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Trail to the truth: The Ron Tammen mystery 58 years later

By Amelia Carpenter
On April 21, 2011

  • Miami University junior forward Reilly Smith shoots the puck Feb. 24 against Ohio State University. Smith signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Stars Sunday and made his NHL debut Wednesday against the Edmonton Oilers. Smith finished his college career with 66 goals, tied for ninth in program history. Blake Wilson | The Miami Student

Ronald Henry Tammen Jr., 19, was a well-rounded Miami University sophomore in April 1953. Tammen was one of four children brought up by a wealthy and patriotic family in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Tammen had been selected as a resident adviser, was a member of the U.S. Navy ROTC, member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity, a bassist in the Campus Owls, a well-regarded university jazz band and a varsity wrestler. Tammen had dark brown hair, was 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighed 175 pounds. That is, until he disappeared 58 years ago on Sunday, April 19, 1953 — basically without a trace.

Tammen was studying the evening of April 19, 1953 in Fisher Hall (where the Marcum Conference Center now stands) and was last seen around 8:30 p.m. by the dorm mother, who exchanged his dirty sheets for clean linens. (His sheets were supposedly dirty from a dead fish – a prank a fellow resident pulled on Tammen).

Tammen's roommate, Charles Findlay, returned to their room that evening to the radio playing on Tammen's desk with the light on, psychology book open and his belongings (wallet with his personal information and car keys included) left behind. Findlay did not know at the time his roommate would not return.

Fisher Hall had a history of uses since it was built in 1856, according to the Miami University Archives. It was originally part of Oxford Female College, then a hotel and from 1882 to the 1920s, Fisher Hall was an insane asylum. Fisher was converted to a first-year residence hall in 1925 and was widely considered haunted.

It is speculated that Tammen ran from the draft, being that his disappearance was during the height of the Korean War, or he ran from his "pregnant girlfriend," which was never confirmed to the reporter's knowledge although many Fisher Hall residents said Tammen was dating a girl from Indiana University. More likely, Tammen was somehow assisted in leaving Miami the evening of April 19, 1953.

According to an April 28, 1953 article in The Miami Student, officials had ruled out foul play as a theory because Tammen was "rugged and strong," and had temporarily settled on amnesia as the reason for his disappearance. A May 5, 1953 article in the Cincinnati Times-Star FAMILY Magazine said then Oxford Police Chief Oscar Decker was sure Tammen would be found and soon: "Tammen may be asked for his draft registration card or, if he seeks a job in some dance orchestra (he played in the campus dance band), they'll ask him for his union card," Decker said." Both were left in Oxford. Someone will report him sooner or later, although he may still be suffering from a lack of memory, and the mystery will be solved."

The summer after Tammen disappeared, Mrs. Carl Spivey, a Seven Mile resident, told law enforcement that a male matching Tammen's description came to her door around midnight the same night Tammen disappeared. She said the man looked disheveled, wearing only a t-shirt and pants, which seemed strange for the freezing temperatures that night. Spivey said the man was looking for the bus stop. Further investigation found the Oxford Bus Lines had suspended that night, so he could not have taken the bus.

Tammen's younger brother, Richard, was a first-year student at Miami the same year and finished his years at Miami, graduating with his class. Richard was killed in an apartment fire years later. Marcia Tammen, his sister, was 10-years-old at the time her brother disappeared and is the only living relative today.

The cold case

The Tammen case now sits with Detective Frank Smith, a partner at the Butler County Cold Case Unit in Hamilton, Ohio. Smith has been a detective for 30 years. Tammen's case is the oldest cold case in the office since the start of their involvement in 2003. Smith has a large binder with documents regarding Tammen's disappearance in his office with several other more recent cases.

Smith said Tammen did not appear at the Spivey residence the evening he disappeared. He said he tracked down Spivey's son, who recalled the night very vividly.

"From an investigative standpoint, we do not believe that was Ronald Tammen," Smith said.

Smith said he went back and spoke with all the people that resided in Fisher Hall when Tammen disappeared.

"That was one of the most important things that we actually did do," Smith said.

Smith interviewed the man who lived one door down from Tammen — the last person to see him before he vanished. The two boys were studying for an exam when Tammen went to his own room to start studying for a history exam, according to the man. The man said he used the restroom, and when he came out, Tammen was gone. The man told Smith that nothing seemed wrong and Tammen didn't indicate that he was leaving or was being forced to leave.

Don Bledsoe was a first-year student living on the second floor of Fisher Hall with Tammen when he went missing who said he was never interviewed or questioned about Tammen's disappearance. One of Bledsoe's sons reached out to this reporter, through her blog she keeps on Tammen's case, and suggested she interview him.

Bledsoe was part of the Air Force ROTC that was assembled less than a week after Tammen's disappearance to search the woods behind Fisher Hall for any trace.

"They were looking everywhere for him," Bledsoe said, remembering the search through the woods. "We found nothing and then it was getting towards the end of the semester and he just never showed up and nobody knew."

Bledsoe said he thought Tammen may have left because of some pressure in his own life, or there was foul play because of his affiliation with Delta Tau Delta fraternity.

"I always thought that the pledge class (below Tammen) might have had something to do with his disappearance," Bledsoe said, explaining that pranks and hazing were a tradition for fraternities at that time although he did not pledge himself. "Reading about it — and there wasn't much about it, they really kept it hushed up — but I never thought that they pursued that pledge class."

Bledsoe said he doesn't remember much more from the time he was at Miami.

"He didn't return and then … the university kind of just hushed it up a little bit," he said. "We just didn't know."

Smith said Fisher Hall residents at the time of Tammen's disappearance all said the same thing: Tammen was well liked and dating a girl at the Indiana University.

"He had everything, came from a good family, there were no money issues, part of a very popular jazz band in the 50s, wrestling, his GPA was good (he had a 3.205 according to the April 28, 1953 article in The Miami Student), (he had) everything going for him," Smith said. "(Tammen had) no enemies whatsoever in all the people we've talked to."

Smith has formed an opinion based on his extensive investigation.

"My personal opinion is that this is not an act of violence," Smith said. "I personally believe that he did leave that night on his own free will and accord."

Smith said his office met with Miami officials in 2005.

Smith said the investigation cast a wide net, including acquiring records from Miami, the county coroner, Oxford Police Department (OPD) and the FBI.

Tammen's cold case reopened in 2008 when an unidentified body was found in rural Georgia. Mike Freeman, sheriff's detective in Walker County, Georgia, found a body 200 yards off Highway 27, which also runs through southwest Ohio. Freeman and Smith exchanged information and were able to use the DNA from Marcia Tammen to enter into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

In February 2008, Marcia Tammen told the Hamilton Journal-News that she would "be sitting by the phone waiting for word," to hear if her DNA matched the unidentified body as her brother. Marcia never got the closure she hoped for after 55 years when the DNA testing showed no match.

Smith has spoken with Marcia Tammen regarding her brother's cold case.

"She believes her brother is alive," Smith said. "He did not meet with any kind of foul play. And she honestly believes it probably was an issue of either he didn't want to enter the military during the Korean War or that he actually did enter the military."

The height of the Korean War was 1953, a time when the CIA was actively involved in recruiting individuals at universities, according to Smith.

"(They are) a very patriotic family," Smith said. "Almost all his brothers served in the military and his father (was) a veteran."

Smith strongly suggested the CIA recruited Tammen. The FBI entered the Tammen case in 1953 citing the selective service act (the draft) as the reason. Once Tammen reached fugitive status in 1973, the FBI allegedly dropped out of the case.

"If the (FBI or CIA) do know anything, they're not releasing it," Smith said.

Going forward

Smith said if DNA from another individual matched that of Tammen's in the future, the case could potentially be solved.

"If in the event that Tammen show up anywhere where he would have his DNA entered or a sibling, child, whatever … we would be able to have a lead on it," Smith said.

The DNA from Marcia Tammen would have a certain amount the same as Ron's, and if he has a child, his or the child's DNA would come up as a match, according to Smith. Some reasons an individual may have DNA taken would be for arrest records, some aspects of government work and the military.

Smith mentioned pitching the Tammen case to TV channels who might air the story as a part of the outsourcing as well. In February 2011, television production agency Jarrett Creative Group (JCG) reached out to Miami University officials to propose Tammen's case be a part of an upcoming production called "School Spirits," according to an email from Claire Wagner, associate director of university communications. The story would be for SyFy Channel. JCG has reached out to find paranormal activity and stories from past and current students at high schools and colleges.

Smith said he hopes to go nationwide with the information he has, and he hopes someone will step forward.

"Hopefully one day if the person is still alive, obviously someone assisted him that night — love to find out who that is," Smith said.

Smith believes someone knows what truly happened to Tammen.

"Somebody has information, we know that," Smith said. "Either out of fear or they just don't want to be involved anymore, they do not want to share that information."

One PI's opinion

Virginia Braden, a licensed private investigator out of northern Kentucky, works closely with victims, family members of missing persons and law enforcement. After being brutally raped as a freshman in college, Braden has found her passion and made it her life's work.

The Miami Student reached out to Braden in April 2010 about Tammen for her expertise. Braden suggested that April 19 was near enough to finals week at Miami that Tammen could've been facing family expectations or expectations of his own for not making the cut on grades and therefore wanted to run away. She also suggested that if he were to have gotten his girlfriend pregnant, which has not been confirmed to the knowledge of this reporter, that could've been a situation where he would shame his family and he wanted to get out.

Braden thought that seemed logical for why Tammen would have gotten a blood test from the county coroner, Garrett J. Boone, in Hamilton. Tammen could have had his blood typed in 1953 for a number of reasons including an expected surgery, paternity reasons, if he was applying for something maybe a marriage license – or planning to donate blood.

Tammen could've gotten a blood test at the school health services, but perhaps he felt he couldn't have anyone close to school know if that was the case.

Braden questioned Boone's coming forward with Tammen's visit two weeks after the investigation began in 1953.

Smith assured that Boone would not have lied.

"I personally knew Garret J. Boone," Smith said. "He was an honest, truthful man. When he issued that statement out that Tammen had come, there is no reason not to believe that."

Braden thinks the amnesia theory is the least likely.

"It takes such a huge event to cause that sort of mental state that I just would almost think if he had been found wandering, someone would have picked him up and put him in a hospital," Braden said.

Braden agrees with the theory of a college prank gone wrong.

"It was probably situation where good-natured stuff somehow went wrong, they panicked and disposed of the body," Braden said.

Refusing to forget

University Archivist Bob Schmidt said people visit the Archives once or twice a year to inquire about the Ron Tammen case.

A Miami alumnus is in the process of writing a book about Ron Tammen. She would not comment on her work, but said she would consider once she has done more research.

Smith said the Cold Case Unit receives calls monthly on the Tammen case from people who want to suggest theories or who are just fascinated with his story.

"Some suggest he was killed, some suggest his involvement with the government and other suggestions — I can't really get into that," Smith said.

Marketing professor David Rosenthal uses the Tammen mystery as a class activity to challenge students to theorize about what might have happened.

"I want them to look at the evidence – what do we know for certain?" Rosenthal said. "What do we think we know that maybe is not quite so certain?"

Rosenthal gave the example that Tammen had exchanged his linens the evening of his disappearance with the residence hall housemother.

"What happens if he saw her doing something that she shouldn't have been doing and she calls up her boyfriend or her husband … " Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said another apparent fact was Spivey's sighting of a young man looking for a bus stop in Seven Mile at midnight. Spivey said she was sure Tammen was the individual at her door that evening.

"Perhaps she was seeking 10 minutes of fame," Rosenthal said. "People like to act important. Spivey easily (could) have made this up, or could've had a visitor that was not Ron Tammen but thought that it was."

Rosenthal said he uses the exercise as an extrapolation tool.

"It is a creativity tool to find out or help people to think through opportunities and potentials," Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal hopes to write a fictional book revolving around the mystery of Ron Tammen starting this summer.

Joe Cella, a reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News, was heavily involved in the Tammen case through his own reporting and writing. Cella vowed he would find Tammen. He carried Tammen's photo in his wallet for 25 years before he passed away.

Smith said Jim Blount, retired Hamilton Journal-News reporter and local historian, kept the case alive.

"He was really involved in (the case)," Smith said. "He said (it was the) most inept police investigation he had ever seen."

Nodding his head, Smith said, "He was right. He was right."

Smith agreed there was more law enforcement should and could have done in 1953 despite the limited resources. Smith marveled at the technology compared to 1953, when Tammen went missing.

"Look back 50 years ago … Police work in the 50s and 60s and to a certain point to the 70s, (law enforcement would) put out a flyer and hopefully (the missing person) showed up," Smith said.

President emeritus Phillip Shriver used to tell the story of Ronald Tammen as a lecture for students. An audio file of his speech can be found at rontammen.wordpress.com.

Past Miami students have hired psychics to conduct spiritual meetings to lure his spirit to unveil the happenings that April evening on two separate occasions.

One psychic said he "saw" a boy fitting Tammen's characteristics was beaten and dragged into the night never to be seen again.

Lieutenant Daniel Umbstead at the Oxford Police Department told The Miami Student in April 2010 that he was reviewing the history of the Tammen case.

Umbstead said Marcia Tammen had contacted an organization in Philadelphia to ask them to look into her brother's disappearance. OPD received a letter offering their assistance in the investigation.

Umbstead said he and Smith were working "separately together" on the Tammen case.

"(Detective Smith) has done did what he could," Umbstead said. "(I'm trying) to decide if there's anything more I need to do."

Umbstead suggested Tammen may have been homosexual and was the victim of either a hate incident or a fraternity prank.

"It's safe to assume (Tammen) is deceased," Umbstead said. "Probably by unlawful means."

Umbstead plans to re-interview individuals surrounding the Tammen case.

"Not having talked to these people myself I'm not really satisfied," Umbstead said. "Once I've talked to people, then I get a good feel on where it needs to go – I have some questions about his fraternity affiliation."

For up-to-date information on the Ron Tammen case, visit rontammen.wordpress.org.


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