(Supplement to season 2, episode 3 of The One That Got Away)
*This post was formerly titled “More thoughts on two ignored clues,” but that was really boring, so I changed it. The URL remains the same, however.
I’m not gonna lie—podcasting has been fun. Not only is it helping me cope with my covid-fueled despair in a meaningful and productive way, but it inspires me to revisit some of the old blog posts and think new thoughts in light of findings that came out a little later in the process. (Please note: I won’t be producing a supplemental blog post for every podcast episode; I’ll only create a new post if we cover territory there that I haven’t discussed here.)
What I’m about to share is discussed in season 2, episode 3 of the podcast The One That Got Away, which I encourage you to listen to when you have a few idle minutes on your hands. Josh and Tyler are delightful human beings and they’re becoming quite the avid Tammen fans as well. But if you prefer to get your Tammen news by way of written words on a screen, no problem. I love that you like to read. Here are my latest ruminations regarding two questions that you may have already wondered about but were too polite to ask. I’m also going to share some brand new info that was released by Josh and Tyler during episode 3.
Question 1: Why did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story so quickly?
Let’s talk about those two extra hours we discovered in Ron’s timeline. Remember when Paul (not his real name) swore up and down that he and a guy named Chip Anderson (real name, but deceased) walked home with Ron after song practice on the night of April 19, and that they didn’t arrive until around 10:30 p.m.? And remember how university reps and the police interviewed them but completely ignored their story, instead telling everyone that Ron disappeared from his room at around 8:30 p.m.?
But Mrs. Spivey didn’t come forward until June. Why then did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story right off the bat?
I think the answer has to do with their favorite theory as to how Tammen disappeared. Very early in the investigation, by Friday, April 24, the university had declared in several Miami Valley and Cleveland papers that Ronald Tammen probably had amnesia. “Officials believe that he might have suffered an attack of amnesia,” an article in the Hamilton Journal News read. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “University officials said Tammen might be suffering from amnesia as he took no clothing or personal articles with him.” (Neither article contained a byline, but my guess is that they were penned by Gilson Wright, since he wrote for both papers.) At least the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed some healthy journalistic skepticism about the university’s conclusion. It read “The dean [Carl Knox] believed the youth might have suffered an attack of amnesia, but had nothing to back that theory.”
So, amnesia. Now let’s consider how investigators would have tried to explain their amnesia theory under both estimated times of departure. Under the 8:30 p.m. scenario, Ron would have developed his amnesia at some point while he was in his dorm room, after he’d changed his sheets. Maybe it had hit him while he was studying at his desk. No one could possibly know the reason, because no one was there. He was alone, so anything was possible. In their view, he just, you know, cracked.
Under the 10:30 p.m. scenario, Ron had walked back to the dorms with Paul and Chip. He dropped them both off at Symmes Hall, and then headed toward Fisher Hall. But Ron never made it back to his room in Fisher. How do we know that? We know it because that’s roughly when his roommate, Chuck Findlay, had returned from his weekend in Dayton. Chuck never saw Ron.
Therefore, and this is crucial: Ron would have been struck by amnesia at some point between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall.
Below is a map that shows you how close the two buildings were to one another, circled in red. Symmes is building #37, and Fisher is building #36. In my driving video on Ron’s possible trip to Seven Mile, that’s Symmes Hall on the left, immediately after I exited the circular driveway that’s now in front of Marcum Hotel and Conference Center. That driveway used to be in front of Fisher. You guys…Symmes and Fisher are super close.
Which scenario do you think investigators gravitated toward? While both are a little tough to swallow, wouldn’t it be easier to explain the one in which Ron went wandering off when no one was watching as opposed to walking with two people and then forgetting who he was immediately afterward? Exactly. Scenario A was the one they chose: 8:30ish. This brings me to the second question.
Question 2: Why did no one follow up on the clue regarding the woman in the car?
In July 2017, I learned about an astonishing lead. I learned that Ron had reportedly been spotted sitting in a car with a woman from Hamilton late on April 19 and, after about 45 minutes or so, the two had driven away. I learned this after I’d met with a former member of the Oxford police force—someone who had actually worked for police chief Oscar Decker in 1953, when Tammen disappeared. In my blog post, I refer to this man as Ralph Smith, but that was just a pseudonym. I was keeping his identity secret.
In preparing for the podcast, I checked online to see if my source was still alive, and unfortunately, I found his very brief obituary. My source’s true name was Logan Corbin, and he passed away at the age of 97 on December 16, 2017, five months after our meeting. I’m posting his photo below as well as a link to an audio clip of him telling me about the purported woman in the car.
Logan was African American. In those days, it was virtually unheard of for a rural, small-town, predominantly white community such as Oxford to hire a Black cop, and, for that reason, I give the city credit for taking a step toward progress in the early-1950s. Nevertheless, racism was rampant there, and Logan endured daily doses of slurs from his fellow officers, sometimes over the police radio. Eventually, he decided to leave that position for another job, though he remained with the Oxford PD for seven years, from 1952 to 1959.
When you listen to Logan tell the story, one of the points he keeps repeating is that the lead concerning the woman in the car was never checked out. To that I say, WTfreakinF, Oscar Decker?! Logan wasn’t sure how the police had found out about it—”word just got out,” he’d told me. Granted, it would have taken some detective work to follow the lead. They didn’t know the woman’s name, the make or model of her car, its color, the exact time she drove away, any of that. But it would have been way easier to check out those details then, when all the major players were still alive and well, and walking around that small section of campus, as opposed to six decades later. The cops could have publicized the possible sighting far and wide, asking anyone with information to come forward. For some reason, they chose not to.
If, as I believe, Ron Tammen disappeared from somewhere between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall, that circular driveway between the two buildings could have been ground zero to where it all happened.
So, again I ask, why wouldn’t investigators follow the one lead that places Tammen in that exact location—in a car, in the driveway between Symmes and Fisher Halls? For some reason, investigators felt the need to steer everyone in a different direction.
Clara Josephine Spivey lived with her husband, Carl, in a two-story home on North Main Street in Seven Mile, Ohio. Carl, who was once the mayor of that small town, was an electrician by trade and Clara’s second husband. Her first husband had been tragically killed when, in 1918, a mere five months into their marriage, the delivery truck he was driving collided with a train in nearby Hamilton. Clara married Carl two years later.
By the spring of 1953, Clara was 54 years of age with two grown children. Son Jearl was 32 years old and married. The best I can tell, he was also an electrician living about 20 miles from his parents, in Lebanon, Ohio. Daughter Barbara was 28 and married to a man named Donald Ries. (They would divorce in 1963.) From what I can tell, the couple was also living in Seven Mile.
Late on Sunday, April 19, 1953, reportedly at about midnight, there was a knock on the Spiveys’ front door. Clara was apparently still up at that hour, along with Barbara and at least one other person whom we’ll discuss a little later in this post. Perhaps Clara was emboldened by the presence of the other night owls sitting up with her—safety in numbers, and all that. Or maybe it was just the innocence of the times. Whatever her reason, she went ahead and opened the door.
Thankfully, there was nothing to fear. Standing on her porch was a well-mannered young man with a smudge on his cheek—probably from fixing a flat tire, she presumed—and an embarrassed look on his face. The jacket he had on didn’t seem at all sufficient for the chilly temperatures, in her viewpoint, and he wasn’t wearing a hat either. He had dark, deep-set eyes and close-cropped hair—his most distinguishing characteristics in her mind’s eye. He asked for nothing except some direction.
“What town am I in?” the youth had asked her, according to the earliest news accounts. And then: “Where will I be if I go in that direction?”, pointing northeastward, toward Middletown.
Clara recalled telling the youth that he could catch the bus to Middletown, which just so happened to stop at the nearby corner at that time of night. It wasn’t until the next day that she realized the information she’d given him was in error. The bus schedule for the Oxford Coach Lines had been changed that very day, April 19, and the last run from Oxford to Middletown, which passed through Seven Mile, had been suspended.
Other than perhaps a twinge of regret for having led her visitor astray, Clara didn’t think much about the incident afterward. Then, that June, she learned about Ronald Tammen. She’d somehow missed all the ballyhoo about Tammen when he’d first disappeared, and only became aware of the story by way of a follow-up news article that, in essence, reported that A) he’d been gone for two months, and B) there were no new leads. The article, which featured a large photo of Tammen, appeared in the June 20 issue of the Hamilton Journal-News, Clara’s most likely preferred news source. The same article also appeared in the June 22 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sometime after seeing the article, she notified the Oxford police, and by June 29, her story was being reported across the Miami Valley as the first real clue in the case. Clara Spivey was convinced that the young man at her doorstep had been Tammen. That photo, which had immediately whisked her back to the night in question, served as proof.
Oscar Decker, Oxford’s police chief, welcomed the potential sighting with a great big bear hug. If it happened to be Ron Tammen, he reasoned, that would bolster the amnesia theory very nicely.
“Tammen disappeared about 8:30 or 9 o’clock from his room in Fisher Hall,” Decker was quoted as saying in one of the June 29th articles. (Based on the font and layout, I think it was the Cincinnati Enquirer, though my clipping doesn’t contain a reference.) “If he wandered away, it would have taken him about three hours to walk to Seven Mile.”
Sure, it was cold, it was hilly, it was late, but it was totally doable in his opinion.
Also convincing to Decker was Clara’s description of what Tammen was wearing that night. The June 29th Hamilton Journal-News article said this: “Mrs. Spivey described the youth’s wearing apparel almost perfectly, according to the chief.” Also, the September 18, 1953, issue of the Miami Student said: “Although she could not see under the dim porch light what the man was wearing, Mrs. Spivey declared that he seemed to have on a light-weight coat with a checked pattern and dark trousers.” Investigators had described Tammen as wearing a blue and tan checked or plaid wool jacket (sometimes referred to as a mackinaw) and blue pants when he disappeared.
An article in the July 3, 1953, Hamilton Journal-News stated that Henry Ciesicki, who was identified as president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, had interviewed Mrs. Spivey and found that she was indeed positive that the young man she saw was Tammen after looking at photographs of him. However, the article continued, “There were certain discrepancies as to the type of clothing the missing student was wearing and that of the man whom Mrs. Spivey saw, Ciesicki said.” The discrepancies were brought up again in an article by Joe Cella in the April 22, 1954, issue of the Hamilton Journal-News: “[Tammen’s] brother, Richard, maintains that there are some discrepancies in Mrs. Spivey’s story. The type of clothing worn and missing has come up for considerable discussion throughout the investigation.”
Was the visitor on Mrs. Spivey’s porch Ronald Tammen? Before placing your vote, here are some additional points to consider:
If it was Ron who showed up on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep, he would have most likely traveled State Route 73 East to 127 South, which leads directly into Seven Mile. The terrain is hilly, and it seems as if it would require some fairly purposeful trekking as opposed to the wanderings of someone with amnesia. Moreover, if Ron had been on foot, he would have passed by numerous homes along Main Street on his way to Mrs. Spivey’s. An atlas from 1930, which shows the number of properties that existed in northern Seven Mile at that time and, presumably, a corresponding number of houses, can be viewed below. (Mrs. Spivey’s property is along Hamilton & Eaton Road, aka Main Street, near High Street.)
An atlas of the northern part of Seven Mile from 1958 is here.
But don’t just take the Butler Co. cartographers’ word for it. Follow the route for yourself in this video, and try to picture a totally out-of-it Ronald Tammen walking these roads on a chilly, snowy night in unsuitable outerwear. Are you as convinced as Oscar Decker that it was Ron? (Uncopyrighted traveling music provided by the YouTube Audio Library. Apologies in advance for my knack for driving over every possible bump in the road.)
The time of the encounter
As discussed earlier, the first time anyone had heard about the potential Spivey sighting was on Monday, June 29, 1953, when at least two news articles were published. The article that I believe was in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the visitor had arrived on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep at “about midnight,” while the Hamilton Journal-News reported that the time of night was “about 11 o’clock.” The time discrepancy is intriguing, because the author of both articles was Gilson Wright, a Miami journalism professor who was also an on-call correspondent for a number of area papers. (I’m certain that Wright wrote both articles because, even though there isn’t a byline for either article, the Journal-News identifies Wright as the correspondent for its Oxford section on that date, and the two articles, though not identical, have the same phrasing throughout.) That the same reporter would publish conflicting times for the encounter on the same news day is kind of, um, bizarre, considering the significance of the hour to the overall timeline. “About midnight” was the most frequently reported time over the years, including later issues of the Journal-News, which is why I repeated it in the third paragraph of this post. Also, Oscar Decker is quoted directly in the September 18, 1953, article of the Miami Student, saying that the time was “about midnight.” On the other hand, the 11 p.m. time was attributed to Mrs. Spivey (who, after all, would have been the best source), though not as a direct quote. “Mrs. Spivey said the youth came to her door about 11 o’clock…,” Wright stated in that article.
If the June 29th Hamilton Journal-News version is closer to the truth, Ron wouldn’t have had the full three hours that Oscar Decker estimated a walk to Seven Mile would have required. According to this September 2018 fitness article and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a brisk walking pace is considered to be 3 miles per hour or 20 minutes per mile. If the time was midnight, Tammen would have had 180 minutes to walk approximately 11 miles, or a little over 16 minutes per mile. That would have been a pretty good clip, but still doable. But if the time was 11 p.m.? Ron would have needed to be in a full-on run. The latter scenario wouldn’t exactly fit the storyline that everyone was selling, would it? What’s more, if Ron had been at the Delta Tau Delta song practice until around 10:30 p.m., as has been claimed by at least one person, there was no way Ron could have made it to Seven Mile by either 11 p.m. ormidnight if he was walking.
But what if Ron Tammen had actually been driven to Seven Mile? If a car was involved, there are a few possible scenarios to consider:
Ron was known to hitchhike from place to place, especially when he didn’t have a car on campus. Granted, it would have been odd for him to choose to hitchhike out of Oxford as opposed to driving his own car. However, if, for some reason, he did so and someone picked him up somewhere between Fisher Hall and Seven Mile, chances are that person would have reported it when the media began publicizing his disappearance. If Oscar Decker had received such a call, you better believe that he would have announced it to the press. From what I can tell, there were no phone calls from anyone who either picked up a hitchhiker or who spotted someone walking alongside that stretch of road on April 19, 1953. One caller did think he’d spotted Tammen in Middletown the week after the Spivey article was published, though that obviously didn’t check out.
He was “kidnapped” and left in Seven Mile as a prank.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this site, fraternities back then used to kidnap pledges and drop them off in the middle of nowhere so they would have to find their way home. Many people, including yours truly at one point, have wondered if that might have been what happened to Ron—the whole fraternity-prank-gone-awry theory. But several factors have led me to rule this theory out. First, the men in Ron’s fraternity are wonderful people and they don’t act all weird when I ask them about Ron Tammen. They really would love to know what happened to him. Second, Ron wasn’t a pledge. He was an active member of Delta Tau Delta, which means that he wouldn’t have been a target for such antics. Third, he didn’t live in the fraternity house, which, according to one of his fraternity brothers, was home base from which a guy would have been kidnapped ifhe were being kidnapped.
Fourth (and perhaps foremost), instead of asking Mrs. Spivey for directions, wouldn’t Ron’s more obvious first question be “Can I use your phone?” According to Carl Knox’s notes, the door to his dorm room was left open and his car keys were in his desk. He could have asked someone from Fisher Hall to pick him up. His roommate, Chuck Findlay, would have been back by then. Also, the questions the visitor asked didn’t pertain to finding his way back to Oxford. In April 1954, Mrs. Spivey would embellish her conversation with the young man to include her pointing the way to Hamilton, Middletown, and Oxford. But that wasn’t the case in June 1953. As described above, the youth asked her what town he was in and where he would be if he went in “that direction,” which was toward Middletown. She’d told him how to catch the bus to Middletown, the crucial detail that enabled her to date stamp the night he’d appeared at her door, since the bus route had ended on April 19. Based on her earliest recollection and, in my view, the one that would have probably been most accurate, there was no mention of Oxford.
Someone who knew him drove him there.
Perhaps someone else could have driven Ron to Seven Mile—someone like the mysterious woman from Hamilton, for example. If that’s true, why he would have gotten out of the car at Mrs. Spivey’s residence isn’t clear, unless, perhaps, he’d tried to escape as the car had slowed down on Main Street. But if he did escape, why (again) wouldn’t he have asked Mrs. Spivey if he could use her telephone to call for help? And where did he go after he left Mrs. Spivey’s? Perhaps someone overpowered him and pushed him back in the car. Still, the young man’s questions for Mrs. Spivey don’t exactly jive with those that might have been asked by someone who was being taken somewhere against his will. At least, they aren’t the sorts of questions that someone would have asked had he been thinking clearly.
The other people in the room
In Joe Cella’s 1976 article in the Hamilton Journal-News, we learned that Clara’s daughter Barbara, whose last name was now Jewell after a second marriage, was also present when the visitor showed up at the door. Though Clara had died in 1975, Barbara stood by her mother’s story. Here’s what Cella wrote:
“Mrs. Spivey has since died but her daughter, Mrs. Barbara Jewell of Seven Mile, remembers the night well. She was there when the knock was answered.
‘I still believe it was him,’ said Mrs. Jewell. When her mother viewed a photograph of Tammen at the time, she said, ‘That’s him. I know I’m not mistaken.’”
Barbara Jewell passed away in 1999. However, in 2012, Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective, informed me of someone else who was present when the visitor showed up at the door. Smith had stopped by a United Dairy Farmers store for a cup of coffee around the time that the Butler County Sheriff’s Office was getting a lot of local press for their work regarding the dead body in Georgia. According to Smith, a guy came out of the store and said he’d been reading in the paper about the Tammen case.
Recounted Smith, “He said, ‘I was there that night when the door was opened too.’”
Smith then added, “And he told me, he said that he absolutely was confident that that was not Tammen that knocked on the door that night. He thought it was one of the local ruffians that lived down the road. But he was absolutely confident.”
According to Smith, the man who approached him—as he recalled, it was Mrs. Spivey’s son—had been in the military and was battling cancer. He also said that he’d passed away shortly after they talked. I accepted this information at face value and didn’t delve further, which turned out to be a mistake. Memories, as I’ve come to learn time and again, aren’t 100 percent foolproof. If I’d done my fact checking a little sooner, I might have been able to speak with the man myself.
Several years ago, as I was doing some online research, I discovered that the man who’d approached Frank Smith couldn’t have been Clara Spivey’s son. Jearl Spivey had died in 1980, long before Smith had gotten involved in the case. Donald Ries, who, along with Carl Spivey, had passed away in the 1970s, could also be ruled out. However, another possible candidate did pop up—Paul Jewell, Barbara’s second husband. Jewell died in 2014, two years after my conversation with Smith. According to his obituary, Jewell had worked at the Champion Paper Company and, later, The Workingman’s Store, a beloved clothing and shoe store for everyday working people that his parents had opened in Hamilton and where he eventually became owner. The obit also said that he’d served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, and suggested that memorials be given to the American Cancer Society, among other charities. My guess is that Paul Jewell was the man who approached Frank Smith.
There is one puzzling aspect to placing Jewell in Mrs. Spivey’s home late at night on April 19, 1953. Paul Jewell was 13 years younger than Barbara, born in September 1937. In April 1953, Barbara was still married to Donald Ries, whereas Paul would have been 15 years of age and a sophomore at McGuffey High School in Oxford. (He graduated in 1955.) From what I can tell from old city directories, Paul and Barbara were married in the mid-1960s. So one question I have is, if it was Jewell, why would he have been at the Spiveys so late on a Sunday night when the next day was a school day for him? Another big question I have is: again, if it was Paul Jewell who spoke with Frank Smith, did he and Barbara actually see the visitor or did they just hear Clara’s account, like the rest of us, and form their own opinions? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer.
So what do you think? Was it Ronald Tammen at Mrs. Spivey’s door or merely one of Seven Mile’s local ruffians? Feel free to register your vote here:
And now, for all you readers in the U.S., please be sure to vote for real if you haven’t already. It’s our right, our privilege, and our obligation and probably way more important than anything else we may have on our plates these days.
Let’s also open up the floor. Feel free to weigh in on anything Tammen-related, especially your thoughts on Mrs. Spivey’s story and why you voted one way or the other in our poll.
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…
Cover of 1951 edition of “Psychology–The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment,” by Norman L. Munn, the issue and title of the book that was open on Ronald Tammen’s desk the night he disappeared.
One of the most frequently named items that Ronald Tammen had left behind—apart from his wallet, IDs, and car keys—was the open book on his desk. Remember the book? From what I can tell, it was first brought to the public’s attention on April 25, 1953, when the Hamilton Journal-News reported “books” (plural) being “open on a study table” after he’d disappeared. On May 2, 1953, the books were narrowed down to “a textbook” that “was left open on his desk,” though some reports reverted to the plural form on occasion after that date. In April 1954, we learned from Joe Cella, also of the Hamilton Journal-News, that it was a psychology book, and in 1976, Cella reported that the psychology book was turned to “Habits.” This detail is posthumously corroborated by Carl Knox, dean of men, whose investigative notes say “Psych Book opened to HABITS,” with the last word written in all caps and underscored twice. What’s more, Knox had also noted that Tammen was spotted “Studying Psych” from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. on the day of his disappearance. How someone might have known the subject matter that Tammen had been studying, we can’t be sure, but that person must have felt reasonably confident of that detail to mention it to investigators.
The HABITS reference, underlined twice, can be seen at the bottom of Carl Knox’s note.
Beneath Tammen’s name is Carl Knox’s notation that Tammen had been “Studying Psych” from 3-4 p.m. that Sunday.
Juxtapose all of the above with what Dick Titus told me Tammen had said to him before Tammen had walked out of Titus’s room the evening of his disappearance: that he needed to study his own subjects. What does all of this tell you? For me, it indicates that one of the last things on Tammen’s mind before he went missing was psychology. In fact, it appears to have been the subject he felt most compelled to study during the afternoon and evening of his final day as a Miami student. The topic of “Habits” is an added bit of intrigue.
Here’s why I find the open psych book so fascinating: Ronald Tammen wasn’t taking a psychology class.
Oh, let me rephrase that. Although Ronald Tammen had been enrolled in psychology the semester that he disappeared, he’d already withdrawn from the course by the time he went missing.
The documents that I’m posting today, which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been posted online before, are Ronald Tammen’s college transcripts. Here they are.
Before we get to the topic of psychology, let’s take a look at Ronald Tammen’s grades. He was a B student—the average of the A’s, B’s, and C’s he had accumulated since he’d arrived at Miami. His much-publicized grade point average of 3.205 was from his freshman year. The A’s were in courses such as Unified Math and General Geology—he was, after all, a math and science guy. The C’s were in American Social and Economic History (first semester) and Freshman Composition (second semester). All things considered, he was doing fairly well academically his first year away from home.
Page 1 of Ronald Tammen’s transcripts
Now, let’s turn our attention to Ron’s sophomore year. W’s—withdrawals—had begun popping up like wins in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1953 baseball standings. Except Ron wasn’t winning. He was struggling. Juggling. At the start of the first semester of his sophomore year, Ron was carrying a course load of 17 credit hours, which is typical for a full-time student. At its completion, however, he was carrying only 11 hours, having dropped two 3-hour courses—an economics course and General Psychology, PSY 261. Despite the much lighter load, his grade point average had now slipped to 3.178, by my calculations.
That’s where the grades end, because at the conclusion of Tammen’s second semester, we see only a string of I’s (incompletes), a P (passing) in gym, and a W in psychology, the same course he’d dropped the previous semester. The P is of no consequence to this story. It only tells us how badly a person would have to be doing in gym to be given a failing grade. You could fall off the planet five weeks before finals and still pass the course. It’s the lone W in the line-up of I’s that was most curious to me. I needed to know the timeframe by which those I’s and W were handed out.
Our first clue is a statement at the bottom of page 3 of Tammen’s student records (made available for the first time here), that says: “DISAPPEARED FROM RESIDENCE HALL APRIL 19, 1953. GIVEN INCOMPLETES FOR SEMESTER (2ND, 1952-53).”
In my mind, that would imply that when Ron disappeared, he’d already dropped his psychology course and those I’s only pertained to courses in which he was still enrolled. To make sure my reasoning was correct, I contacted the Miami University Registrar’s Office in October 2010, asking how it could be that Ron had received that W in his psychology course.
Miami’s Registrar, David Sauter, is one of the most responsive administrators I’ve encountered anywhere. He’s also interested in the Tammen case. He got right on it. The next day, an assistant contacted me with information from an old grade card. It said that if a course is dropped after seven weeks, “either ‘WP’ for withdrawn passing or ‘WF’ for withdrawn failing must be entered.”
“The old grade card for that course indicates Mr. Tammen had a midterm grade of ‘C’ for the course in Spring 1953 and that he was dropped with a ‘WP.’ It does not, however, provide a drop date,” she said in her email. She added that she and her colleagues in the Registrar’s Office believed that the reason that there is a lone W on the transcript, and not a WP, was because the columns were only one character wide.
That provided me with one endpoint to my timeframe—Ron must have withdrawn at least seven weeks into the semester. But what about the other endpoint? I contacted Miami’s archivist at that time, Bob Schmidt, who emailed me a page from the 1952-53 issue of Rules and Regulations Governing Students, Student Activities, and Student Organizations for Miami University. In addition to confirming the information that the Registrar’s Office had provided, it said that course withdrawals had to be performed through the student’s adviser, and any withdrawals after eleven weeks resulted in a WF.
So, to recap, thus far:
Ron Tammen had indeed already dropped his psychology course by the time he’d disappeared.
He’d done it between the seventh and eleventh weeks of the second semester.
Ron’s adviser, a professor by the name of Belden J. Dennison, knew it; Carl Knox, in his principal role as dean of men, also likely knew it; and now we know it too.
University calendars for 1952-53 show that Tuesday, February 3, was the date when second-semester classes started at Miami. Not quite seven weeks later, Saturday, March 21, 1953, was the last day a student could withdraw from a course without receiving a grade, and Saturday, April 25, 1953, a little over 11 weeks after the semester’s start, was the last day a student could withdraw from a course without receiving a WF. That means that the timeframe in which Ron had withdrawn from the course was likely sometime between Monday, March 23, and Saturday, April 18. Not only was this “drop” period within weeks of Ron’s disappearance, and possibly only a day or two before, it also overlapped with spring break, which had taken place from noon, Saturday, March 28, until Monday, April 6, with classes resuming on Tuesday, April 7. Ron wouldn’t have been able to drop his psych course during the university’s week off, so he either did it right before spring break or right after. My guess is that it would have been after spring break, because that was also the time period in which Ron had appeared to be showing signs of stress. Carl Knox had noted that Ron had been consulting the Bible several times after spring break and had also spoken of “being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”
According to Carl Knox’s notes, Ronald Tammen seemed to be showing signs of stress following spring break.
So I think the question on everyone’s minds is: why would Ronald Tammen be reading a textbook for a class he’d already dropped?
It could be that he had a general, non-school-related question he was pondering—something that led him to crack open an authoritative resource, not unlike how we now crack open our laptops to ask Google What’s romanesco? or How old is Kirk Douglas?
But why look up the very vague and arbitrary topic of habits? If Ronald Tammen had a habit he wanted to break, it would make more sense to research that specific topic somewhere, like a library, or to seek guidance from an expert. Besides, what habit would Ronald Tammen even have that needed breaking? Smoking? He didn’t smoke. Drinking? He wasn’t a drinker either. Was he a nail-biter? I doubt it. To be honest, it’s difficult to imagine what habit Ronald Tammen would want to kick with such urgency that he would interrupt his busy Sunday to consult his former textbook for a dry-as-a-bone description of habits. That would be like looking up the word Italy in an encyclopedia in hopes of finding a really good marinara recipe. It makes no sense.
Among the boxes devoted to Ronald Tammen at the Miami University Archives are copies of textbook pages, many of which have the following notation typed on them: “Copy of textbooks left open on Ron Tammen’s desk.” The word “textbooks” is plural, but the pages are from one book: Psychology–The Fundamentals of Human Adjustment, by Norman L. Munn. At the top of one of the pages, someone has made the notation that the book was a 2nd edition, from 1951. I found it puzzling that the archived documents covered a range spanning pages 152 to 295. Typically, if a book is open on a desk, there are only two pages facing upward, not a range of 143 pages.
I purchased the 1951 issue of Munn’s textbook online. When it arrived, one of the first things I did was make sure that the nine copied pages from University Archives corresponded with my version, and they did. I felt confident that I was perusing the same textbook edition that Ron had been spotted studying. The second thing I did was check to see if there was a chapter titled “Habits,” and there isn’t one. I then took a deductive leap, and reasoned that whoever observed that Ron’s book was opened to “Habits” must have noticed the word in a section head or subhead. (We’ll discuss why I think this was the right decision a little later.) I examined each of the 143 pages looking for headings with some form of the word habit written there. I also checked the rest of Munn’s book for any other possible mentions of the word in a section head or subhead.
I found four pages in all, which happened to be among the nine archived pages. They were pages 152 (with the section head Levels of Complexity in Habit Formation), 162 (subhead: Habit Interference), 277 (section head: Man is Primarily a Creature of Habit), and 294 (section head: Force of Habit). Finally, it dawned on me. Whoever had made the archived copies was probably doing what I was doing: trying to figure out which two pages Tammen was studying before he disappeared. (That person even went a little farther than I was inclined to go, making copies of a couple additional pages that included the word habits in the regular text.) But how could I narrow down those four pages, plus the pages they were facing, to just two? If only someone had taken a photo of the open book.
As it so happens, someone had. A few days after the first anniversary of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance—April 22, 1954—the Hamilton Journal-News published an article that included photographs of Ron and Chuck’s room after Ron had disappeared. One of the photos was a close-up of the open book he’d left on his desk and a second photo was of the same book from another angle. Although we can’t be 100-percent certain that the pages in the photos are exactly as Ron had left them—a current of air or an accidental bump could have caused one or two pages to flip—nevertheless, it’s all that we have. Moreover, the article was written by Joe Cella, who likely obtained the photos from investigators. If Cella believed the photos to be accurate, who am I to second guess him?
Unfortunately, I’m not able to obtain enlarged versions of the photos. The originals no longer exist. However, you can access the article here and zoom in on the two photos. [Article is provided with the permission of the Hamilton Journal-News and Cox Media Group Ohio.]
From what I can tell, the left-hand page appears to lack any images or graphics. Therefore, at a minimum, I believe we can rule out two of the two-page spreads on the basis that there were fairly prominent photographs on the left-hand pages. They are pages 152, which had a photo of a memory drum in the upper left-hand corner, and 276, which is opposite the habits reference on page 277, and which had four photos down its left column of a mother rat and her babies. In my view, spreads 152–153 and 276–277 are no longer contenders.
The right-hand page is more difficult to discern in the Journal-News photos. It doesn’t appear to have images either, which would eliminate pages 162–163 on the basis that the latter page has a photograph on the upper left side of a student operating a card-sorter.
But there’s another, more compelling reason to remove pages 162–163 from consideration. As I mentioned earlier, Munn’s book contains both section heads and subheads. The section heads are written in all capital letters, while the subheads are written in bold type with only the first word capitalized. As I’ve already mentioned, when Carl Knox wrote the word “HABITS” in his notes, he did so in all capital letters, accentuated by a double underline. I can’t help but believe that he was imitating the style in which the words were written in the book, perhaps without even realizing what he was doing. In my opinion, Carl Knox was looking at a section head, not a subhead, which would eliminate the page spread 162–163.
That leaves us with two pages that are composed entirely of text: pages 294 and 295. On the left-hand page is the section head “FORCE OF HABIT,” which Dean Knox could have shortened to “HABITS.” On the opposite page is a subject even more intriguing. Within a section titled “UNCONSCIOUS MOTIVATION” is a discussion on how someone can be influenced to behave in certain ways. The subhead is “Post-hypnotic suggestion.”
I’m not sure why investigators failed to specify the page numbers that the book was turned to or why Carl Knox chose to write “HABITS” in his notes as opposed to the actual section head. As we’ve established, no subhead or section head on any of the pages was simply called “Habits.” It’s also curious that university officials didn’t appear to question why Ron would be studying psychology, since they knew he’d already dropped the course. Did that detail somehow escape them?
Or could it be that investigators had noticed the reference to post-hypnotic suggestion and didn’t want to raise suspicions that Ronald Tammen’s disappearance could have had something to do with that phenomenon? I get it—why get everyone all riled up if it had no relevance to the case? But with Miami’s psychology department employing at least three faculty members who were hypnosis experts—two of them having collaborated with a renowned psychologist on the 1933 seminal book Hypnosis and Suggestibility, and one of those two being Ronald Tammen’s former psych professor—it seems as if that might have been something worth inquiring about.
Yep, we’re going to go there in subsequent posts, but we’ll be proceeding slowly and cautiously. I don’t intend to point fingers at a person, department, or agency before all of the evidence is in. I also won’t be disparaging a medical practice that has helped countless people overcome personal difficulties. What I will be doing is posting relevant documents as they become available and asking questions that, as far as I know, haven’t been posed before—at least not publicly.
In the meantime, please join me today on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/agmihtf/) at 11:30 a.m. ET as I live-stream additional information concerning today’s post. Among other things, we’ll be leafing through the individual pages of Tammen’s psychology book, looking at the habits references. If you’re tied up at that time, or are discovering this website after April 19, no problem. You can access a recording after-the-fact.
Of all the movie genres that are out there, the one I adore most is the film noir. The shadowy lighting, the 1940s fashions, the witty repartee spoken in clipped sentences between drags on a smoldering cigarette, the monsoon-like levels of rainfall—such are the elements of a truly great mystery. But, perhaps above all, there’s the mysterious woman—the glamorous vixen who knocks on Humphrey Bogart’s office door late at night in need of a P.I., or the femme fatale who fixes Fred MacMurray a drink as the two plot out a new life insurance policy for her husband. Who is she? What’s her story?, we all think. I’d almost contend that no great mystery goes without one.
Well, hold onto your fedoras, Ron Tammen fans, because we have a mysterious woman too.
She sauntered her way into our saga back in 2010, when I was having a phone conversation with Ron Tammen’s freshman roommate. Tammen had resided in Fisher Hall both of his years at Miami—as a freshman and a sophomore—and, just as it was with Tammen’s sophomore roommate, his freshman roommate really didn’t have any stories to share about Tammen. He thought he was a nice guy, but that’s about it. And then he brought up her.
He remembered that Ron had told him that he was dating an older woman, although, to an 18-year-old guy, the term “older” could have meant anything—from someone in her early 20s to way up in her 30s even. She had a car. She wasn’t a student. She was from somewhere like Hamilton or Middletown, he said, and she would pick Ron up, and the two would drive off together. Some of the other Fisher Hall residents used to whisper about her, he told me. He didn’t recall her name, and in a more recent conversation, he said that he didn’t recall Ron ever mentioning her name to him. He’d never seen her before, so he couldn’t describe what she looked like.
While I found the revelation fascinating, I had no idea where to go with it. I couldn’t imagine that there would be any hard evidence I could seek in document form. The phrase “A woman from Hamilton or Middletown” is a tad too vague when searching a database or submitting a FOIA request. (Actually, I did try searching old newspapers to see if a woman from either of those towns might have gone missing at the same time that Ron did, in the event the two had run off together, but nothing turned up.)
I knew that what I was dealing with was the flimsiest form of evidence there is—hearsay—though that’s not to say that hearsay isn’t valuable. If I could find just one other person who remembered the same obscure details, then I’d be getting somewhere. I asked a few Delts and Fisher Hall residents if they’d ever seen or heard about Ron with an older woman, but that’s about all I could think to do.
After hearing so many “Nos” in reply, I began leaving that question off my list. It didn’t seem pertinent to where the story was heading. Besides, even if Ron Tammen was hanging out with an older woman during his freshman year, how would that relate to his disappearance during his sophomore year?
Then, just last month, I met with Ralph Smith (not his real name), the nearly 97-year-old man who’d been on the Oxford police force when Tammen disappeared. Ralph felt that there were two compelling clues in the case. One was public knowledge and one wasn’t.
The first clue, the one that had already been made public, had to do with the fish in Ron’s bed. To Ralph, that fish was the key to the mystery. He felt that Ron had been so startled and outraged by the fish that he confronted the culprit(s) and a fight ensued. He thought Ron was probably killed and thrown into the basement and never found. Ralph believes this theory so fervently that he wasn’t about to change his mind even after I told him who’d put the fish in Ron’s bed and why. It’s hard to abandon something we’ve believed in for so many years, I guess.
The second clue—the one that hadn’t made its way into public discourse (until now)—had to do with a woman.
Ralph mentioned her early in our conversation, when he told me that there was a report that someone had seen Ron “sitting in a car with a lady out front, and they drove off.” At first, I viewed his comment with skepticism, thinking that it sounded a lot like the hitchhiking reports that had been called in to the Oxford police shortly after Ron disappeared but that had been disproved. However, as he continued bringing up his two main talking points—the fish and the woman, the woman and the fish—I started taking his story more seriously. Here’s exchange number 2 (with light edits and extraneous conversation removed for readability):
RS: I thought, when they talked about him sitting in the car with some lady, I thought it might have been a lady friend or a girl that he liked or something. But why would he just drive off with her, unless she had so much money, that he’d leave his billfold, his contact with the bank?…
JW: OK, who saw him in a car with the lady? Do you remember?
RS: I don’t know. I think one of the fraternity members. I think that was made up…It’s possible that it did happen, but she lived in Hamilton, Ohio. I know that much.
JW: Do you know the name?
RS: No. No name was given.
JW: Was she older? Was she an older person?
RS: No, she was about the same age.
Later, with about 20 minutes left in our conversation, the topic of the woman in the car came up one more time, and I tried to extract any additional information about her that I could (again, transcript lightly edited for readability):
JW: When did you find out about the woman? Of him talking to a woman or sitting in a car?
RS: I think the next day or so.
JW: Somebody said that he saw Ron Tammen. In a car. With a woman.
RS: Yeah. And they never, they haven’t investigated the person. Nobody knows who the person was who said that, whether it was a fake deal to cover up for a cover-up or what. They definitely said that he was in a car. They saw him in a car about 45 minutes or close to an hour and all of a sudden they just drove off.
JW: And they drove off, but we don’t know what time.
RS: No. It was late. It was night, real late.
JW: OK, was this after the fish?
RS: After the fish deal. It was after the fish deal. After the episode with that…
RS: So he had to go down, and either she called him, or he had called her. Why she came up there, that was never expressed. And she wasn’t investigated.
JW: But did they know her name at one point?
RS: They didn’t know her name. They just said she was a lady who drove up in a car and he got in, and they sit there and then all of the sudden they drove off.
JW: Do you remember what kind of car?
RS: There was no further investigation. Who the lady was or…
JW: OK, so Oscar Decker [the police chief in charge of the investigation] couldn’t act on it because there was no name.
RS: No names involved. The person that said it—they didn’t know the woman. And see, most…the only way, he might have been a fraternity brother or a resident of the same dorm, and she might have been at one of the parties that they had. That was the only way that she might have been known. Because, they all have their own woman at the party. You don’t have no two or three women.
JW: OK, and I don’t know what I would do with this, but do you remember what kind of car?
RS: No. It wasn’t even mentioned.
JW: A color of a car?
RS: The color of the car, nothing. The only thing that was mentioned was that somebody saw him in a car. They didn’t say if it was red, blue, or what or what kind of car, and they were sitting there and they saw them drive off. And no check was made on whether that was true or whether it was a make-up deal or some type of cover-up or whether it really happened and where she really lived. She wasn’t a student. She wasn’t a student. She was just a lady.
JW: From Hamilton? Do we know that for sure?
RS: From Hamilton, they said. They thought she was. So she might have been his connection for a party when he had…See, whenever fraternities on weekends, they all have parties.
JW: Right. And did this person who reported it…
RS: We have no idea who that person is and nobody has no idea who said it.
JW: Can I ask who they told? Did they talk to the university and you found out or did they tell the police? Who did the person who saw Ron in the car…
RS: None of that was ever mentioned.
JW: You don’t know who they told.
RS: No. That’s what I say.
JW: Nobody talked to the police.
RS: Word just got out that…
JW: Word got out.
RS: Yeah. Word just got out, just like, “yeah, I saw him in the car and they drove off.”
After my sit-down with Ralph, I touched base with Ron’s freshman roommate again to see if he could provide additional details about the older woman, but he couldn’t think of anything more to add. I’m currently following up with more Delts and Fisher Hall residents to see if anyone remembers seeing or hearing about Ron and a woman from Hamilton, either on the night in question or any other night. Of course, it still isn’t clear if the older woman is the same person as the woman from Hamilton or if there actually was a woman from Hamilton.
It could be something, or it could be nothing, but it’s another clue that was never investigated, which is something in and of itself.
Had I known he was alive seven years ago at the start of my project, I would have contacted him then, when he was a mere 90 years of age. Thankfully, he was still reasonably strong and feisty. When we first spoke, our phone connection was breaking up—it was a rainy Monday morning and I was in a small town. He told me to write him a letter, which I promptly did. In it, I let him know that I’d be coming to his apartment “this coming Saturday” at 11 a.m. for an interview. Unless he had a problem with that time and date, I’d look forward to meeting him then.
After a few days, I still hadn’t received word from him, so I continued with my plans in the hope that he wouldn’t let me down. In my line of work, it probably isn’t considered wise to drive more than three hours to an interview that was set up by way of a letter sent through the U.S. mail. There should have been follow-up phone calls and emails to confirm dates, places, and contingency plans in the event of traffic or weather. But I was quite sure that this person didn’t own a computer and he didn’t seem to do well with phones either. When he responded to my first letter—the one in which I’d asked him if he might be interested in talking to me about the Ronald Tammen disappearance—he didn’t bother to leave a message because of what it might cost him.
On Friday, I tried calling him to confirm that he’d received my second letter about our Saturday meeting, however there was no answer, and his voicemail box was full. I grew uneasy, but knew that I still needed to chance it. That afternoon, I made the long drive and checked into a hotel that, as pure luck would have it, was only a mile and a half from his apartment. The next morning, I awoke early and contemplated what I would do if he wasn’t there. I resolved that I’d wait for at least an hour, and if he still didn’t arrive, I’d leave a note and would make the trip again if need be. I felt that it would be worth it based on something he’d said to me during our initial phone conversation. At the moment that he uttered the words “Gilson Wright was the reporter who’d written most of the news articles on the case,” I knew that his brain cells were still working. I walked to my car and headed across the river.
His apartment was in a once majestic-looking building with ornate stone carvings that were reminiscent of craftsmanship from the turn of the 20th century. I parked my car across the street and walked to a gate where two people were shooting the breeze and soaking in some sun—one an old man in a wheelchair and the other a younger man in his 30s. I said that I was there to see Ralph Smith (not his real name) and asked if they had any suggestions on how I should enter the building. The older man said, “I’m Ralph Smith!” Whoopee!, I thought, and I followed him in.
Ralph and I talked for two hours. I won’t tell you the details of our conversation, not yet, but I’ll at least tell you the answer to the question on most readers’ minds: no, he doesn’t know what happened to Ronald Tammen. After so many years, he subscribes to a theory that I walked away from years ago. He thinks it had something to do with the fish in Ron’s bed, and he wasn’t willing to abandon that belief even after I told him all about Dick Titus and his practical joke. But he did offer up one small detail that I consider to be a bona fide lead, though it’ll be nearly impossible to chase down. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.
When I ran out of questions, I thanked him several times, and promised to write him again and to send him some of the evidence I’ve discovered. He accompanied me to the gate, shook my hand, and told me how much he’d enjoyed our visit. I thought those parting words would be our last, however, upon reaching my car, as I was rifling through my duffle bag for more comfortable shoes for the drive home, I looked up to see that he’d crossed the street and had rolled his wheelchair directly in front of my car.
“I wanted to check out your license plate,” he told me. “I play the lottery, and I’m going to play your numbers.”
“Good luck!” I said.
Driving home, I had that giddy feeling I sometimes get when I talk to someone who was there when it all happened. Only this time, it was better. This time, I had actually spoken face-to-face with someone who had served in the Oxford PD under Oscar Decker, the former chief of police who led the investigation into Tammen’s disappearance. Sure, Ralph may play the numbers from time to time, but, this time, I felt as if I was the one who’d won the Lotto.
A page from Dean Carl Knox’s notes describing what Charles Findlay had discovered when he walked into their room (see red arrow): “Sunday 10:30 Light on — Door Open, but [Ron] never returned.”
Does it even matter whether Ronald Tammen disappeared two hours later than what we’d all been led to believe? Who cares if it was 8:30 or 10:30 p.m.? We still don’t know what happened to Tammen.
It matters because of what it might mean regarding how Ron went AWOL. Did he walk out of his room voluntarily or was he ushered out by force? One knock against the “foul play” theory with regards to an 8:30 departure time was that, with Ron sticking so close to his room for most of the evening, there would have been little opportunity for someone to catch him off guard and whisk him away. First he was studying with Dick Titus down the hall, then he was supposedly reading in his room, and next he was walking downstairs to pick up some sheets as well as reportedly talking on the phone with his brother Richard. While it’s possible for someone to nab him under those circumstances, it doesn’t seem ideal. My guess is that if he disappeared at around 8:30 p.m., he likely walked out of his room on his own.
If, however, Ron was at song practice, a planned occurrence that occupied a designated block of time, someone would have had nearly two hours in which to prepare for an encounter of some sort. According to a Fisher Hall resident whose room faced Ron and Chuck’s room, Ron frequently left the door to their room open, even if he left the building.
“The only time he closed the door was when he went to bed,” the person told me. “Otherwise, it was open at all times, even when he was studying or out.”
What’s more, there was a fire escape outside their window. If someone knowledgeable about Ron’s schedule and habits wished to ambush him (for whatever reason), that person could have entered through the door or window, stepped into the closet, pillowcase in hand (remember the pillowcase that never made its way onto the pillow?), and waited until Ron returned to his room.
Of course, 10:30 was also the time at which Findlay returned to the room, according to Dean Knox’s notes (see red arrow in image), which means that, whether it was precision planning, uncanny luck, or both, someone would have pulled off a fantastic feat just in the nick of time. Or perhaps someone was hiding outside in the shadows of Fisher Hall at 10:30 p.m. awaiting Ron’s return and he never made it back inside. The latter scenario makes it more difficult to explain why Ron’s wallet and keys were left in the room, but perhaps he’d emptied his pockets before heading to song practice. Either way, whether it happened indoors or outdoors, if Ron had disappeared after 10:30 p.m., it seems more likely that someone else had been involved.
There’s a third option, one recently suggested to me by a reader, that combines a voluntary exit with a forced departure. Suppose Ron walked outside on his own to meet someone—maybe at 10:30 p.m. after song practice, but it could have happened at 8:30 too. Ron might have been leery of the person, so much so that he decided to leave most of his personal effects behind. He might have even brought along the pillowcase to carry something back from a transaction. At some point, the person (or persons) could have thrown Ron into the back of a car and driven him somewhere, perhaps Seven Mile. This is a possibility too, which (sadly) means that the potential discovery of two additional hours doesn’t rule out very much—not without more information.
Perhaps the true implication of whether Ron left at 8:30 or 10:30 is this: for some odd reason, university and law enforcement officials never told reporters about their discussions with Paul. (It still isn’t clear who, in addition to Carl Knox, had interviewed Paul. Although Paul first described him as a member of the police force in Oxford, he later said that he wasn’t entirely sure what operation he was affiliated with since the man was out of uniform.) Investigators publicly discussed other leads that had gone nowhere—a lady in Cincinnati, for example, who’d thought that she’d rented an apartment to someone who looked like Tammen or motorists who’d reported picking up hitchhikers who resembled him—but they never disclosed Paul’s claim that Ron had been to song practice that night. The case was so lacking in clues that, even if investigators had possessed ironclad evidence that ruled out Paul’s story (which, by the way, I haven’t seen any indication of), you’d think that they would have at least mentioned to reporters that they’d chased down that lead but that it, too, was a bust. So the secrecy—the secrecy about song practice—may be what matters most.
Addendum — What about the fraternity pin?
As an addendum to today’s post, it’s interesting how a new discovery can affect how you look at old clues. Just as I was adding the above image to this page, I reread the words Dean Knox had penciled in at the top: “Car Keys in Desk with Fraternity Pin.” It struck me: were the Delts required to wear their fraternity pins to all functions, including song practice? If so, and if we are to believe Paul’s story, then it would appear that Ron did make it back to his room before he disappeared. I asked Paul if he remembered having to wear his pin to all fraternity functions, to which he said, “The House encouraged guys to wear their pin but I don’t recall a fine for not wearing it.” Looks as though I may need to get my hands on the 1953 Delta Tau Delta bylaws.