The 10-Minute Ronald Tammen Speed Read

OK, OK, OK. I can hear your groans and whimpers. As of this moment, I’ve written more than 200,000 words (and counting!) on the topic of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance, and if you’re new here, you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed. I’m sure you’d love to sit down and read all 90-plus posts from start to finish, but egads, who has that kind of time? Truth be told, I feel kind of good about this problem. After Hamilton Journal News reporter Joe Cella had published his final article on Tammen in 1976, more than three decades went by with virtually no new developments in the case. Now, here we are with so many new clues to contend with, some people are asking me to please skip over some of the details and cut to the chase. I get it. Apparently, you have a life. So here you go: an overview of the Tammen story condensed into as few words as humanly possible.

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In 1953, 19-year-old Ron Tammen was a sophomore business major at Miami University, a campus of roughly 5,000 students at that time, set in the cute, bucolic town of Oxford, Ohio. On a Sunday night in April, when everyone seemed to be looking the other way, Ron Tammen disappeared. The news of his disappearance took several days to make its way across campus, but once it did, it was startling to everyone. Of Ron’s many virtues, his conscientiousness stood out most. People couldn’t imagine him running off without telling anyone, particularly since one of the ways he earned a paycheck was as a counselor to freshman guys in Fisher Hall.

The mystery began unfolding at about 10:30 that night, April 19, when Ron’s roommate, Chuck Findlay, returned to their dorm room in Fisher after being away for the weekend. Chuck found the door to their room open, the lights on, and a book—Ron’s psychology book—open on Ron’s desk. Other than the clothes he was wearing and perhaps a little cash, all of Ron’s most prized possessions remained in that room or in the adjacent parking lot, where his car was parked in its usual spot and his string bass, which he needed for his Campus Owls gigs, lying in the back seat. Eventually, when Ron didn’t return, Chuck concluded that he’d stayed all night at his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta. But when he checked with them the next day, they said he wasn’t there. 

Carl Knox, a housing official whose title was dean of men, was placed in charge of the university’s investigation. The Oxford Police Department also took part, as did the Butler County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio State Patrol, though the latter two law enforcement agencies mostly assisted at the beginning. Students also helped in the search. Delts, Fisher Hall residents, and members of Miami’s Air Force ROTC program combed the surrounding campus area. Local inmates searched nearby Hueston Woods.

The FBI also became involved. After Mrs. Tammen had contacted the FBI’s Cleveland field office, they opened a missing person case on Ron. As luck would have it, Ron’s fingerprints were on file, taken when Ron was in the second grade, though those fingerprints didn’t seem to help locate him. Because there were ostensibly no signs of foul play, the FBI claimed that Ron’s case didn’t fit their criteria to investigate. Nevertheless, an FBI rep had been attending faculty meetings, and FBI agents also were dropping in on Ron’s friends and family and asking questions, so they appeared to be investing more than the usual amount of time and resources into Ron’s case. In the summer of 1953, after Ron’s draft status had changed and he didn’t show up for his physical, the FBI opened a new case file on Ron, this one for a Selective Service violation, though that case was closed in 1955.

Early in its investigation, the university had concluded that Ron had disappeared from Fisher Hall shortly after 8 p.m., when he’d walked downstairs in pursuit of a clean set of sheets. (One of his freshman charges had pranked him by putting a fish in his bed.) On the Friday after Ron disappeared, university officials were announcing that he’d likely developed amnesia and, having forgotten his identity, had wandered away. 

Weeks passed with little to go on, but then investigators received word of two potential sightings. The first, reported in June 1953, took place in nearby Seven Mile. A young man who looked like Ron had shown up on a woman’s doorstep the night of Ron’s disappearance. Seemingly confused about where he was, he asked for directions and walked away. The university and Oxford PD shared that story widely, feeling that it supported their theory that Ron had developed amnesia and gone wandering. The second potential sighting took place in August of that same year, in Wellsville, NY. While returning from vacation, a housing official who’d known Ron felt sure that he saw him dining in a hotel restaurant with a group of young men. Although the official had told Carl Knox the next day, that potential sighting wasn’t made known to the public until reporter Joe Cella brought it to light in 1976.

In 1973, Cella revealed another mysterious Ron sighting, only this one was actual, not potential, since it happened before Ron disappeared. In November 1952, Ron had stepped into Dr. Garret Boone’s office in Hamilton, roughly 10 miles from Oxford, to have his blood type tested. After Ron had gone missing, Dr. Boone attempted to discuss the strange visit with university officials, however their treatment of him was less than hospitable. They’d given him the brush-off, he told Cella.

After Cella passed away in 1980, things were pretty much at a standstill regarding the case. Then, in 2008, two sheriff’s departments—one in Walker County, GA, and the other in Butler County, OH—teamed up to see if they might help solve each other’s cold cases. In July 1953, a dead body had been found in a ravine outside Lafayette, GA, but the body had never been identified. Wondering if the dead man might have been Ron, they exhumed his remains and compared the unknown man’s DNA to the DNA of Ron’s sister Marcia. It wasn’t Ron.

Two years later, I began my own investigation into Ron’s disappearance. It wasn’t long before I discovered details that either weren’t known at the time or that were known but had never been shared with the public.

One major discrepancy that I found is the time of Ron’s disappearance. 

According to one source’s first-hand account, Ron had attended song practice at the Delt house later that night—well after 8 p.m.—and had walked back to the dorms sometime after 10 p.m. with two freshman fraternity brothers. After reaching their dorm, the two younger men said goodnight to Ron as he continued walking the short distance to Fisher Hall. When the young men told Carl Knox about their walk home that night, he told them that they may have been the last ones to have seen Ron before he disappeared. Yet for some reason, Ron’s walk back to the dorms has been conspicuously left out of the university’s narrative.

Another detail that’s been omitted concerns a report that Ron had been seen late that night sitting in a car outside Fisher Hall with a woman and then being driven away. According to a man who’d served on the Oxford PD at the time, that lead was never investigated.

Also not mentioned in the university’s account is why Ron’s open psychology book was so concerning. Carl Knox surely knew that Ron had dropped his psychology course earlier that semester, so there shouldn’t have been a reason for Ron to be studying psychology. Moreover, he also likely knew, or would soon learn, that certain members of Miami’s psychology department were engaged in sensitive activities back then, perhaps even top secret. Ron’s psychology professor, St. Clair Switzer, was a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force Reserves while he was teaching courses at Miami. Dr. Switzer was also a hypnosis expert and a registered pharmacist. CIA documents show that he was likely involved in their drug and hypnosis studies that started in the early 1950s, particularly those pertaining to interrogation through Project ARTICHOKE (a forerunner of MKULTRA). An associate of Ron’s vividly recalls a group of men on the front lawn of Fisher Hall in the fall of the 1952-53 recruiting volunteers for a hypnosis study with the psychology department. 

Evidence from personal interviews also indicates that Ron may have been gay or bisexual, which was so stigmatized in the 1950s, many gay and lesbian individuals felt pressured to remain closeted. In addition, during his sophomore year, Ron’s grades were slipping, and he was no longer a full-time student. As a result, Ron was at risk of losing his college deferment from the draft. And if Ron were gay and he’d been drafted, he would have been in danger of being outed. In 1953, the U.S. government was ramping up efforts to remove gay and lesbian military personnel and civil servants from their rosters. Those efforts, referred to as the Lavender Scare, destroyed thousands of people’s lives and livelihoods. 

Although the above picture looks bleak for Ron, a young man caught between MKULTRA and the Lavender Scare, two of the federal government’s most notorious programs, I’ve discovered some hopeful news too. The FBI had expunged Ron’s fingerprints in 2002 due to a court order or a conflict with the Privacy Act of 1974, with evidence tilting toward the latter. If it was due to the Privacy Act, then Ron would have needed to make that request himself. I believe Ron Tammen was alive in 2002.

So what happened to Ron Tammen? I’m still attempting to answer that question. My hope is that Ron was recruited by the CIA, an organization that has always considered itself to be exempt of the restrictions that other agencies are bound to, and one that is expert at making someone disappear. In 1953, when other federal agencies might have considered a gay man to be a security risk, the CIA may have seen his potential and welcomed him into the fold. But this is just a guess.

As for how much the university knew about what happened to Ron, it appears that they knew a lot more than they were willing to say.

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