The dog handler, the dad, and the director

Director Hoover Portrait
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director from 1924 to 1972 — Photo credit: FBI

Let’s take a few steps back to the year 2010, when the FBI had sent me their first round of FOIA documents on the Tammen case. What do the FBI’s officially sanctioned records say and how might that information offer up some additional clues into the case, knowing everything else we know now?

For a quick recap, here are the FBI documents we’ve mentioned so far:

  • This is the initial report that was submitted roughly a month after Marjorie Tammen contacted the FBI informing them of her missing son.
  • This document shows that the FBI had Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints on file as early as 1941 “for personal identification.”
  • This form letter (as well as this one) sent by the FBI to Ron’s parents features the notations used to describe Ron’s fingerprints.

The document that I want to focus on today is the below letter, written to J. Edgar Hoover from Ronald Tammen’s father, Ronald H. Tammen, Sr.:

Mr. Tammen's letter to JEH on AP photo
Click on link for closer view

The document isn’t dated, however it references an Associated Press photo that appeared in the October 2, 1967, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as numerous other newspapers around the country. The photo was of a dog handler and his dog in Vietnam.

Here’s the photo:

Vietnam South U.S.  Forces  Dogs
ASSOCIATED PRESS — For Editorial Use  — www.apimages.com

 And here’s the caption that ran beneath it:

COOLING OFF IN VIETNAM – A dog handler attached to the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade and his dog take a cooling swim in a stream near the unit’s home base at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. They had just returned from a patrol and both leaped into the water.

Mr. Tammen had this to say about the photo: “From the few features I can see of this soldier, I would swear it is my son.”

Although I can see a resemblance, I have no idea if the soldier in that photo was Ronald Tammen, who would have been 34 at that time. However, the letter does tell me a couple things about Mr. Tammen. First, counter to the FBI FOIA liaison’s claim that Mr. and Mrs. Tammen thought Ron “to be deceased given some suspicious facts” (the FBI’s supposed reason for sending me the FOIA documents without requiring proof of death or third-party authorization), as of October 1967, Mr. Tammen was still hopeful that his son was alive. (Mrs. Tammen had passed away by then, in 1964.) Second, the letter shows that Mr. Tammen had no idea what had happened to his son. If any readers have been secretly wondering if Ron’s parents might have known something by that time, this letter should put those suspicions to rest.

Now let’s review the response from then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, dated October 11, 1967:

Hoover response to Mr. Tammen
Click on link for closer view

I’m going to go ahead and say it: That was one lame-o response, J. Edgar Hoover! Why do I think so? This was a disappearance in which the FBI had, at least at one time, more than a little interest. It was a case on which they’d staked their fabled reputation, one they’d sunk some serious tax dollars into, dispersing agents hither and yon to investigate what might have happened to Ron. Then, after 14 years with (supposedly) little to no new evidence, Ron’s father—someone who knew Tammen about as well as anyone could—writes in to tell them, Hey fellas! I could swear the person in this photo is my son! Can you check it out? Mr. Tammen hadn’t asked that much of the FBI up until that point. It wasn’t as if he’d been calling them once a week asking for an update. I’m no expert, but I’d call this a potential lead.

But is J. Edgar intrigued? Does he put a couple of his dark-suited G-men back on the trail to follow up in hopes that he can wrap up this case, while getting some great P.R.? No, he does not. Instead, Hoover responds with a tepid, “In reference to the newspaper item you enclosed, you may wish to write directly to The Adjutant General, Department of the Army, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 20310, for possible assistance.”

That, Good Man readers, is what I would call a first-class, grade-A, top-of-the-line brush-off.  If Mr. Hoover had truly been interested in finding out if the soldier in the photo was Ronald Tammen, don’t you think he would have made a phone call of his own to the Adjutant General? After all, in 1967, Tammen’s fingerprints were still on file with the FBI, and the Army obviously would have taken the soldier’s fingerprints when he enlisted. If the FBI didn’t already have the dog handler’s prints in their identification files (a big if), the Army could have sent them a copy, and, bada bing bada boom, question answered. But Hoover didn’t take that simple step. Why not?

I’ll venture a guess. By 1967, I think Hoover had stopped caring about what happened to Ronald Tammen. Either that, or he already had a good idea what the answer was. And if it was the latter, there must have been some reason that he didn’t want that information to be made public.

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Congratulations! You’ve just completed post #20 of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After reading some of the new details presented on this website, you may have begun forming an opinion of your own about what happened to Ronald Tammen—or maybe your opinion has evolved. If you wish to discuss your views, the floor is always open, and, at this stage of the game, there are no wrong answers. Also, don’t forget to share this blog with friends and family members! The more followers we have, the more people we can involve in the discussion, which could produce more leads and possibly more answers.

The missing fingerprints, part 2

Last month, after I posted what I consider to be a big revelation in the Tammen case—documented proof that the FBI had Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints on file when he disappeared, and, moreover, the discovery that they no longer have them—I was expecting, I don’t know, a more enthusiastic reaction? Not cheers and fist bumps per se, but I thought the number of page views would inch up a little, and someone might even weigh in with a “wow.”

Here’s what I heard:

[crickets]

I don’t think it’s because readers have lost interest in the Tammen case. Many of you have let me know through your emails and comments that you’re happy this blog exists. So why all the quiet?

I think I know. It’s because, Good Man followers, you were probably waiting for the other shoe to drop, and rightfully so. I was holding onto a key piece of information.

A few readers might have already figured things out, because the information I was holding back is already public. And that piece of publicly available information has to do with FBI protocol.

“Everybody has to clean their closets once in a while,” one FBI employee told me when I asked him why they no longer had Ron’s prints on file.

That’s a good point. And with the FBI now tracking other biometrics, such as facial recognition and latent and palm prints, they’re probably accumulating massive volumes of data. Under the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, the record retention protocol for fingerprints is as follows (with bold added):

The NGI data will be retained in accordance with the applicable retention schedules approved by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has approved the destruction of fingerprint cards and corresponding indices when criminal and civil subjects attain 110 years of age or seven years after notification of death with biometric confirmation. Source, Section 3.4

So under NGI protocol guidelines, the FBI would have had to wait until either Ronald Tammen was 110 years of age or seven years after his biometrically confirmed death before they could rid their closet of Tammen’s prints. In February 2008, when Detective Frank Smith, of the Butler County Sheriff’s Department, unsuccessfully sought out Tammen’s prints from the FBI, Tammen would have been 74 years of age, not even close to 110.

Not so fast, some forensics experts may be thinking. NGI was fully instituted only recently, in September 2014. The protocol of its predecessor, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which had been in place since July 1999, stipulated this:

NARA has determined that civil fingerprint submissions are to be destroyed when the individual reaches 75 years of age and criminal fingerprints are to be destroyed when the individual reaches 99 years of age. — Source, Section 3.4

OK, that’s better. Whether Ron would have been 74 or 75…that’s close enough, right?

Maybe, except for one thing: On April 1, 2015, a high-ranking official in the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division let me know in an email that Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were “expunged from our system in 2002. No other info available.”

Ronald Tammen would have been 68 or 69.

Whaaaaaa?, I thought.

I followed up with this email, to which he responded to three questions in red:

Thank you so much for your quick response. Just to make sure I understand–does that mean that his fingerprints were still in the FBI’s system until 2002, at which time they were removed from your system? Yes. Also, do you happen to know who expunged them? No Lastly, I know it was a long time ago, but do you have any suggestion regarding the meaning of the language: “removed from Ident. files, 6-4-73”? Sorry, but we do not.

(The last question had to do with a notation on several of the documents I’d received from the FBI as part of my FOIA request. I’d originally been trying to determine if they’d purged Ron’s fingerprints back in 1973.)

I then asked him what the protocol was for expunging fingerprints. He said, “The FBI purges fingerprint data and records at 110 years of age or 7 years after confirmed death.”

And that’s why I’m so riled about Ron’s fingerprint records. Since Ronald Tammen wouldn’t have been 110, or even 75, years of age when the FBI purged his prints, the only logical explanation for their decision to do so, other than the possibility that someone made a colossal mistake, is that Ronald Tammen had been confirmed dead, possibly for seven years, in 2002. This, in turn, could mean that he died around 1995, depending on the date in which the FBI had first learned of his death.

And if the FBI did learn and confirm that Ronald Tammen had died? Well, that just opens up a whole new set of questions, now doesn’t it?

Chuck Findlay’s story

There are moments in some people’s lives that prove to be pivotal. They’re rolling along, minding their own business, steady as they go on a plotted trajectory, and then a metaphorical meteor strikes and their life takes an abrupt left turn. In Charles Findlay’s case, that moment arrived on Sunday, April 19, 1953, at around 10:30 p.m., when he walked into his room in Miami University’s Fisher Hall after having spent the weekend in Dayton with his family.

At first glance, Chuck didn’t know that everything was about to change for him. By all appearances, his roommate, Ron Tammen, would be walking in at any minute and they’d be recounting to one another how they’d spent their weekends. Ron had left a light on, an open book on his desk, and his wallet, keys, and pretty much everything else he owned in the room, and his car was still parked outside. When, after some time, there was still no Ron, Chuck decided he was probably staying at the fraternity house that night and went to bed. He didn’t think much else about it.

The next day, when Ron still hadn’t shown up, Chuck grew a little more concerned. According to one knowledgeable source, Chuck had bumped into Richard, Ron’s younger brother and a freshman at Miami, while walking to class. He told him that Ron hadn’t come home the night before and asked if he knew where he might be. Richard responded that he didn’t know. Later that day, Chuck stopped by the Delt house and asked if Ron had been there the night before. Whoever he spoke with also told him no. We already know how the story ends—Ron never returned and, from that point on, Charles L. Findlay would be remembered as the roommate of the guy in the center of Miami’s most baffling mystery.

The first time I spoke with Chuck was in 2010. I was practically giddy at the prospect of talking with someone whom I’d hoped could finally answer all my questions about Ron Tammen. But, like everyone else, Chuck didn’t feel that he knew Ron very well. They might have been roommates, but they didn’t see each other much. “He was busy,” Chuck told me.

Chuck and I spoke several more times, the last being in the spring of 2015. My notes and transcripts reveal a pattern in which I was doing most of the talking, posing to him a string of questions or filling him in on the latest developments. “Do you remember anything about this (or that) detail?” I’d ask him. And he’d say, “Somewhat,” or “Maybe,” or, his favorite response, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t. It was so long ago.” To his credit, he didn’t want to send me on a wild goose chase based on a potentially faulty recollection. Nevertheless, by that time, I’d come to appreciate what a kind and gentle man Chuck Findlay was—always willing to return my call, always happy to listen to my latest hypothesis about what happened to his former roommate.

This past summer, I had reason to contact Chuck again. I wanted to ask him about my recent discoveries, namely about Ron’s possible participation in the Delts’ song practice, the woman from Hamilton, the Campus Owls’ recording session in Cincinnati, and whether he’d heard about a fight between Ron and his brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom. I also wanted to ask him if he remembered walking up to the third floor that night to find out if anyone had seen Ron, an effort to corroborate Hal’s (not his real name) story.

I left a voicemail message suggesting I come to visit him in person. Several days later, I received a call from Chuck’s son David. Knowing that couldn’t be a good sign, I braced myself for the sad news: Chuck Findlay had passed away May 26, 2017, at the age of 85. David also let me know that, in Chuck’s later years, the two had talked at length about Ron Tammen. “Would you be interested in meeting with me instead?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I replied.

We met in a Panera, in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and it was there that I more fully began to grasp the toll that Ron Tammen’s disappearance had taken on Chuck Findlay and how it impacted the life he led.

“Ronald Tammen’s disappearance is partly responsible for the person that’s sitting in front of you today,” David Findlay said to me mere minutes into our conversation. David is warm and energetic and he’s a big believer in the interconnectedness of the universe. Plus, he looked so much like his father, it wasn’t funny. We hit it off instantly.

Chuck Findlay was a little older than Ron Tammen. Born on April 1, 1932, he had just turned 21 when Tammen went missing. (Ron was still 19.) Although they didn’t know each other well, they were a good match, because they were similar people: quiet, introspective, and studious.

“The two of them liked each other, got along famously, but they weren’t close,” David said. “They weren’t close. They were roommates and they got along fine.”

After Ron disappeared, Chuck was left to fend for himself for the remainder of the school year—he was never provided with a replacement roommate, which, as David points out, couldn’t have been good psychologically. During Chuck’s junior year, he was once again assigned to Fisher Hall, and this time, his roommate was kicked out during the first semester for stealing tests. Again, Chuck was provided with no replacement. On top of all that, he became ill with mono during the latter part of 1953. He was struggling.

According to David, Chuck internalized Ron’s disappearance in the years that followed. He may have been silently marking off the anniversaries, but he would never raise the subject with anyone.

”He did not talk about it. I mean, it had that much of an effect on him,” David said.

A 1960 anniversary article in the Dayton Daily News, which included comments from Chuck’s mother, supported this observation. Although Mrs. Findlay claimed that Chuck and Ron had been “very, very close,” a point both David and his father would have disputed, she also mentioned that Chuck had been seeing a doctor for a nervous disorder he’d developed after Ron disappeared.

“He still can’t talk about it,” she’d said at the time.

During the summers when Chuck was still at Miami, he’d worked in sales for a hardware store and, later, a furniture store, both in his hometown of Dayton. However, when he graduated in the winter of 1956, he needed a break. He moved to Wooster, a small college town in northeast Ohio, and taught roller skating at the local skating rink. In the 1950s, this might have been comparable to a college grad today moving to Colorado to wait tables or teach downhill skiing. It was a chance for Chuck to get away and clear his head before diving into the lifelong responsibilities of adulthood.

“He and my uncle ran the teaching program through Wooster Skateland for several years, but that wouldn’t have happened if Ron Tammen hadn’t disappeared,” said David. “And that’s where he met my mom. So there’s this cause and effect thing—this ripple, cause, and effect thing.”

After Chuck and his wife married, the two moved to Dayton, where he managed a furniture store, and later, to Michigan, where they ran a roller rink of their own for 25 years. After leaving the skating world, he worked for a local car dealership, driving cars from state to state until Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to drive any longer. When he was 82, he finally decided to retire for good, though the owners told him that he was welcome to work for them for as long as he wanted. He was that loved.

Chuck was a sentimental dad, and he wasn’t ashamed to show it. He was the sort of father who said a prayer and kissed his sons on the forehead at night, whether they were grown adults or not. When the family was younger, he would help his wife hang cookies on the tree on Christmas Eve so the boys could munch on them the whole next day. He would tape record family gatherings so he could capture each word that was said for posterity.

In 1976, when a Dayton television station was producing The Phantom of Oxford, they called Chuck repeatedly, begging him to talk on camera with them. After two months, he finally agreed.

“They had to bring in big cameras and lighting and everything, and I sat in my pajamas, cross-legged, at the entrance to our living room, and sat there and listened to the story,” said David. “And that’s the first time I ever heard it. It gives me chills to this day. And then, the book closed and he didn’t speak of it for decades.”

That would change some 38 years later as David was helping his father become more accustomed to life in the digital world.

“About three years ago, I discovered that video online. Dad was asking me, ‘What’s the difference between Netflix and YouTube?’ And I was explaining the difference, and I said, ‘Everything and everyone is on YouTube.’ So I Googled him on YouTube, and that came up, and we have a Smart TV, and I said, ‘Dad, you want to know what’s on YouTube? Here.’ And I started playing his interview, and he was like, ‘That’s me!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re on YouTube.’”

After watching the video, Chuck started opening up more about his time at Miami: about Fisher Hall’s wobbly plywood floors that made funny sounds when they walked; or the dropped ceilings that would rattle with falling plaster; or how food would be transported by dumbwaiter from the kitchen in the basement to the dining area above; or how he used to carry a bow tie in his pocket so that he’d be able to clip it on for dinner (an occasion for which ties were required) without having to run to his room to change—his own little 1950s life hack.

Chuck also took to keeping a notebook during those years at Miami after Ron disappeared—daily affirmations to help him cope. They were simple sayings, many clichés. Things like: Don’t sweat the small stuff, or The past can only be used to reflect on. It should not be used as a guideline for the future.

David treasures that notebook as an opportunity to see into the psyche of his father after he’d withstood one of the biggest jolts imaginable—perhaps even bigger than death itself. In death, there’s grieving. There’s closure. In a disappearance, there’s a hole, and endless unanswered questions, and the off chance that you might run into that person 30 or 40 years later. Chuck never stopped looking for Ron in crowds or on the street.

“He was 21. And so much of [what’s in the notebook] is who I knew to be my father my whole lifetime. And I think that was the start of it,” said David. “So it was really amazing that this tragedy, for my father, in the end, gave him a deep love for life and a passion for living life to the fullest that may not have been if not for that fateful night so very long ago.”

Hats
David and Charles Findlay, August 2015. David is wearing his grandfather’s cap, while Chuck is wearing a cap he purchased in 1953 in Oxford, Ohio. Credit: Photo used with permission of Findlay family. Not for reproduction.