fingerprint files are maintained separately from the Central Records System, as are records that are entered into the National Crime Information Center. These resources were formerly housed within the Identification Division, now the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, and are accessible to law enforcement agencies around the country. The Central Records System, on the other hand, is only accessible to FBI staff and, at least before computers, primarily staff in the Files and Communications Division, who would provide the files to other FBI staffers on a short-term loan basis.
What I’m getting at is that, under the normal system, missing person cases were filed along with everything else in the main files. If the FBI was fortunate enough to have a missing person’s fingerprints, as they did in Ron’s case, that person’s records would be filed in their fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division. And even though fingerprint jackets were maintained separately from the Central Records System, I’m guessing that the folks in Files and Communications would at least have an index card with the missing person’s name on it to help them find those records too if need be. But that’s just a guess.
What wasn’t a normal part of the FBI’s recordkeeping system was putting some of the missing person files in a special room: #1126. That was unusual.
At this point, let’s switch over to my favorite format, Q&A. Who wants to start us off?
The Identification Building—which was nicknamed the Ident Building—is so named because the enormous Identification Division was located there for many years. But other divisions were located there too, namely the Files and Communications Division, and later, once the FBI was computerized, the Computer Systems Division.
Why do you think the FBI would have needed a Missing Person File Room apart from the main files?
My guess? Secrecy. When Hoover was the FBI director, he and his leadership team felt the need to keep sensitive documents locked away in cabinets and special rooms, so that only a select few people would know about them or see them. I have a theory on why they might have done that for missing persons in particular, which I’ll explain a little later.
I’d heard that Hoover had kept secret files in his office. Did his associate directors and assistant directors have secret files too?
The short answer is yes.
Not long after Hoover died on May 2, 1972, the public learned about files that he kept in his office area, which was a suite consisting of nine rooms on the fifth floor of the Department of Justice building. According to Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary for over 50 years, there were several types of files housed there:
Hoover’s personal files, which were described as personal correspondence between Hoover and people in his sphere, many famous and politically powerful. (At Hoover’s instruction, Gandy destroyed all of the personal files shortly after Hoover died.)
Estate files, which had to do with Hoover’s house, taxes, etc.
Hoover’s “Official and Confidential” files, which had been widely publicized in the media and were considered extremely sensitive on a range of topics.
A category that Gandy only referred to as “special,” which were also highly confidential, and kept under “lock and key.”
Mark Felt, who is famously known as the anonymous source Deep Throat during Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting of Watergate, was responsible for taking over the Official and Confidential (OC) files after Hoover’s death. Felt oversaw the inventorying of those files, but they remained in his office until he retired in 1973. They were later placed in the Special File Room, a room set aside by the bureau for confidential files. (If you want to read Hoover’s OC files, you can do so here.)
In 1975, Felt told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations that it wasn’t just Hoover who was withholding sensitive documents. The division directors were too. Shortly before Hoover’s death, Felt had been tasked with consolidating the sensitive division files in his office. He obtained about two file cabinets’ worth, which he promptly locked up.
John P. Mohr, who oversaw the FBI’s Administrative Division and several others, said this to the subcommittee about his own secret files: “They were files that I maintained that were not in the record of the Bureau’s files, which were contacts that I had. If you are a smart investigator, and you should be one if you are going to be in this business, you should have your own sources and keep them to yourself.”
What kinds of documents did FBI officials treat as confidential?
Oh, gosh, you name it. The Special File Room held a hodge podge of records on hot-button subjects of the day. They were all indexed, so still officially part of the Central Records System. The point was to restrict access to a limited few, and out of eye shot from most everyone else, especially the majority of Files and Communications staffers.
Included were files containing graphically violent photos, national defense secrets, informants’ names, stuff on Castro, stuff on Cosa Nostra, cases affecting an FBI employee’s family, and more. Of course, if someone important was rumored to be gay, that would have made the cut. The Special File Room wasn’t especially spacious so it was considered only temporary housing for a file, though admittedly “temporary” could mean years. Division heads were periodically asked to review the files they were maintaining there and to let Files and Communications staff know when a file had lost some of its radioactivity (so to speak) so they could be returned to the main files. Speaking of radioactivity, files related to the Atomic Energy Commission were included there as well.
Back to the Missing Person File Room, why would a bunch of missing person files be kept secret?
I think I know. In the mid-1970s, Americans were learning that the FBI as a general practice held onto just about everything that anyone mailed or called in on someone—usually derogatory, rarely complimentary—even if the tipster was anonymous. (This helps explain why the Cincinnati Field Office responded to that anonymous call in 1973 to check out the employee at Welco Industries.) During another 1975 hearing (the 94th Congress was busy), members of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights voiced their displeasure over this practice. They were particularly concerned about information being held on members of Congress, however, it was emphasized that legislators are treated no differently than any other citizen.
Here’s an exchange between M. Caldwell Butler, of Virginia, and then-FBI Director Clarence Kelley concerning a made-up person named John Jones:
Mr. Butler: “Let us just take John Jones and somebody says to the Bureau there is a guy named John Jones in Boston who is nuts. What do you do with that? Can you not just throw it away, or do you have to really put it in the miscellaneous file, index it and keep it there, and then go through the purging procedure later, or does the guy lose his job if he does not file it?”
Mr. Kelley: “I am confident again that some of it is not put in the file. But the general instruction is that it does go into the file, it having been reported to us by a citizen, and in the orderly conduct of our business we are to take information which is unsolicited and comes to us.”
So let’s ponder on that for a second. Whenever someone—anyone—went missing, even if the FBI wasn’t conducting an investigation, which is the norm for most missing persons cases, they were probably receiving a lot of unsolicited letters and phone calls from acquaintances of that person, be they friend or foe. These wouldn’t be the “he was such a nice guy” sort of call. They’d be juicier, perhaps scandalous—something that might help explain why such a nice, quiet person up and vanished. Kelley admitted that that’s the sort of information the FBI would gladly accept and file. And with as much publicity as missing person cases receive, I’d imagine that if any of the classifications had a need for their very own special file room, classification 79 would.
Why do you think room 1126 is in the Ident Building?
I was still leaning heavily toward the DOJ Building, when things began to fit much better for the Ident Building. Here’s what led me to my conclusion.
The Department of Justice Building Map doesn’t fit.
I managed to find several telephone directories for the Department of Justice during that general time period, which included a map of the DOJ building’s layout. (Thanks again, Google Books!) I then developed a chart of room numbers on the first floor where Special Investigative Division staff were located in 1975, before they moved into the FBI Building. Although they were located in almost every corridor, no one had an office in the 1100 corridor, which was still occupied by DOJ administrative staff. Therefore, even if there was a room 1126 in that corridor (which I still haven’t confirmed), a DOJ administrator would’ve had to be responsible for the missing person files, which is highly unlikely. That isn’t how the FBI operated.
Files and Communications were responsible for all files, even the special ones.
The Files and Communications Division had a lot of say regarding management of the bureau’s files. If a division wanted to house a sensitive file in the Justice Building for accessibility, they needed to alert Files and Communications first, and it was signed out on a short-term basis, usually with the file kept in a supervisor’s office. Although we learned from Mark Felt that divisions had their own stash of special files, they would’ve been in a locked file drawer, not occupying an entire room. Also, they wouldn’t have had their own stamp declaring it the “Ident Missing Person File Room.”
The Files and Communications Division occupied much of the first floor of the Identification Building.
To reiterate, all bureau files—including those in the Special File Room—were the responsibility of the Files and Communications Division, which occupied several floors of the Identification Building, including the first floor. From 1961 to 1972, the Special File Room was located in room 1315 Ident, and the supervisor in charge of the Special File Room was located in room 1113 Ident. The Special File Room was later moved to the third floor of the Ident Building before everyone moved to the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
The numbering fits.
Room numbers in the Identification Building were in four digits, with the first digit indicating the floor number. Therefore, room number 1126 fits the scheme for a first-floor room. Also, I compared office numbers listed in the 1975 telephone directory, and a number of them correspond to one another by floor. For example, there were offices in rooms 3129, 5129, and 6129. Even though no one had an office number 1126—why would they if it was full of missing person files?—someone did have an office in room 3126, two floors up. We also know that the health center was in room 1121, which would have been a few doors down from 1126.
‘Ident’ is used two ways.
This was perhaps a big source of my confusion. Sometimes “Ident” refers to the Identification Building. And sometimes it refers to the Identification Division. When they wrote “Removed from Ident files” on Ron’s missing person documents, they were talking about the division.
Likewise, the “Ident” in front of “Missing Person File Room” on the stamp was likely referring to the division, although it could have been referring to the building. Either interpretation works.
But are you ready for the clincher? On the first page of the May 26, 1953, report summarizing Mrs. Tammen’s phone call, off to the right of Ron’s identifying features, are the words “Copy of photo filed in 1126 Ident.” Below that is the date 6-5-73. And below that are the initials MSL. They did the customary thing and put the room number in front of the name of the building—1126 Ident. They told us which building. They’d been telling us all along.
And you guys? Now that we know the exact location of the Ident Missing Person File Room, suddenly I’m in the mood to submit a few more FOIAs. Funny how that happens.
You know how it feels when you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle and a puzzle piece doesn’t fit quite right? It looks like it should fit. It seems as if it has all the right edges. But when you try to insert one piece’s knobby end into the corresponding cut-out area of another piece, you discover that you have to use too much force jamming it in. That’s how I felt about my hypothesis from January 21 on the location of the Ident Missing Person File Room—room #1126 in an unnamed building. Lots of details seemed to fit the J. Edgar Hoover Building, but I’ll admit that other details required a little too much, um, creative-thinking, shall we say? Case in point: when I proposed that the Identification Division had assigned a number to the Missing Person File Room that was based on the future numbering system of a building that was still in the blueprint stage, well, that’s getting pretty creative. Also, if the room was going to be housed on the 11th floor with all of the muckety mucks in Identification, as I’d proposed in my hypothesis, it should have had five digits, not four. It should have been room #1126-something, like 11261 or 11265. You get the gist.
So, I admit it. I was wrong. I apologize for the confusion and I humbly beg your forgiveness. As I believe I’ve mentioned in past posts, I am a human being with all of the accompanying accoutrement and baggage.
I’m not going to bore you with the precise details of how I came upon the new hypothesis because, truth be told, I don’t think I could replicate the sequence of events. Let’s just say that I read through a bunch of documents, plus I spent more time looking through the 1975 FBI phone directories, then I Googled a bunch of stuff based on what I’d learned through said documents and phone directories. Coffee was involved as well.
Now, several days later, I think we’re getting really, REALLY close to knowing the truth behind the Ident Missing Person File Room, and why some of Ron’s missing person documents were housed there.
Here’s how we’re going to do this. Far be it from me to bury the lede, so I’m going to tell you very soon—in the very next paragraph, in fact—what I discovered. Then, I’ll try to address all of the questions that I can imagine swirling around in your collective brains.
Here’s what I discovered: Room 1126 was very likely a room on the first floor of the Department of Justice Building, a building that had housed more than two-fifths of the FBI before the J. Edgar Hoover Building was completed in 1975. The division that maintained room 1126, the Ident Missing Person File Room, was very likely…wait for it…the FBI’s Special Investigative Division.
And now, some Qs and As:
Really? Are you sure?
I’m pretty darn sure. But you may have noticed that I used the words “very likely” twice in the above paragraph. That’s because, although I haven’t yet found a document that directly links room 1126 to the Special Investigative Division, I’ve discovered lots and lots of connecting dots that link the two together.
Why do you think the Missing Person File Room was in the DOJ Building?
First, the numbering format of the building fits. The DOJ Building is seven stories high, and its numbering system is always in four digits. Rooms on the first floor all begin with the number one followed by three other numbers.
Second, although I wasn’t able to find documentation of room 1126 (yet), I was able to find documentation of room 1127, which, in February 1976, was the office number of someone by the last name of Newman. Unfortunately, this particular Newman doesn’t appear to be listed in the 1975 FBI phone directories, but that’s OK. I have more to say on Newman in a second.
Third, if you examine those phone directories, you’ll see the names and abbreviations of five buildings listed at the top of the first page. These are the buildings in which the thousands of FBI staff were stationed, and they were scattered around DC and in nearby Silver Spring, MD. You’ll see the initials JEH for the J. Edgar Hoover Building and IB for Identification Building. But there’s one building that isn’t listed at all, even though people were still working inside it. In those instances, a person’s name would be listed, along with a phone extension, and a room number, but no building would be specified. I later found this was the Department of Justice Building. Furthermore, with one exception, all of the offices that were on the first floor were located in the DOJ building.
Why didn’t they write the name of the DOJ Building in the staff directory?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I’m thinking maybe it was for security reasons. Or maybe, because it was the main administrative building for so many years, the office culture had been to just write the room number. The only time they’d need to name a building was if they were describing a different building. Just guessing though.
Two parter: How did you figure out that the missing building in the directories was the DOJ building, and how did you tie everything to the FBI’s Special Investigative Division?
Oh, this is when things got fun. Remember Newman in office 1127? Well, the documents I found on him or her looked mighty investigative in nature. In February 1976, he or she had requested a slew of files from the Records Management Division. The files that were requested could be subversive or nonsubversive; some were restricted to the DC metro region, and others not.
Then I looked at the 1975 phone directories again. Many of the individuals who were listed without a building were in the FBI’s Special Investigative Division. And most of those individuals also happened to be on the first floor.
That’s when I started Googling the Special Investigative Division like mad. One person, a guy by the name of Courtney Allen Evans, had been named to head the division when it was created in 1961. According to his personnel documents that I found on the FBI Vault site, in 1962, as Evans was starting his new position, he received some room keys. Evans retired in 1964, however, those room numbers correspond to several of the rooms that are listed in the 1975 phone directory for people who worked in the Special Investigative Division, including the man in charge, William V. Cleveland.
Lastly, the annual inspections of the Special Investigative Division for 1962 and 1964 said outright that all division space is located on the first floor of the Justice Building with the exception of some employees who were on the seventh floor.
Hence: the unnamed building in the phone directories was the DOJ Building, and, in 1975, the FBI’s Special Investigative Division occupied the first floor.
Did any of Courtney Evans’ room keys happen to be for room #1126?
Sadly, no. But documents show that Courtney also had a master key to the entire first floor, which he returned when he retired.
You said there was one exception to your discovery that all of the offices that possessed first-floor room numbers in the phone directories were located in the DOJ Building. What was the exception?
The exception was in the Identification Building, which had one room listed on the first floor, #1121. That room was the health service for the Identification Division. Although I’m a big believer in health, I wish this office hadn’t existed because its room number is very close to the number 1126, which plants a small seed of doubt regarding my theory. Nevertheless, I think the preponderance of evidence supports the notion that 1126 was in the DOJ Building.
That’s very interesting, but I’m still thinking about the health clinic in the Identification Building. Why don’t you think room 1126 was somewhere nearby?
Two reasons: First, not one person with whom I’ve spoken who had worked in the Identification Building has ever heard of the Ident Missing Person File Room. Not a soul. And I spoke with people who, if there was such a thing on the first floor of the building in which they worked, they should have known about it.
Second, it wasn’t the protocol. Missing person documents were normally filed with the Records Management Division. The missing person file room was not part of the Identification Division’s day-to-day business of handling missing person cases.
Wow. If you’re right, this would help answer a lot of questions about the Missing Person File Room stamp on Ron’s documents, wouldn’t it?
Go on…I’m listening…
Well, there’s the question of why don’t they identify the building after the room number on the stamp? But if it’s the DOJ Building, they probably didn’t feel the need to add the name of the building, just like with the phone directories.
Also, there’s the question of why does the word “Ident” precede the words “Missing Person File Room”? If the room was housed somewhere in the Identification Division, they shouldn’t have to specify Ident, should they?
You know, that’s another really good point. If we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who worked in the Special Investigative Division, they might have labeled their Missing Person File Room with the prefix “Ident” to reinforce the fact that the files originated with the Identification Division. The name may have been a shout-out to the fine folks in Identification, though the file room resided within the Special Investigative Division.
What’s so special about the Special Investigative Division?
Let’s start with some historical perspective: the Special Investigative Division didn’t exist until 1961, when Courtney Evans was named to the head post by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had decided to split his investigations team into two divisions—the General Investigative Division and the Special Investigative Division—as a tactical maneuver to help reduce friction between the FBI and Hoover’s two nemeses, President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Both Kennedys liked and trusted Evans, and Evans served as a liaison to both men.
The General Investigative Division covered all of the typical FBI cases: murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and the like, as well as fraud, embezzlement, and civil rights cases.
The Special Investigative Division, on the other hand, covered three main categories. The first was organized crime, which, according to a 1975 FBI brochure, was defined as “a lawless empire involved in gambling, loan sharking, narcotics, prostitution, labor-racketeering, extortion, and any other venture where easy money can be made.” Organized crime includes the mafia, but it can also include gangs and other organized groups. The Special Investigative Division also investigated fugitives—people who escaped arrest or incarceration. They were also the group who investigated Selective Service Act violations, aka draft dodgers.
Lastly, agents in the Special Investigative Division were the ones who were called upon to investigate individuals who were being considered for employment in high or sensitive government posts under the “Security of Government Employees program.” As the 1975 brochure states, “These investigations ensure that appropriate Government officials have the necessary information on which to judge whether a person chosen to serve the American public is deserving of the trust placed in him as a public servant.”
So why do you think the Special Investigative Division would have had Ron’s missing person file?
Exactly. Why would the Special Investigative Division want to investigate Ron Tammen?
I don’t believe Ron was linked in any way to organized crime, so let’s just toss that one out right now. We know all about the source of the fish in the bed, and so did the FBI. It wasn’t the mob. And there’s no indication that Ron was involved in any of the nefarious activities previously mentioned.
What about fugitive or Selective Service Act violation cases? We already know that Ron was investigated for draft dodging beginning in 1953. But that case was closed in 1955 by the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, Ohio. (I’ve submitted a FOIA request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, by the way, to find out how typical that action was.) So with the Special Investigative Division starting in 1961, I highly doubt that they would have reopened Ron’s Selective Service case. No way.
Let’s see, let’s see…so what’s left?
What about the very happy-sounding and not-at-all-worrisome program known as the “Security of Government Employees program”? When I looked up that program, a page popped up on the National Archives and Records Administration website that states that this investigative program (labeled Classification 140 in FBI parlance) was established by the FBI in 1953 as a way of enforcing Executive Order 10450, which was the executive order signed by President Eisenhower to root out and fire gay government employees. We’ve discussed the Lavender Scare on this site before, and how the FBI was descending on civil servants and subjecting them to intense interrogation about their personal lives. Well, now we know the people who were doing it: our friends in the Special Investigative Division.
Now, recall that, in 1953, the Special Investigative Division didn’t exist yet—they inherited the program later. But Ron’s documents were very likely passed along to them—for whatever reason—after they were established in 1961.
Do you think that’s why Ron’s documents were housed there—through the Security of Government Employees program?
It’s tough to say, since we don’t have the documents. But we do know that the FBI was investigating Ron’s case far more than they would a typical missing person case. I’ve often wondered where those interview reports landed, and my current belief is that many of them may have been stored in the Missing Person File Room.
Do you think the Missing Person File Room is still in the DOJ Building?
If I’m not mistaken, the Special Investigative Division moved out of DOJ later in 1976, and into their new digs at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. In September of that year, a group representing the General Counsel to the Public Documents Commission of the DOJ was occupying Newman’s old office.
So what’s next? What can you do to find out more?
I think this information opens up new territory for Freedom of Information Act requests. First off, I need a floorplan of the DOJ building, like, pronto. I’ve attempted this before and failed. But now I have more reason to push on that.
What do you all think? Can you think of some FOIA requests that are just begging to be submitted?
Any final thoughts?
Just one: We’ve been saying all along that Ron’s missing person case was special. Apparently the FBI’s Special Investigative Division thought so too.
Update regarding my 2/23/22 blog post:
As you may recall, I’ve been trying to figure out if there was a room 1126 in the Department of Justice (DOJ) Building in the early 1970s. If I can prove that, then I think we can reasonably conclude that the Ident Missing Person File Room was under the supervision of the FBI’s Special Investigative Division.
To answer that question, I’ve been attempting to get my hands on the DOJ Building’s floor plan. But I’ve come to learn that the DOJ Building is considered one of the most secure buildings in the federal government. Translation: I won’t be getting a copy. I did manage to locate someone from the General Services Administration who has a copy of the original floor plan from the 1930s, and who was willing to tell me if there was a room 1126. Here’s what she said:
“Looking at the original (1930s) first floor plan for the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building at 950 Pennsylvania Ave NW, there does not appear to be a room 1126. It’s possible that the building was re-numbered between 1930 and 1970, however, the original plans do not contain that number.”
So that’s disappointing.
I then asked: “Did the original floor plan show a room 1127? That could help me determine if there could have been a renumbering afterward.”
Her response was: “No, I do not see a room 1127 either.”
So here’s my thinking: unless the staff member known as Newman was working out of a different building in 1976—and I don’t think he was—they must have renumbered the rooms sometime between 1935, when the DOJ Building was completed, and 1976, when Newman was making his records requests.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Jenny, Newman’s records requests didn’t include the building name—only the number 1127. Is it possible that Newman was working out of the Identification Building? Maybe the Special Investigative Division placed him there so he’d be closer to Records Management, which I seem to recall was also located in the Identification Building.”
Wow…you have an insanely good memory. But while anything is possible, I believe I have proof that that wasn’t the case.
First, although it might have been helpful to place Newman close to Records Management, here’s the snag in that theory: Records Management was part of the Files and Communications Division, and, in February 1976, they had already been occupying the fifth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building for over a year. There would have been no reason for Newman to be in the Identification Building in 1976 as everyone else was moving out.
Also, there really, truly was (and perhaps still is) a room 1127 in the DOJ Building. I know this because I have two documents from September 1976 that tell us so.
The first is a letter dated September 15, 1976, from the deputy archivist of the United States to the General Counsel’s office of the Public Documents Commission, a commission created in 1974 to study “the control, disposition, and preservation of documents produced by federal officials, particularly the President.” It appears as though the commission took over Newman’s office shortly after he and his colleagues moved into the J. Edgar Hoover Building that same year.
The letter’s recipient, an attorney named Dori Dressander, passed away in 1999, I’m sorry to report. Otherwise, I would have definitely reached out to her to ask about the room next door and whether she had any good stories she could tell us about Newman. Some additional research on Ms. Dressander reveals that she was a respected legal scholar who had been working on a book on civil rights under the Eisenhower Administration at the time of her death. After she died, the landlord of her Washington, D.C. apartment sent all of her research papers–which were on loan to her and should have been part of Eisenhower’s Presidential Library — to the landfill, which is sadly ironic, considering her obvious belief in public access to historical records. (Note to self: revise will to donate Ron Tammen files to a millennial whom I like and trust.)
The second document is a write-up from the September 16, 1976, issue of the Federal Register that also lists room 1127, Department of Justice.
So, at least for now, our theory is holding up.
Mind you, there’s still a chance that room 1126 is or was on the first floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, but I doubt it. The stamp on Ron’s missing person documents likely preceded 1975, the year in which the Hoover building was constructed. Also, the first floor was predominantly devoted to administrative-type purposes, such as classrooms, an auditorium, and the personnel office. A computer room for the National Crime Information Center was also on the first floor, in room 1328. Although, at this point, we can’t rule out the J. Edgar Hoover Building entirely, hopefully the additional FOIA documents I’ve requested will help us do so. And who knows, maybe with those documents in hand, we’ll be knocking on the door to the Ident Missing Person File Room–a door that’s maddeningly unremarkable; a door that’s in full view but is way too easy to miss–sooner than we know.
Considering how similar the Ron Tammen and Richard Cox disappearances seemed to be, one question that may have crossed your minds at some point is: were Richard Cox’s missing person documents handled the same way as Ron Tammen’s? In other words, were some of Cox’s documents stamped “Return to Ident Missing Person File Room” too?
To the best of my knowledge, the answer is “no” to both questions.
I know that some of you aren’t convinced that there was a missing person file room per se. But even so…the FBI seemed to be treating the two cases differently, even though there were distinct similarities between them and they’d occurred only three years apart.
Admittedly, I’ve been eyeballing hundreds of pages today and there’s a chance I may have missed something.
And so…I’ve decided to post all of Richard Cox’s FBI documents on this website. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the FBI’s files on Cox have ever been posted in their (supposed) entirety online before. Feel free to explore them at your leisure. There’s quite a bit there and some of it makes for fascinating reading. Also, if you do spot either of the above phrases, or anything else of interest, please let me know. You can find the three CDs’ worth of documents at the bottom of the home page, in the same area as the other documents I’ve posted.
Lastly, if their estimate is still on target, I should be hearing from the Department of Justice by early February regarding my appeal concerning Richard Cox’s Additional Record Sheets. It would be a huge deal if they rule in my favor. I don’t think anyone has ever requested—and received—Additional Record Sheets from the FBI before. Fingers crossed.
A couple days ago, as I was pondering my next move on a recent FOIA request that had left me empty-handed, I turned my sights once again to the July 1975 FBI telephone directory.
You may recall the directory in question. We’d discussed it when I was trying to track down someone who’d removed Ron’s missing person documents from “Ident” in June 1973—someone who appeared to have the initials MSL. The directory header says “Officials and Supervisors” in large print and “Secretaries, Stenos, and Clerical Supervisors” in smaller print. Beneath that header is an unredacted list of former employees and their phone extensions, and following those names are the names and locations of every division, section, unit, and desk in the Bureau. It’s a tiny window into the FBI in the mid-seventies and a window that I needed to peer through a little more intently. I guess you could call me the FBI’s own little Gladys Kravitz.
Not all officials are listed in the 1975 staff directory, mind you. Clarence M. Kelley had been the director since 1973, and his name is nowhere to be found. The logic may have been that if you’re an employee of the Bureau, you should already know who the director is. Shame on you if you needed to ask if Kelley was spelled with an “ey” or just a “y.” But Kelley’s underlings are all present and accounted for, including his associate director Nicholas P. Callahan and the associate directors of each of the 12 divisions and the Office of Planning and Evaluation.
According to the directory, the director’s and associate director’s offices were located on the seventh floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which had been newly completed that very year. Many of the FBI’s employees were also stationed there by then, though not all. People were still occupying space in the Identification Building at 2nd and D Streets SW, as well as an Annex at 215 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the Old Post Office Building, and the Willste Building, which was a high-rise in nearby Silver Spring, MD (and is now a pricey condo building).
Richard H. Ash, who headed up the Identification Division at that time, had an office on the top floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building—the 11th—in room 11255.
Two days ago, I found myself staring vacuously at the second-to-last page of the directory at a general entry for the Identification Division. The entry looked modest for the largest division in the agency. The mammoth sections it oversaw appeared alphabetically as stand-alone entries, typed in all caps with their units beneath, but the division itself appeared on its own in mostly lower-case letters. Only its phone extension managed to convey an elevated degree of importance: 2222. The Identification Division’s room number was 11262 in the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
It sounded familiar, but why?
And then it occurred to me that 1126 is the number for the “Ident. Missing Person File Room,” which had been stamped on several of Ronald Tammen’s missing person records. So far, a total of zero people I’ve spoken with from the FBI’s Identification Division or its successor, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), as well as the Records Management Division, have ever heard of the Missing Person File Room.
For those who may be new to the blog site, the Identification Division’s Missing Person File Room appears to have been a diversion from typical FBI protocol for missing persons. Several of Ron’s papers had been housed there, as indicated by the above stamp, and then the stamp was crossed out at some point, though we don’t know when or why, and we also don’t know where Ron’s papers were stored after that. My thinking is that Ron’s case wasn’t the typical missing person case. I also think they knew he was no longer missing. (You can read every blog post that discusses Ron’s missing person file at this link.)
Could it be, thought I, that the Missing Person File Room was in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, up on the 11th floor, under the watchful eye of the higher-ups in the Identification Division? It only had four numbers, not the five that was characteristic of the 11th floor’s numbering system. But is it…conceivable?
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that it makes no sense. Ron’s missing person documents had (ostensibly) been stamped sometime before June 1973, which precedes the Hoover building by at least two years. How could they specify a room number for a new building before said building had even been built?
Hear me out.
As it so happens, although the J. Edgar Hoover building was nowhere near finished in 1973, it had already been years in development by then, and had been since the early 1960s. In fact, if you’re ever in the mood for some light reading, or, better yet, a natural remedy for covid-fueled insomnia, documents pertaining to the entire process, which began with the formulation of an idea in 1940, can be found on the Government Attic website.
So keeping all of the above in mind, it would seem feasible that, by the summer of 1973, the Identification Division’s management probably was already preparing for its big move. To assist in the transition, perhaps they’d even decided to label some documents according to the new floor plan, even though the numbering system may not have been 100 percent final. Perhaps when they were writing the number 1126 on the line provided by the rubber stamp, they meant 1126-ish.
That might help explain another minor mystery, by the way—the Missing Person File Room stamp itself. I’d often wondered why someone had to write in the room number as opposed to having the room number engraved on the stamp. Was the information held there so confidential that they had to change its location every so often?
My thinking now is that the stamp was made during the transition period when they weren’t exactly sure where the Missing Person File Room would be located. “Just put a blank line there and we can fill in the room number later,” a 1970s office supervisor might have said before pivoting on her platform heels and walking away.
But what about the other buildings that the FBI used back in 1973? Could room #1126 have been in one of those?
I honestly don’t think so. I’ve attempted to obtain floor plans for the Robert F. Kennedy Building at 950 Pennsylvania NW, where the Department of Justice is housed and where some FBI officials were located before they moved next door to FBI Headquarters. Likewise, I tried to obtain floor plans of the Identification Building at 2nd and D Streets, SW, the hub of the fingerprint identification activities. I was unsuccessful. I also was unsuccessful in having someone answer my direct question regarding whether there is a room 1126 in the DOJ building now or in the Ident Building when the FBI was still a tenant.
One kind soul did tell me that there is no such number in the Ford House Office Building, which is a renovated version of the Ident Building.
I was also able to locate some room numbers online for the RFK building, though 1126 isn’t among them. Although the numbering is in four digits and there could feasibly be a room number 1126 on the first floor, it seems unlikely that the Missing Person File Room would have been there. It’s more plausible that it would be accessible to wherever administrative staff would have been located, which was usually on a higher floor.
As for the Identification Building, the 1975 FBI telephone directory shows that most sections were on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th floors. The directory didn’t specify a room number for the Technical Section, which housed the criminal fingerprint cards. (The civil and Old Armed Forces cards were stored in the Willste Building, in Silver Spring.) Technical staff were most likely stationed in a large open space on the first and possibly second floors. But again, it doesn’t seem likely that the Missing Person File Room would have been located there, particularly since people who’d worked there didn’t seem to know that the room existed.
I also don’t think the Missing Person File Room was housed in the Willste Building due to the same accessibility issues as for the DOJ building. It’s difficult to say, since no room numbers are provided in the directory.
Yesterday, I wrote to the National Capital Planning Commission’s (NCPC’s) Office of Public Engagement seeking the 1967 approved floor plan for the 11th floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, if available. I also requested copies of the approved floor plans for the first, second, and seventh floors, since the drawings are blurry in the 2014 GSA document. (The NCPC has suggested going through the Public Engagement Office first before filing a FOIA request.)
In addition, I plan to reach out to two former employees from that era who may be able to answer my questions about the Missing Person File Room as well.
**and the ways in which Ronald Tammen’s case was treated as an exception to the rule
The year that fingerprints first became part of J. Edgar Hoover’s tactical toolkit was 1924, the same year Hoover was named director of the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, and also the year in which the Identification Division was created. The technology itself has changed since then, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was occupying the White House, the Charleston was all the rage, and “23 skidoo” was something people would actually say to one another to appear street smart and hip. It was a very long time ago.
And yet, change didn’t come quickly for the folks in the Identification Division—or Ident as they were known to their fellow employees. For decades, the FBI was collecting fingerprints with the same tried-and-true method that they’d used since 1924—rolling black inky fingers onto white cardstock—and training thousands of employees the art of eyeballing one card against another to assess whether they came from the same set of fingers. They were using this methodology through 1941, when Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a second grader. They were still using it in 1973, when they fingerprinted the guy at Welco Industries to see if he might be Ron. And they kept on using it for more than a quarter century after that. Not until 1999, after the FBI had changed the division’s name to Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) and later moved the division to West Virginia, did fingerprinting finally go digital.
Millions of cards—Ron’s, the guy from Welco’s, plus all the others—were trucked from FBI Headquarters to the new facility in Clarksburg, WV. So many cards. Enough to go around the world if laid back to back, according to a former employee. Each and every card was scanned into a database, a feat in itself. Initially, that database was the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. IAFIS was a game-changing innovation that could sort through and match fingerprints in a fraction of the time that it would have taken an Ident staffer to do under the manual system. And as skillful as Ident staff were at reading fingerprint cards, no longer would the FBI need to rely on occasional judgment calls, which, much to Hoover’s and his successors’ chagrin, could vary. In 2011, CJIS began incrementally upgrading to the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, a massive database that is even faster and more powerful than IAFIS and incorporates fingerprint technology with all other biometric technologies except DNA. DNA has its own database, called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which we’ve discussed in previous blog posts.
So the process of collecting, sorting, and searching fingerprints has become way faster and more efficient thanks to the digitization of fingerprint data. But the basis of the technology—where the loops, whorls, and arches found on everyone’s fingertips are counted, categorized, and compared—is essentially the same as it was in 1924. And the importance of fingerprints in identifying one individual from another hasn’t changed much either, even today, when DNA reigns supreme.
Speaking of which, you know the meme of the guy who’s walking down the street with his girlfriend while he’s checking out another woman who just passed by?
Yeah, that one. DNA and the latest biometric tools, such as palm prints, irises, and facial recognition, may be what evokes oohs and aahs from people who like to keep up on the coolest new tech trends, which, to some degree, is most of us. But dollar for dollar, fingerprints continue to be the cute, nice, reliable technology that’s sometimes taken for granted. And yet, even with all the advances that are made in biometrics, it’s a safe bet that fingerprinting will continue to be an important identification tool for years to come. That’s because it’s built on the utterly astounding and never-proven-otherwise premise that no two people’s fingerprints are ever the same, even those of identical twins. And—get this—according to the book The Fingerprint Sourcebook, produced by the National Institute of Justice, of the U.S. Department of Justice, some people in China were using fingerprints as a means of identification as early as 300 BC. Does that blow your mind as much as it blows mine? How could people from 300 BC have known that fingerprints were so special? I’m quite sure that the first person to have used them would be surprised, no stunned, to know that their wild, out-of-the-box idea—their ancient hack to a primitive need—would still be used in 2020 and beyond.
Don’t get me wrong: No one here wants to disparage DNA. DNA is great. DNA is important. DNA technology has improved so much since the early days that even miniscule samples have helped solve cold cases such as the Golden State Killer. And if your DNA is found at a crime scene? Well, you’re probably toast. It’s pretty much attained “smoking gun” status, which isn’t the case for fingerprints. Fingerprints that are left at a crime scene—called latent prints—can be damning too, but, they’re rarely perfect. According to a 2017 study of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they are often refutable, since they’re usually incomplete and, as the AAAS study points out, nearly impossible to match to a single source.
Nevertheless, fingerprints, especially what the FBI calls the “ten print,” non-latent variety, aren’t going away anytime soon. If you want to know the true identity of someone, their fingerprints are better than a name. Better than a Social Security number. Better than a picture ID.
“Fingerprints are considered positive identification, so it’s a much better way to identify people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be identified. And that probably means most of the criminal element,” said one former CJIS employee.
So yeah—fingerprints, baby!
But we aren’t going to be talking about the science of fingerprints anymore on this blog post. No, the topic for today is standard operating procedures—or the bureaucratic maneuverings and machinations that take place once a set of fingerprints has been collected. In essence, we’ll be examining the life and death of a fingerprint, from the moment it’s pressed onto a white card or scanner and entered into the FBI’s system to the day it’s expunged. And friends, I challenge you to find anything on the internet that attempts to do what we’re attempting here. For the first time ever (I’m pretty sure), we’re pulling together information obtained from experts who categorized and analyzed fingerprints for the FBI for many years, a process that was drilled so deeply into their skulls that they could do it in their sleep. Then—when possible—we’re going to compare what the FBI routinely did, and sometimes still does, to what they did in Ronald Tammen’s case. And, spoiler alert: they aren’t the same.
My sources requested anonymity so they could speak openly, and because they no longer officially represent the FBI. We’ll do it like last time, in Q&A fashion. This time, however, I’ll list a question, provide an answer that merges what my sources told me with info from other related resources, and then, when applicable, compare and contrast that summary with the way things were handled for Ron Tammen, which will be printed in blue. Some answers may sound familiar to you, since we’ve discussed them before. Sometimes I added two and two together. You ready? Let’s do this.
Who can submit fingerprints to the FBI?
Only law enforcement agencies or a court can submit fingerprints to the FBI.
How it pertains to Tammen: This jives with Tammen’s case. Evidence indicates that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were taken by the local police in Fairview Park, Ohio, in 1941, when he was a second grader, and they submitted the fingerprints.
How were fingerprints submitted to the FBI under the manual system?
The FBI generally didn’t accept fingerprint cards from local police departments because they would have been overwhelmed by the numbers. Instead, they had state police bureaus and other channeling agencies. Generally, the local police department would send the prints to the state police bureau and the state bureau would send them to the FBI. Conversely, once the FBI determined whether or not there was a match, they would respond to the state bureau and the state bureau would notify the local police.
How it pertains to Tammen: According to info I have from around that time, the Fairview Park police sent the fingerprints directly to the FBI as opposed to going through a state police bureau. It could be that they’d gotten such an early jump on the FBI’s civil fingerprinting efforts that they didn’t need to involve a middleman. Whatever—this little swerve from the norm isn’t a big deal, in my view.
How are fingerprints submitted now?
It’s still law enforcement types and the courts who can submit fingerprints to the FBI, but they can do so electronically using the NGI system. Police officers can even fingerprint someone using a mobile device in their squad car, hit the send key, and then, in a matter of seconds, receive information on the person’s identity and whether he/she has a criminal record and if there are possible warrants out for their arrest.
How it pertains to Tammen: It doesn’t. It’s just interesting.
What does the FBI number mean?
The FBI number is assigned to fingerprints when they are submitted and placed in a file. It would not be assigned to a “return print,” a civil fingerprint that was going to be returned immediately to a local police department or to someone’s parents. This was the number that the Identification Division would use to track all information pertaining to those fingerprints.
How it pertains to Tammen: Ron had an FBI number (#358 406 B] assigned to his fingerprints, which means that the Identification Division took the time to create a fingerprint jacket for him (the folder where fingerprints were stored). This tells us that the FBI likely retained Ron’s prints from day one, as opposed to sending them back to Fairview Park, and that they also likely had his fingerprints on file the day Ron went missing. Is it weird that the FBI would have kept his prints when every FBI source I’ve spoken with has found this detail most unusual? Yes, it’s weird. But I’m just glad that A) he was fingerprinted at all, and B) the FBI retained the prints. Think about how much less information we’d have on the Tammen case if the FBI hadn’t had a fingerprint file on him. All the strange behaviors during all those critical years (particularly 1967, 1973, and ultimately 2002) wouldn’t have occurred. If my theory of what happened to Tammen bears out, then those fingerprints could be the one detail that his shrewd handlers had no prior knowledge of, and that Tammen had long forgotten about, that could finally bring us some answers.
What information was included in the fingerprint file/jacket?
The fingerprint jacket contained a person’s fingerprint card or cards. In a missing person case, if the Identification Division was fortunate enough to have the missing person’s fingerprints, that’s the only information they would maintain in this file. Other descriptive information would be housed in Records Management. As we all know from the preceding post, there was also an Ident Missing Person File Room, but it didn’t appear to be well known among Ident staff, and it was not part of the usual protocol when handling missing person cases.
How it pertains to Tammen: According to the FBI memo from 5-22-73, there was only one fingerprint card in Ron’s file, which followed protocol. What was unusual were the documents that had been kept—and removed from—the Ident Missing Person File Room, number 1126, in June 1973. I’ve filed several FOIA requests in hopes of figuring out that little side mystery and will keep you posted.
What did the FBI do with the civil print cards they collected?
Most of the civil fingerprint cards that the Identification Division received were treated as “return prints,” which meant that the FBI had no intention of keeping them in their files. Each fingerprint card would be searched manually against the criminal fingerprint file and, if there was no match, it would be stamped on the back: “no criminal record.” The card would then be mailed back to the submitting agency. If the civil fingerprint matched a criminal record, the submitting agency would receive a copy of the criminal record known as “a rap sheet.” (The FBI likely held onto those prints.)
Generally, the only fingerprint cards that would have been permanently retained by the FBI in the civil file would be military personnel and employees of the federal government. However, there was one group in particular whom Hoover encouraged to be fingerprinted, and that was the Boy Scouts of America. The organization, which had developed a merit badge in fingerprinting, would send the scouts’ prints to FBI Headquarters, and, in return, the boys would receive a letter thanking them for helping with the cause. According to MuckRock.com, the Boy Scouts’ prints were maintained in the civil file, though my FBI sources recalled that they had been returned.
How it pertains to Tammen: Every FBI source I’ve spoken with has been both surprised and skeptical that the FBI would have kept Ron’s fingerprints from 1941. Apparently, it was extremely rare for the FBI to retain children’s fingerprints in the civil file back then. However, the FBI clearly had his fingerprints on file at some point because in 2002, they expunged them. The fact that Ron’s fingerprints were assigned an FBI number convinces me that they held onto them as opposed to sending them back to the police or parents and asking them to return them when he went missing. (It doesn’t really matter which scenario happened, to be honest, but we’re going for accuracy here.) If the FBI did keep his fingerprints from childhood, they would have maintained them in the civil file until 1953. Then, when he went missing, they would have moved them to the criminal file since the criminal file is the active file that is always consulted when new prints come in.
What does the FBI do with the criminal prints they collect?
They keep them all. People who’ve been arrested 10 times will have ten sets of fingerprints in their file, ostensibly as a means for identifying latent fingerprints in possible future arrests. For example, if the fingerprint picked up at a crime scene isn’t very good, the FBI could bring up a suspect’s fingerprints from all ten arrests to find if a corresponding section of one of those prints is a match with the latent print. Also, retaining all criminal fingerprints creates a comprehensive history of all the dates the person was arrested.
Under the manual system, the first fingerprint card from the first arrest would be filed in the master criminal file. Fingerprints from any subsequent arrests were filed together in the person’s fingerprint jacket. Likewise, under the digital system, all fingerprint data was also entered into the database for that person.
The criminal file includes the fingerprints of, you guessed it, criminals, such as people who are incarcerated, arrested, or who have warrants out for their arrest. It also includes missing persons as well as some federal employees, such as people who work for the FBI. The latter policy started with—who else?—Hoover, who said, “if any of my employees have any contact with the law, I want to know about it!” Several other federal agencies with law enforcement responsibilities have their fingerprints in the criminal file as well.
How it pertains to Tammen: As you can see, the FBI goes to great lengths to preserve every set of criminal fingerprints that it collects, even in cases where multiple sets of prints for the same person are already on file. However, Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints—of which they only had one set—were expunged in 2002, even though Tammen was ostensibly still missing. We’ll be discussing this development in more detail later, but, for now, let’s try to fully appreciate how inexplicable and bizarre this action seems to be. By that year, Tammen’s single set of fingerprints—the FBI’s only definitive means for identifying him—would have been entered into IAFIS, taking up a negligible amount of digital space and harming virtually no one as they sat there waiting for a potential hit. For what earthly reason would the FBI feel compelled to erase them forever from their vast database? Why would that be in their best interest? I wonder.
Did the FBI ever check the civil file for a match?
According to one knowledgeable source, the only time an Ident staffer would consult the civil file is in the case of an unidentified deceased individual. If a set of fingerprints came in of an unknown person who had died, they’d first search the criminal file, then they’d search the civil file. During the Vietnam War, for example, the fingerprints of unknown soldiers who had died in combat would be sent to the FBI for identification. In such cases, the civil file would always be checked, since that’s where the prints for members of the military were maintained.
How it pertains to Tammen: This would only pertain to Tammen if his fingerprints were in the civil file and he turned up dead. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if either happened.
Do they still keep criminal and civil fingerprints separate in NGI, or are they all lumped together?
According to a 2015 article published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all fingerprint data, civil and criminal, are now lumped together under NGI, and searched together thousands of times a day. While individuals found in the criminal file should be used to having their fingerprints searched for matches, this was a new development for people in the law-abiding civil file, and it creates privacy concerns. My FBI sources had retired before this policy was implemented, so they wouldn’t be able to comment. However, the controversy appears to be ongoing.
How it pertains to Tammen: It doesn’t, since Tammen’s prints were expunged in 2002, nine years before the transition to NGI had begun.
How difficult would it be to compare two sets of fingerprints in 1967: Ron Tammen’s, whose prints were in the criminal file, and a soldier in Vietnam’s, whose prints would have been in the civil file? (Question is in reference to this post.)
On average it used to take an Ident staffer 30 to 60 minutes to manually search an incoming fingerprint card against the criminal file, depending on the complexity of the print. A longtime employee said: “…If there were two sets of prints, one from an individual, one the military, it would be very easy to compare them to see if they were the same individual or not.”
How it pertains to Tammen: When Mr. Tammen wrote J. Edgar Hoover in October 1967 asking if the soldier pictured in an AP photo might be his son, Hoover responded that he didn’t have any more information on Ron’s case and suggested that Mr. Tammen contact the adjutant general of the U.S. Army regarding the soldier. In my opinion, this was a classic attempt at appearing helpful without helping at all.
Was Hoover’s response flaky? Couldn’t Hoover have found out the soldier’s name and asked his staff to test Ron’s prints against the soldier’s?
Said one expert: “Yes, it was. I thought so too.” Said another: “I am guessing that the Bureau did not have the time or resources to follow up on a newspaper article with a picture.”
How it pertains to Tammen: Let the record show that I consider it flaky—and telling—that Hoover wouldn’t have asked one of his Ident staffers to do this minor task for Mr. Tammen. As for the suggestion that Hoover may have had insufficient time and resources, the Identification Division was one of Hoover’s biggest bragging points, where hefty amounts of resources were devoted to the processing of millions of fingerprint cards each year. In 1964, the year of the FBI’s 40th anniversary, they were averaging 23,000-24,000 incoming fingerprint cards daily. Couldn’t they take some time to look at a couple more? Once Hoover had determined who the soldier was by calling the AP or the adjutant general himself, all he needed to do was ask one of his many Ident employees to spend an hour or less comparing the two cards. If it was a match, he could be a hero. For some reason, he didn’t feel it was worth that small effort.
What does it mean to expunge fingerprints?
The word expunge is often used in legal situations when referring to a criminal record. If a criminal record is expunged—some indiscretion of youth, for example, for which a judge decides a person has done their penance and, in a sense, lets bygones be bygones—it’s either sealed or wiped clean, as if it never existed. In a missing person case, the preferred terminology is generally to purge the records.
How it pertains to Tammen: According to Stephen Fischer, the CJIS media liaison in 2015, Tammen’s prints were “expunged” in 2002, though no evidence exists to indicate that he had a criminal record. Fischer later referred to the criteria by which fingerprints are “purged,” using the terms interchangeably. From this point on in this post, I’ll use both terms interchangeably as well.
When are fingerprints expunged?
According to Stephen Fischer in 2015, “The FBI purges fingerprint data and records at 110 years of age or 7 years after confirmed death.” In addition, according to other sources, the FBI will purge fingerprint data upon receipt of a court order to do so.
How it pertains to Tammen: Ronald Tammen would have been 68 or 69 in 2002, far younger than the 110 years of age currently required with NGI or even the slightly more youthful 99 years of age that was required with IAFIS. Unless there was a court order (which I’m still attempting to find out), the only other (ostensible) possibility is that the FBI had confirmed Ronald Tammen to be dead. It should be noted, however, that when I asked my FBI sources if they would make the same inference, no one was willing to go out on that limb for reasons that I’ll get into shortly.
How does the FBI know when 7 years/110 years have expired?
Under the manual file system, it would have been more tedious and probably fairly random to keep track of expiration dates. Now, however, my sources concur that it is an automated process, though no one I spoke to was aware of how the system sifts through the file to detect expired records.
How it pertains to Tammen: Unless his fingerprints were purged because of a court order or there’s another possible reason to remove a person’s fingerprints that I’m unaware of, something must have tripped the automated system.
Why would the FBI want to expunge someone’s fingerprints?
In general, this is something they’d prefer *not* to do. The FBI still relies heavily on fingerprints as a means of identifying people, particularly all the standout folks whose prints are in the criminal file. It’s not in the FBI’s best interest to purge those fingerprints without a very good reason. Storage space happens to be one very good reason. Once the FBI digitized its fingerprint data in 1999, beginning with IAFIS, a need arose to free up some storage space on occasion. And with NGI adding biometric data that requires even more space, the need has grown stronger since 2011. That’s why they have the 110/7-year rule. Other reasons for purging involve the legal system—the court ruling we’ve discussed earlier, for example. But according to most of the FBI experts I’ve spoken with, the reasons for purging a fingerprint can be counted on three fingers of one hand.
How it pertains to Tammen: This is the question that keeps me up nights. Ron didn’t make the 110-year age cut, so it’s either that he’s dead, and the FBI knows he’s dead but they don’t want us to know they know he’s dead, or it’s the court order thing. However, one source I spoke with speculated that perhaps someone in CJIS decided to purge Ron’s prints when they noticed that, if alive, he would be a much older adult in 2002, and maybe he didn’t want to be found:
“There were some situations where people were adults that had been reported missing and they weren’t really missing. They didn’t want to be found for some reason. And so, to me, it makes a difference whether you’re a minor child or above the age of 18 or 21, because an individual can choose, for whatever reason, just choose to disappear for their own reasons, for whatever purpose.”
The problem with that theory is that it completely goes against protocol. Nowhere have I read or heard that the FBI would purge a missing person’s fingerprints once a missing youth had reached adulthood. Perhaps an Ident staffer might have been inclined to make that sort of judgment call under the manual system…I don’t know. But, in 2002, when they were relying on the automated IAFIS system? I doubt it. There’s another reason I don’t think someone would have removed his fingerprints simply because he was older. I’ll discuss it in the next question.
What happens if a missing person turns out to be dead?
If an unidentified body was found, the local police could submit their fingerprints to the FBI through the state bureau. If the FBI already had the missing person’s fingerprints on file and they were a match, the submitting agency would have been notified of the match through the state bureau. In addition, a notice would have been placed in the missing person’s file saying that they had been confirmed dead, and, if available, the date they died. Here’s an important point to remember: the FBI doesn’t immediately purge the fingerprints of a missing person who has been proven dead. They just add the note. Even if a person is dead, those prints can still be valuable. They might be useful in helping solve cold cases or for identifying bodies following a disaster. That’s why they have a policy to wait seven years before purging them.
How it pertains to Tammen: If the FBI purged Ron Tammen’s prints in 2002 because he’d been confirmed dead seven years prior, that would mean that he would have died in 1995 at the latest. The FBI was still using its manual system in 1995. They were still using fingerprint jackets, and there should have been a note in the jacket saying that he was dead, and perhaps when he’d died.
As one knowledgeable source said:
“And even if a print had been identified as deceased, in that jacket, there still would have been information written in there by hand that it had been identified as deceased individual such-and-such. So all that would have been automated [after IAFIS was introduced], along with the actual fingerprints themselves that were digitized.”
Ostensibly, no notes have been written claiming that Tammen is deceased. However, it also bears repeating that, even if they’d found Tammen to be dead, it wouldn’t be reason for immediately tossing his fingerprints. They would have waited the seven years. If the FBI doesn’t think it should just toss the prints of a dead person right away, I doubt very much that they’d purge the fingerprints of a missing person who’d managed to evade detection for many years as an adult.
Would the FBI purge a missing person’s prints after they’re found?
Same answer as above. The fact that a missing person was located would be noted in the jacket but the fingerprint card would be retained. A court order would be needed to physically remove the print—which would also include a note saying that the prints had been expunged. Otherwise, they’d wait until that person was 110 years of age or seven years after confirmed death.
How it pertains to Tammen: Again, no explanatory information was in his file—no record of having been located and, as pointed out earlier, no record of his being found dead, and no record of a court-ordered purging. Also, to further drive home this point, if the FBI isn’t willing to purge a missing person’s fingerprints after they’ve been found, why would they remove them while he was still out there, unaccounted for? Answer: they wouldn’t.
How do you fingerprint a dead body?
[Warning: this is gross] If an unknown deceased body was discovered, sometimes the fingerprints would be in bad shape due to decomposition. However, fingerprints have three ridges that penetrate the skin fairly deeply. In such cases, a technician would put on rubber gloves and remove the skin down to a more, um, legible layer, shall we say? Then, they’d roll those prints on a ten print card. According to one former employee, any fingerprint that came from a deceased body was generally of poor quality—too dark or too light. Therefore, it was often difficult to conduct a manual search using a dead person’s fingerprints.
How it pertains to Tammen: Sorry about that. But if Ron Tammen died and the FBI confirmed that he died, they might have had to do that. We don’t know.
What types of records are kept after fingerprints are expunged?
We’re building up to one of our primary take-home messages, and here it is: Fingerprints aren’t supposed to just disappear without some sort of record. Based on information provided by Stephen Fischer in 2015, no other info was available on Tammen other than the fact that his prints were expunged in 2002. But the removal of fingerprints while they were considered still active would require some note of explanation regarding when they were removed and why. And these notes of explanation were all to be digitized as part of IAFIS.
According to FBI protocol back then, the notes were to be printed in the file jacket on sheets called Additional Record Sheets or ARS’s. Not only did the ARS require an employee to provide their employee number and date the sheet any time they removed the file, but they also were required “to record any disseminations of the record, including notations of expungement or purges of record entries, such as deletions of arrests for non-serious offenses.”
And here was their record retention policy after adding these notes to IAFIS:
Hard copy files: DESTROY after verification of a successful scan.
Scanned version: DELETE when the individual has reached 99 years of age, or 7 years have elapsed since notification of individual’s death, whichever is later.
You guys, and I’ll put this in bold italics for added emphasis: the information on Tammen’s ARS should theoretically still be available for his expunged fingerprints.
There was an additional record-keeping system that the FBI used to implement between the years 1958 and 1999. When the FBI purged a fingerprint file, they would put those fingerprints on microfilm for archival purposes. However, CJIS stopped making microfilm copies after IAFIS was implemented, which had been in place for roughly three years when Tammen’s prints were purged. Therefore, the microfilm library doesn’t apply to Tammen’s case.
How it pertains to Tammen: In February 2008, when former Butler County, OH, cold case detective Frank Smith requested a “hand search” for Tammen’s fingerprints, CJIS sent this response a couple days later by Fax:
“A SEARCH OF OUR CRIMINAL AND CIVIL FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR YOUR SUBJECT. A COMPLETE SEARCH OF OUR ARCHIVE MICROFILM FILES HAS FAILED TO REVEAL ANY FINGERPRINTS FOR THIS MISSING SUBJECT AS WELL.”
What the CJIS rep neglected to tell the detective—a member of law enforcement, and therefore a supposedly valued working partner of the FBI’s—was that they’d expunged them in 2002. So, to recap:
It appears as if someone in the Identification Division or CJIS didn’t document, didn’t digitize, or flat-out destroyed the ARS notations from Tammen’s manual jacket, including the reason for the expungement of his fingerprints in 2002, which is a clear break with protocol.
CJIS also didn’t disclose to the Butler County Sheriff’s Department the full extent of their knowledge about the case, the very least of which would be that they’d expunged Ron’s prints in 2002. This, in my view, is another break in protocol since I would think that members of law enforcement should generally try to be forthcoming with one another. (I’m guessing that, if the FBI had told Smith that they’d expunged the prints, they could anticipate a potential follow-up question that they didn’t feel like answering. Something along the lines of “Oh, really? Why?”)
Does the FBI verify someone’s identity before they expunge their prints?
The FBI will not purge someone’s fingerprints unless they’re certain that the person whose prints they’re purging is who they think he or she is. If the FBI is purging fingerprints because of a court order, the court or submitting agency would have to provide identification to ensure that the FBI was removing the right set of prints. Often, this would involve another set of fingerprints since fingerprints are still one of the best ways to identify someone. Other times, they may get away with simply providing telling details, such as the FBI number, the date of the arrest, and other specifics on the case, but fingerprints are still best. In the case of a deceased person or a missing person’s fingerprints being purged, a source said that it would be based on comparing two sets of fingerprints to make sure they’re the same individual.
How it pertains to Tammen: Think about the above paragraph for a second and maybe read it again, because it says a lot. First, the FBI wouldn’t have purged Ron Tammen’s fingerprints without verifying that they were indeed Ron Tammen’s prints. This helps solve a gnarly little question about the year in which Ron would have supposedly died. If they purged his prints in 2002, that would mean that Ron had probably died around 1995. Well, guess who else died in 1995: Ronald Tammen, Sr., who died on January 10 in Florida. So that was always a possibility. But according to my FBI sources, this likely didn’t happen because they would have verified it. Second, if they purged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 because he’d been dead for seven years, then they would have verified those prints against a second set of prints sometime around 1995. Remember what Stephen Fischer had said about the seven-year rule: “seven years after confirmed death.” That means that they would have confirmed Ron to be dead by comparing his prints against the prints on file, and then waited seven years before the system purged them. That could also mean that they know where his remains are. Third is the question raised by the source who said it could be that someone tossed Ron’s prints because he would now be an adult who doesn’t want to be found. If the FBI ensures that every fingerprint that’s purged needs to be verified, then that rule would nullify this possibility. How could they verify that it’s the correct person if they don’t have a second set of prints with which to compare his to?
Discussion: When a missing person’s records go missing
Are we any closer to being able to say that the FBI knows more than they’re letting on? I think so. It’s clear that the FBI broke protocol at least once, and possibly more than once when dealing with Ron’s fingerprints. Since the last update, I’ve submitted several more FOIAs, one of which has to do with the question about Ron’s father. Although I’m nearly positive that it was Ron Jr.’s fingerprints that were purged in 2002, I’ve submitted a FOIA request asking the FBI to search the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) offline historical database for any files on Mr. Tammen too, including evidence of possible fingerprint files. If they don’t have anything, I think we can safely conclude they were Ron Jr.’s. With this latest post, you can see that there are more FOIA requests to submit, including, for example, an in-depth search of Ron’s digitized Additional Record Sheets.
It’s probably also a good time to raise another possibility with you, a “what if?” that may have been in the back of some readers’ minds throughout this entire blog. What if Ron’s fingerprints weren’t destroyed because he died in 1995 but because someone in a high place decided that, for whatever reason, they needed to be purged—someone who also didn’t want telltale notes getting in the way of “plausible deniability.” Missing notes and expunged fingerprints aren’t smoking guns. The missing notes could possibly be blamed on anything: a distracted employee, an inadvertent mix-up, a computer glitch, whatever. Or they may have never existed at all. Likewise, it’s extremely tough to explain why fingerprints were expunged when the records that could give the backstory on why they’re missing are also missing.
Most maddening of all is that If I were to lay out my (nonexistent) evidence before an official FBI spokesperson, this is what I’d get:
That’s essentially what I got when I asked them a while back to comment, yes or no, whether they’d confirmed that Ron was dead. Remember what the spokesperson said? “The FBI has a right to decline requests.”
All along, I’ve been pointing to the FBI’s 2002 purging of Ron’s fingerprints as reason to believe that Tammen is dead. But if the missing documents and destroyed fingerprints tell us anything, it’s that, for whatever reason, the FBI may have made the decision to break protocol in Tammen’s case. And if protocol wasn’t being followed, well, that opens up a whole range of new possibilities, doesn’t it? I mean, could it be that Tammen, who would be 87 on the 23rd of this month, is still alive after all?
By now, I think you should have a pretty good indication of how (in my opinion) the city of Oxford, Ohio, and Miami University conducted their investigations into Tammen’s disappearance. I’ll say it here plainly, just so there’s no confusion: They did a really bad job.
Time and again, investigators would lament in the news about what few clues they had to go on after Tammen disappeared. Sure, they’d received some early tips about several area hitchhikers and an apartment dweller in Cincinnati, but none of those panned out. Then, Clara Spivey came forward with her alleged late-night Ron sighting in Seven Mile, and they finally felt as if they had a true lead. (In response to one reader’s request, we’ll be discussing Mrs. Spivey’s story in more detail in another post that I’m planning for Tuesday, November 6. You’ll have a chance to vote on whether you believe the person who appeared at her door was Ron or not.**)
After Mrs. Spivey’s call in late June 1953, investigators hit another dry spell clue-wise, which supposedly lasted 20 long years. In 1973, the drought ended, at least for the interested public, when reporter Joe Cella revealed that Ronald Tammen had visited Dr. Garret Boone’s office five months before he disappeared to have his blood type tested. We also learned that university officials had already known about the doctor’s visit shortly after Tammen went missing. They just didn’t view it as a clue.
So, Mrs. Spivey’s story? Definite clue.
Dr. Boone’s? Not so much.
When it came to determining whether something was a potential clue or not, these guys were (again, my opinion) clueless.
We’ve already covered some additional details about Tammen’s disappearance that I would categorize as clues. Some of the most significant ones include:
Song practiceRon is alleged to have been to song practice at the Delt house the night he disappeared and had walked back to the dorms with two other guys at around 10:30 p.m. If true, Ron disappeared more than two hours later than what was widely reported.
The fightRon allegedly had a fight with his younger brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom of Fisher Hall the night he disappeared.
The woman from HamiltonRon was supposedly seen seated in a car with a woman from Hamilton for a long time and then driving away with her late that night.
The psych bookRon had been reported reading his psychology book the afternoon that he disappeared, and his psychology book was left open on his desk, even though he’d dropped his psychology course earlier that semester.
The things in Ron’s backgroundRon Tammen might have had “things in his background” that were consistent with his having experienced dissociation (amnesia).
The dead fish Ron likely hadn’t slept in his bed at least one night, and possibly two, before his disappearance. We know this because Dick Titus had put the fish in Ron’s bed after class on Saturday or perhaps even Friday.
All of the above (and probably more) were known by university officials and Oxford police. If they viewed these details as clues, they chose not to make them public. But from what I can tell, they didn’t do much more than the most perfunctory of probes either. In particular, they could have pursued the rumor about the woman from Hamilton more enthusiastically, enlisting the news media for help. The Journal-News could have run the headline “Tammen allegedly last seen in car with woman from Hamilton,” and the accompanying article could have closed with “Anyone with information is asked to call this number.” But, nah.
And, let’s not forget Heber Hiram (H.H.) Stephenson, the housing official who swore up and down that he’d seen Tammen sitting in a hotel restaurant with a small group of men in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. Stephenson had shared this information with university officials immediately upon his return—the next day, he said—and we see the cryptic “H.H.S., Aug. 5, 1953, Wellsville, New York” in Knox’s notes to confirm that a conversation had indeed taken place. Again, if it hadn’t been for Joe Cella revealing the detail in 1976, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now.
So I have to ask: If the potential sighting by Mrs. Spivey was such a promising clue back on June 29, 1953, when it was first reported in the news, why wouldn’t H.H. Stephenson’s potential sighting have been considered just as promising when he reported it on August 6, about five weeks later? Hi Stephenson knew Ron. Clara Spivey didn’t.
And I have to follow with this question: Did university officials even think to alert the FBI about Stephenson’s story? On May 26, 1953, the FBI had a missing person file on Tammen, and roughly one week earlier, Carl Knox had informed Tammen’s parents that the FBI had been attending faculty conferences. Also, by July 27, 1953, Ron was listed as delinquent for his draft board physical, and therefore, in violation of the Selective Service Act. Carl Knox should have called them—immediately—and reported that an acquaintance of Ronald Tammen’s was quite sure he’d spotted him at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, the previous day. The FBI could have summoned their Buffalo office to check things out, and the Buffalo agents, in turn, could have shown the proprietor Ron’s picture and asked if anyone had seen him. They could have checked the hotel’s registry for the names of the young men. They could have asked if anyone had spoken with them, and if so, why were they there? Where were they going? Heck, if Knox had told them soon enough, the FBI could have possibly even dusted the lookalike’s chair for fingerprints, or, if he’d stayed overnight, the furniture in his room. But judging from the Stephenson quote in Joe Cella’s article, he was never approached again. Here’s what he told Cella: “I was under the impression all these years that my story was generally known by everyone, since Dr. Knox knew about it and was handling the investigation for the university. I am amazed to hear that this information was not known until now.” There’s nothing in the FBI files to indicate such a report was called in either.
So, again, Mrs. Spivey? Clue!
H.H. Stephenson? Better luck next time!
Which brings us to the spring of 1955, two years after Ronald Tammen’s disappearance, when Miami University received yet another potential clue in the Tammen case. Again, by all indications, officials promptly chose to sweep it under the rug.
The clue came in the form of a letter dated May 10, 1955, and addressed to: “Dean of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.” As vaguely worded as that was, it must have found its way to Carl Knox, who was still dean of men at that time, and several copies can be found in the Tammen materials at University Archives. The letter was signed by Major Delmar Jones, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Major Jones told of a dead body that had been found near LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953. The GBI, having received a news clipping about Tammen, was wondering if the body might have been Ron’s.
Here’s what the letter said:
A newspaper clipping was turned over to this Bureau several days ago by Mr. Hill Pope, the coroner of Walker County, Georgia. We do not know from whom this clipping came but it has reference to a young man by the name of RONALD TAMMEN, a nineteen year old sophomore who disappeared from your institution approximately two years ago.
Someone had evidently secured knowledge whereby we were trying to identify a badly decomposed body that was found on the outskirts of LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953.
This investigation is still pending, and we are still endeavoring to ascertain the identification of this body.
It will be appreciated very much if you will give us the full details and complete description of Ronald Tammen so that we may compare them with the identification of the unidentified body.
Your response to this communication will be appreciated very much and we will do everything in our power to assist in locating the subject Ronald Tammen if he should be in our territory.
Delmar Jones was Georgia’s number one law enforcement official from 1948 to 1962, and not someone to be taken lightly. (In 1962, he was demoted to trooper by the governor for campaigning for the former governor in a primary election, which, I suppose, was a risk he’d been willing to take.) Granted, H.H. Stephenson and Garret Boone weren’t slouches either. But you’d have to think that a letter from Georgia’s version of J. Edgar Hoover would have elicited some sort of response from the university.
I have no idea if Carl Knox or anyone else got back to Major Jones. In Miami’s archives, there are no carbon copies of letters mailed in reply. Perhaps Dean Knox placed a phone call to Major Jones, suggesting that the GBI contact the FBI, although no surviving FOIA documents indicate that contact had been made. (As a side note, Ron’s Selective Service case with the FBI was closed on April 29, 1955, 11 days before the GBI letter was written.) Or maybe officials called Major Jones and provided a full accounting of the case over the phone, but the GBI ruled Ron out for some reason and didn’t follow up with anyone. By all accounts, no one seemed to mention the letter to Joe Cella, Gil Wright, or Murray Seeger, since there are no news reports about a dead body in Georgia being possibly tied to Tammen’s case. I don’t even think the university bothered to tell the Oxford police. When I asked my friend Ralph (not his real name), the former cop who was still with the Oxford PD that year and several years after, he was surprised—stunned, actually—to hear about the letter.
So, once more: Confused guy on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared?
Dead body found in ditch 400 miles south of Oxford two months later?
Here’s what we can safely assume: no one went to the lengths that officials went to in late 2007 and early 2008 when, on their own, without even initially knowing about Delmar Jones’ letter, the Walker County, Georgia’s, Sheriff’s Office hypothesized that the two cold cases might be related.
It happened like this:
Mike Freeman, the cold case detective for Walker County, was conducting an end-of-the-year review of unsolved cases in his portfolio when his boss, Sheriff Steve Wilson, posed a question to him.
“What about that dead body found in a ravine back in 1953?” Wilson asked him (or something along those lines). Wilson wasn’t around when the dead body was discovered—he was born several years later—but his dad used to tell him about it, and he can point out the location to anyone who asks. To this day, people in the area refer to the site as Dead Man’s Hollow.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson stands next to the site where the dead body was found in 1953.
Freeman didn’t know anything about the case, but the story intrigued him. The department no longer had a file, so, for starters, he headed to the local library (which, conveniently, is just a few buildings away from the sheriff’s department) and found news articles that ran at the time the body was found. Based on information found in the articles, he learned that an autopsy was conducted by the state medical examiner’s office, which, thankfully, he was able to obtain. [Read the full autopsy report here.]
The details, provided in news accounts and the autopsy, aren’t pretty. The body was found in a highly decomposed state in a wooded ravine off Rogers Road, five miles south of LaFayette, on June 24, 1953. According to Dr. Herman Jones, director of the GBI crime lab (and probably no relation to Delmar, but who really knows?), it was “heavily infested from head to foot with maggots and other worms,” a sure sign that the man had been dead for a while. What was left of his face (which, by that point, was devoid of soft tissue and therefore any recognizable features) was angled upward, toward the sky, and his arms and legs were fully extended, kind of like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Some features were still discernible. His hair was dark brown to black, his height was 5’9,” and, when he was alive, and still had all of his internal organs and tissues in place, his weight would have been around 150 pounds. He had long arms and long slender fingers from which extended nails that were also long and “apparently well kept,” according to Dr. Jones, who’d conducted the autopsy on the same day the body was found. The decedent’s teeth weren’t as well cared for as his nails. Two lower back molars had large cavities in them and several teeth had been extracted. “No dental work done,” Dr. Jones reported, which could be interpreted to mean that he didn’t have any fillings or crowns. There was no evidence that any of the bones in his body had been broken, either recently or in the past. He was estimated to be between 25 and 30 years of age.
The man was wearing only a white T-shirt, size 38, with four round holes in it, and boxer shorts, size 32, the kind with buttons up the fly and a drawstring around the waist. Two khaki-colored wool socks lay at his feet. One sock lay near where his left foot should have been—it was missing, as were the toes on his right foot—and the other sock lay between his straddled legs. (Dr. Jones blamed an animal for the missing foot.) The shorts and socks were military-issue—U.S. Army. A quarter-inch-wide rubber band encircled each ankle, most likely to blouse the bottom of each pant leg, a common practice of G.I.s so that the full boot shows underneath. As for the man’s boots and pants, they were nowhere to be found, but, based on the items that had been left behind, it was clear that he was probably a soldier. What wasn’t clear was how the man died, though officials presumed it was a homicide. According to the sheriff at that time, the holes in his T-shirt were about the size of .38-caliber bullets, however Dr. Jones found no broken bones or skull damage and no evidence of foreign bodies.
The GBI also conducted an investigation (hence Delmar Jones’ letter), and they exhumed the body a second time after the autopsy for additional analysis, including obtaining fingerprints. The Army conducted an investigation as well. Unfortunately, neither have been able to produce records on the case.
Freeman went on the internet—something they obviously didn’t have in 1953—and searched for missing persons from that year. He immediately discovered the treasure trove of websites discussing the Tammen case (except, alas, for this one, which obviously came later). Freeman noted that both LaFayette and Oxford were on U.S. Route 27, and, in fact, the dead soldier was discovered only about 200 yards away from the highway. If Ron had been hitchhiking to Florida, he thought, it was the best possible route to take, since there was no interstate system back then. Ron’s height, weight, and hair color seemed to be in the ballpark too, and his age wasn’t too far off. Ron wasn’t in the Army, but who’s to say that he didn’t enlist after he left Miami? It was worth a shot.
Freeman contacted Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective at that time, and the two decided to make use of another new technology—DNA testing—to determine if the dead man was Tammen. On February 8, 2008, Freeman, Wilson, and Smith, along with Georgia’s chief medical examiner, GBI’s forensic anthropologist, Walker County’s coroner, members of the media, and curious onlookers witnessed the exhumation of remains buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 206 , Block A, in LaFayette Cemetery. The few bone remnants they obtained were forwarded to the FBI and other facilities for DNA testing. The results would be compared with a DNA sample that had been submitted a couple weeks prior by Tammen’s sister Marcia.
The following June, they got their answer: there was no match. The soldier wasn’t Tammen. It was a big disappointment, but cold case detectives probably get used to these sorts of let-downs. Interestingly, I arrived at the same conclusion in another, more roundabout way. In August 1958, human bones had been found in a gravel pit in Preble County, Ohio, which is about 25 miles north of Oxford. Authorities there had sent bone and teeth samples to Ohio’s Bureau of Identification and Investigation, in New London, for analysis to see if the remains might be Ron’s. (Before DNA testing, dental records were the primary method for identifying unknown victims and they’re still valuable today.)
According to an article in the August 17, 1958, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Preble County sheriff had said that no dental work had been performed on the teeth that they’d unearthed, though, admittedly, the set was incomplete.
The article continued:
Ronald’s mother, when informed of the find, said that her son had several teeth filled.
“Also, his upper teeth lapped,” she continued, “and he had planned to have them straightened.”
“Furthermore, he had a couple of broken bones that could be identified. When he was three, he got a broken collarbone jumping off a bed. Later, playing football in the street, he broke one of the small bones in one of his hands.”
As you’ll recall, the dead soldier in Georgia appeared to have had no dental work and no evidence of having broken any bones. Plus, there was no mention of an overlap of the front teeth. Based on the fact that Ron had had several fillings plus the overlap plus a couple broken bones, it’s obvious that, even before the DNA test, the person buried in Walker County, Georgia, wasn’t Tammen. The DNA evidence sealed the deal.
Miami and Oxford officials couldn’t have stated the above so unequivocally. In fact, it almost seems as if they’d given up looking for Tammen not long after he disappeared. Did someone in a position of authority tell them to stop their investigation? I wonder.
Oh, and P.S. As for the dead guy in Georgia, could it have been Richard Cox? I wonder about that sometimes too…
Let’s take a breather from the whole hypnosis/amnesia/psych book question right now. Rest assured, things are happening in that arena as we speak—things having to do with (fingers crossed) the possible declassification of key names on significant documents. But these things take time, and I need to chill for a little while and let some important people make their pivotal decisions in peace. We’ll jump right back over to that topic as soon as there’s a new development.
In the meantime, let’s talk about the fish in Ron’s bed a little more. Why? Because there’s something intriguing about that fish story that I haven’t shared with you yet.
We already know that the fish was a prank, not a message from the Mafia. We also know who put it there. It was Richard (Dick) Titus, the guy who lived down the hall from Ron in room 212. The same guy who’d been studying with Ron at around 7 p.m. on April 19, 1953. In 2010, he confessed to me that he was the culprit behind the fish prank and, in 2013, he elaborated a little more on the incident. So, what more can that fish—that cold, slimy, disgusting, long-dead fish—teach us about Ronald Tammen?
Think of it this way: in these emotionally charged and divisive times, when no one seems to agree on much of anything, I present to you one shining example of a core belief with which all of humanity can surely agree. And that time-honored value is this: no one in his or her right mind would ever knowingly sleep with a dead fish in their bed.
Keeping that singular uniting principle in mind—that people of all stripes are inherently averse to sleeping with rotting fish—isn’t it just a little bit odd that Ronald Tammen would wait to change his sheets until Sunday night, when the fish had been there since at least one day prior, and possibly two?
That’s right. During our second or perhaps third conversation, Dick Titus and I had moved beyond his surprise revelation of being the person behind the fish in Ron’s bed and conducted a deep dive into the question of when he put it there. Walking me through the incident with what seemed to be the clarity of his adolescent self, Dick told me that it happened on the way home from class. He didn’t have retaliation on his mind, he told me. In their ongoing game of prank/counterprank, Ron had most recently short-sheeted Dick’s bed, throwing in some Rice Krispies for added crunch. In this telling, Dick told me that their back-and-forth had been going on for about a month and that Dick had allowed some time to go by after Ron’s latest stunt. (This version differs from our 2010 conversation, when his timeline was a little more condensed. In that interview, he’d said that Ron had pulled the sheet trick the day before he disappeared. I allowed the slight variation and continued listening.)
It was on Dick’s walk home that he spotted the dead fish in the pond outside of Fisher Hall, and a lightbulb had gone off. “Perfect,” his 18-year-old brain told him. He managed to bring the fish ashore and then carried it upstairs (by the tail? under his arm? I forgot to ask him for those specifics, but I’m sure it was gross) and placed the fish in Ron Tammen’s bed. It could have been a Saturday, because classes were held on Saturday mornings in those days. It might have even been as early as Friday. But, in his mind, it was most definitely not on Sunday.
Here’s a paraphrased snippet from our conversation that I typed up after we spoke:
Dick: I remember I was coming back from class, so it had to be a Friday or Saturday.
Me: Did you take the fish up to Ron’s bed right away?
Dick (sounding a little perplexed): Yes…so I don’t understand why he didn’t change his bed until that Sunday. Unless he didn’t come back to his room until Sunday.
In 1953, they didn’t have security cameras to track everyone’s comings and goings. There were no towers registering the pings of nearby cell phones. There was no such thing as GPS. However, thanks to Dick Titus, there was a fairly foolproof tracking device in Ronald Tammen’s room the weekend that he disappeared. Because of that foul little fish, we can reasonably conclude that Ron hadn’t slept in his bed on Saturday, the 18th, and he might not have been there the preceding Friday night either.
I know what you’re thinking. Can we trust the memory of someone 60 years after an event had taken place? I’d wondered about that too. Maybe Dick Titus hadn’t spotted the fish while returning from a class. Maybe he’d been walking back to Fisher Hall after some Sunday activity—a baseball game, a fraternity function, a trip to the library—and that’s how his brain had edited the scene. We already know that his 2013 timeline was a little different from the one in 2010. Could he have gotten things scrambled?
Fortunately, Murray Seeger, a nationally renowned reporter who was employed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the 1950s, published an article on May 4, 1956, that supports the story Dick told in 2013. The article said this:
“At about 8 p.m., [Tammen] went downstairs and asked the house manager for clean linen. Some freshmen pranksters had put a dead fish in his bed the night before.” [emphasis added]
It wasn’t some pranksters, it was one prankster. And, according to Titus, it happened during the day, not the night. But Seeger places the fish in Ron’s bed at least on the Saturday before Ron went missing. I’d call that corroborating evidence.
A two-day-old fish in Ron’s bed also helps clear up one minor mystery I’d been grappling with for a while. Namely, if Ron wasn’t planning to go to bed early Sunday evening—if he were still planning to attend song practice, for example—what would have motivated him to change his sheets at 8 p.m.? In other words, how would he even know about the fish unless he’d turned down the covers? But after at least two days, I’d think that the fish would have made its presence known even before Ron observed the visual evidence. Put simply, I’m sure it was smelling up the room.
The fish was probably one of several topics university investigators spoke about with Dick, whose name is included in Dean Knox’s notes, though the fish isn’t mentioned. The feds were well aware of the fish. Dick described to me a time in which two men from the FBI paid a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Titus at their home in Rocky River to discuss the fish incident, scaring poor Dick to death. [View Carl Knox’s note by clicking here.]
Even though we can deduce that Tammen wasn’t in his bed that Saturday night, we still don’t know where he went. It had to have been late when he arrived, however. He was said to have been playing with the Campus Owls at the Omicron Delta Kappa carnival that evening and then reportedly at a bull session at the Delt house. His brother Richard had said that he was with Ron until between 11 and 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Perhaps Ron was involved with someone whom none of his friends or family knew about. Maybe he was out with a group of people, although that wasn’t exactly like him. I doubt very much that he was alone. Other than stalkers, serial killers, and the occasional cat burglar, who goes out by himself all night?**
If Ronald Tammen was with one or more people on the night of Saturday, April 18, 1953, no one appears to have come forward after he went missing. Were they too embarrassed or afraid? Were they somehow responsible for his disappearance? It’s all just a little…fishy.
(** Note: Stargazers, late-night wayfarers, sometimes insomniacs, etc., excepted, though I don’t think these describe Ron very well either.)
Artwork developed using WordArt.com. Not for reproduction.
In May 2011, I was conversing by email with a Miami alum, let’s call him Peter, who was a psychology major at Miami when Ronald Tammen disappeared. Like many students, Peter was curious about Ron’s disappearance and read whatever stories he could find on it. Peter also had a friendly acquaintance with Dr. Patten, then-chair of Miami’s psychology department, and looked up to him as a mentor, which wasn’t unusual. Dr. Patten was highly respected in the psych department—knowledgeable, yet warm and grandfatherly.
Here’s a remembrance Peter shared with me that provides yet another reason why investigators likely thought Ronald Tammen had amnesia. I’ve copied the email directly, typos and parenthetical asides included. I have, however, inserted a missing word or two in brackets for clarity or correction.
Reason #3: There were ‘things in his background’
“Now, when Ron ‘vanished’ the university formed a committee of facility [sic] and administrators (I don’t really know who was on the committee). Patten was the chair, and there was a short article in The [Miami] Student saying the committee had met (I don’t know if it was more than once) and had concluded that Ron’s disappearance was most likely due to a dissociation (forgetting who he was, where he belonged, wandering, etc.)…
“When I saw Patten I said I’d seen the article in The Student, and that the committee felt the best explanation was the dissociation hypothesis. He commented, and I believe this is exactly what he [said], ‘Yes. There are things in his background that would be consistent with that.’ Naturally, I asked ‘Really? What kind of things?’ (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, Dr. Patten said, ‘Well, I can’t comment on that.’ (I’m sure that is exactly what he said.) So…I never heard what things in Ron’s background had been considered to be ‘consistent’ with proneness to a dissociative disorder.”
Peter’s story raised a number of questions in my mind, the first being something along the lines of: What the …?!
What could be in Ronald Tammen’s background that would be consistent with dissociation?
How would Dr. Patten (and a university committee of faculty and administrators) have known about something in Ron’s background that would lead them to such a conclusion?
What faculty panel? I don’t remember reading about a faculty panel.
Oh, and by the way: where was this Miami Student article that Peter referred to?
The first thing I tried to do was locate the article and, guys, I might as well break it to you sooner rather than later: I can’t find it. I asked Peter when it ran, and he said that he thought it was early, before the semester ended. That would make sense, because that’s when the amnesia theory came to the forefront. But, from what I can tell, there were only five articles on Ronald Tammen that appeared in the Miami Student between April 19 and the end of classes for the spring 1953 semester. Here are the titles, with links to the applicable issue:
—Tuesday, April 28, 1953,Missing Youth Baffles Police; Clues Lacking, page 1, upper left
—Friday, May 1, 1953, no article
—Tuesday, May 5, 1953,Police Find No Trace of Tammen, page 1, upper right
—Friday, May 8, 1953,Must Tongues Wag?, page 2, editorial section
—Tuesday, May 12, 1953, no article
—Friday, May 15, 1953, no article
—Tuesday, May 19, 1953, no article
—Friday, May 22, 1953, no article
—Tuesday, May 26, 1953,Name of Tammen Added to Missing Persons by FBI, page 4, upper right
It’s not as if any issues are missing. The Miami Student published every Tuesday and Friday (except for vacation days and the week that followed), and they all appear to be there, online. I also checked for possible articles on the faculty panel that might have run during the next academic year, and nothing turned up. I asked Peter if it could have been in another publication—some internal newsletter that the psych department put out or something. He said no. Still, his memory was unwavering about his conversation with Dr. Patten. We discussed the scenario several times, and the details remained consistent.
Even though the article that Peter recalls reading is nowhere to be found, we do have a few details to help corroborate his story:
Dr. Patten was an early spokesperson on the Tammen story…
As we already know from the preceding post, Dr. Patten became a spokesperson on the Tammen story fairly quickly. As early as April 28, 1953, he was quoted by Gilson Wright for his article that ran in the Dayton Daily News. If Patten had headed up a faculty panel and that information was somehow made public at Miami, that would have put him on Gilson Wright’s radar for an interview request. That’s what reporters do—they call the person who’s in charge. It makes a lot more sense for Wright to approach Dr. Patten about his views on amnesia and overstudy if he knew that Patten was leading a panel that had already declared publicly that Ronald Tammen’s disappearance was probably “due to a dissociation.”
…a spokesperson who seemed to know more than he was saying publicly.
In the communications field, there’s one response that PR flacks far and wide are forever advising subject experts not to say when speaking with a reporter. That response is “no comment.” To say “no comment” implies that you’re hiding something—that you know something that you don’t think should be made public. In his April 28, 1953, Dayton Daily News article, Wright reported this about Patten: “He refused to comment on the Tammen case except to say that it is his ‘guess’ that the Maple Heights, O., youth will be found alive.” Refused to comment. Not even a more subtle “hesitated to” or “didn’t wish to” comment. He flat-out refused.
Here’s why I think that Wright was practically quoting Patten verbatim when he wrote that sentence: it’s because of what Peter said he remembered Patten saying to him about why things in Ron’s background were consistent with dissociation. “Well, I can’t comment on that,” Patten had said, according to Peter.
Think about it. If someone asked you if you knew where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, would you say, “I can’t comment on that”? Only if you were kidding around. The more typical response would be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Dr. Patten’s response to the reporter hints to me that he had access to additional information about Tammen that, for some reason, he wasn’t ready, willing, or able to discuss publicly, which would be consistent with Peter’s account.
Faculty were meeting about Tammen.
Not long ago, I was revisiting some old news articles and landed on this headline from the May 18, 1953, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “FBI Joins Hunt for Miami Student.” The article, which was written principally to inform readers that Tammen had been added to the FBI’s missing persons list, includes this sentence that I’d somehow previously overlooked: “Dean Carl Knox told the boy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald H. Tammen, Sr., that the FBI had been called into faculty conferences.”
It’s one thing for law enforcement to meet with university officials about Tammen. “Officials” generally means administrators, which, in the case of Tammen’s disappearance, usually meant Carl Knox. But if Carl Knox informed the family that there were faculty conferences about Tammen’s disappearance, that has an entirely different connotation—professors. Professors seated around a table. Professors discussing what they knew about Ronald Tammen with a representative of the FBI.
One possible theory worth mulling over is that Ronald Tammen’s psychology textbook—potentially open to a section on posthypnotic suggestion—could very well have inspired Dean Knox to convene a faculty committee to see if they could determine where Ron’s head was when he disappeared. If that’s the case, it would make sense to install the chair of the psychology department, Everett F. Patten, a noted hypnosis expert, as head of the panel. It also would have made sense to ask the three faculty members listed in Carl Knox’s notepad—Professors Dennison, Delp, and Switzer—to take part on the panel as well.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know who was participating on the faculty panel. The article Peter remembers having read no longer seems to be in the public record. Also, no notes from any faculty conferences have turned up—not in the university’s archives, and not in the FBI’s Central Records System either.
Dr. Patten indeed thought that Ron had experienced dissociation.
In an article that ran in the Miami Student on April 20, 1965, Dr. Patten was once again approached about his theories on what happened to Tammen. This time, however, he didn’t refuse to comment. Instead, the newspaper reported the following:
“Consulted at the present time, Dr. Patten added, ‘Tammen’s condition can be labeled as a fugue, which is a species of conversion hysteria, characterized by wandering and other unusual antics of which the individual is not conscious.’”
The word “fugue” is a shortened term for dissociative fugue, which involves forgetting one’s identity and wandering, as Peter described in his email. It’s a subcategory of dissociative (or functional or psychogenic) amnesia. (The term “hysteria” is generally not used to describe this condition anymore.) It’s also rare, estimated to occur in only 0.2 percent of the general population.
Perhaps Dr. Patten felt he could speak more openly by that time—a dozen years after Tammen disappeared and two months before Patten would retire. Also, four years earlier—in 1961—he’d stepped down as department chair and turned the reigns over to Dr. Switzer. Perhaps he felt freer to speak because he was speaking only for himself, and not as the whole department or as the head of a faculty panel.
By that time, Dr. Patten’s opinion wasn’t necessarily the popular viewpoint. In 1960, the Dayton Daily News had printed an article that provided this update: “Two theories—that the youth met with foul play or that he was a victim of amnesia—have long since been discarded. A third theory, that he deliberately planned to leave the campus and to start a new life under an assumed name, is considered ‘most likely’ by authorities.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Patten didn’t have the long, enjoyable retirement that he earned from all his years of teaching and administering. He passed away in September 1966 at the age of 71, taking with him whatever knowledge he had about Tammen’s tendency toward dissociation.
I believe Peter did have that conversation with Dr. Patten all those years ago. But when I asked Ron’s siblings if they were aware of anything in Ron’s background that might make him prone to dissociation, no one had an inkling what it could be. They couldn’t recall any time in their brother’s past when he’d forgotten who he was and wandered off.
Besides, how would Dr. Patten and his fellow professors have found out about Ron’s propensity to forget who he was? Ron was a vigorously private person who strived to present himself to the world in the most positive light. I can’t imagine him volunteering personal details of that nature to a professor or administrator, even if they were true. Also, no such information was included in his student records. His freshman adviser wrote only this about Ron: “Earnest and capable student. Plays in dance bands some. Loyal and well behaved. May have periods of slump in interest.” There was nothing in the realm of “tends to forget who he is and wander.” When I attempted to obtain Ron’s student health records, Miami’s general counsel responded that “medical treatment records are not public records” and “student health records are only maintained for a period of 6 years following attendance.” So, we’re out of luck there too.
Still, it seems unlikely that Ronald Tammen had experienced dissociative fugue, based on its low prevalence and, moreover, how baffled Ron’s family members are by Peter’s story. On the other hand, the similarities between dissociation and hypnosis are well-documented in the scientific literature. In fact, experts in dissociative disorders frequently use hypnosis in the treatment of their patients. For many years, hypnosis had been widely considered to be a dissociative state based on such phenomena as posthypnotic amnesia. According to the 1997 review article “Hypnosis, memory and amnesia” by John F. Kihlstrom (Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences), posthypnotic amnesia “has long been considered to be a laboratory model of the functional amnesias associated with hysteria and dissociation.”
Could it be that Dr. Patten’s references to dissociation and fugue were another way of hypothesizing that Ron may have been experiencing a form of amnesia brought on by hypnosis? If so, was someone from the university tinkering with Tammen’s memory? And for what purpose? And was Ron the only one?
To be continued—A case of amnesia, part 3: Three youths from Ohio
A general note of caution: This story gets complicated. Please keep in mind that my mentioning someone here is not intended to imply that he or she had something to do with Ronald Tammen’s disappearance. I’m simply presenting old details about the case next to new ones and asking a few questions. It’s still early.