The Disappearance of Thomas Riha: An Unsolved Academic Mystery


Russian historians of my generation may recall the name of Thomas Riha as the editor of the widely-used three-volume Readings in Russian Civilization, published in 1964 (2nd ed., 1969) by the University of Chicago Press and apparently still in print.  The books were important to my own initial education in Russian studies and, like many others, I used them (or xeroxed excerpts from them) in my teaching many times.  I may have wondered in the past about what happened to Riha, since he never seemed to have published anything after that, but if I did, I can’t recall.  Recently, however, I was reading UIUC library professor Marianna Tax Choldin’s engaging memoir Garden of Broken Statueswhich I agreed to review.  Early in the book she mentions studying Russian with Riha at Chicago and notes that not long after he joined the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in 1969 he mysteriously disappeared.  My interest piqued, I searched the Internet for more information.  And what a story I found!  The best summary is probably an account by Riha’s wife’s Colorado attorney, Gerald Caplan, published in the September 2011 issue of the Boulder County Bar Newsletter.  Thinking that some readers of this blog might be as intrigued by this Cold War mystery as I was, I contacted the Boulder County Bar Association, which graciously granted permission to republish Caplan’s piece online.  So, here it is:


When I arrived at my office on a Monday morning in February 1969, I answered a call from a New York City attorney asking me to represent a client’s niece who had been sued for divorce. He described it as a simple case: a short marriage, no children, and a small amount of property to be divided. Little did I know that the case would involve a mysterious disappearance, two murders, a suicide in the State Hospital, the FBI, the CIA, and two Colorado governors.  My client was Hana Riha.

Hana Hruska Riha and Thomas Riha were both born in Prague. Tom was a naturalized U.S. citizen with a Harvard Ph.D. who in 1967 began teaching Russian History at CU. Hana had arrived in the U.S. in 1966 as a foreign language specialist. Each were fluent in Czech, Russian, and English. They met in New York and were married in Boulder on October 13, 1968.  Hana, age 25, was fifteen years younger than her husband.  During dinner at the wedding reception at the Black Bear Inn in Lyons, a voice called out, “The Colonel is here to see you.” Tom Riha stood up and left the table. He returned forty minutes later with no explanation. Four months after the wedding, Tom Riha sued Hana for divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty and duress.

My copies of Thomas Riha's Readings in Russican Civilization

My copies of Thomas Riha’s Readings in Russican Civilization

“The Colonel” was Galya Tannenbaum. I met Tannenbaum in my office on February 12, 1969. She was a stout, short woman, her hair swept back severely. She carried herself with erect military posture. She said she was a friend of Tom Riha’s and was helping Hana Riha with immigration issues. She told me that Hana might be deported if she were divorced from Tom. Tannenbaum claimed to be a Colonel in U.S. Army Intelligence who, in her twenty-seven year Army career, had made many “friends” in the Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Because of her
contacts, she said she had Hana’s immigration file and with her influence with the U.S. Postal Service, she could arrange to put an earlier postmark on the documents for which the filing date had expired. I was dubious and asked to see her credentials. Tannenbaum said she didn’t have identification with her, but would bring it to our next meeting. I never saw her again.

On Sunday evening, March 9, 1969, when I returned from a weekend away, I got a call from Hana Riha’s New York attorney, David Rogosin, who briefed me about a series of dramatic events that had happened that Friday and Saturday. What he said shocked me and I decided to take sworn depositions from many of the people involved, including Hana, Hana’s friend Veva Nye, Hana’s aunt, her neighbors Richard Wilson, Robert and Margaret Hanson, and Boulder Police Officers Douglas Dorsey and Dale Stange.

From the depositions, I learned that on Friday night, March 7, Galya Tannenbaum attempted to force Hana to sign a mysterious document which Hana had refused to sign until I, her Boulder attorney, could see it first.  Since I was out of town, Hana called her friend, Veva Nye, for support.  When Veva arrived at the Riha’s house, Tannenbaum told her that she, Galya Tannenbaum, was Hana’s sponsor and had Hana’s immigration file, and unless Hana signed the document, Hana would be deported to Czechoslovakia. At ten o’clock that night, Tannenbaum put both women in her car, ostensibly to take Hana’s friend, Veva, home. But after dropping Veva off, Tannenbaum drove around most of the night with Hana in the car, haranguing her to sign the document. She said Hana was going to die; she was in big danger. Tannenbaum tried to force her to take pills, saying, “I think you need some pills. I have a good pill with me.”

Hana refused to take the pills. Finally, early Saturday morning, March 8, Tannenbaum drove Hana home. At home, Hana argued with her husband. Then she walked downtown and checked into the Boulderado Hotel. That same morning, Veva Nye, very concerned, went to the Riha house. Tom was there alone. He told Veva that Galya Tannenbaum was “very powerful.” He said she was “a Colonel in Military Intelligence, soon to be promoted to General.”

On Saturday evening, Hana reluctantly returned to the Riha house. When she heard Galya Tannenbaum arrive, she fled to her bedroom and locked the door. Tom Riha and Tannenbaum went to her bedroom door and demanded that she open the door and sign the document. When Hana refused, Tannenbaum threatened, “I have a gun and will shoot you through the door.”

Hana smelled ether coming through the heating vent. She managed to close the vent, but the smell of ether came under the bedroom door.  Feeling dizzy, Hana opened her bedroom window and screamed for help. Her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Wilson, were outside saying goodbye to another couple, the Hansons. The Wilsons and Hansons heard her screams. Robert Hanson ran to the Riha house, smelled ether, and saw Hana at the window. He pulled her out onto the snow.

Rushing out of the Riha house, Tom Riha and Galya Tannenbaum confronted Robert Hanson. Hana shouted that they were threatening her life. Riha and Tannenbaum demanded that Hanson release Hana. He refused and took Hana into the Wilson home.

Tom Riha followed them to the Wilson’s house and again demanded that his wife return. “The woman next door (Tannenbaum) is a Colonel in the United States Military Intelligence,” he said. “She is armed with a pistol. It would be dangerous for you to become involved in this situation.”  Wilson replied that he didn’t “believe we lived in a police state yet” and asked Riha to leave. Riha turned around and stalked home.

While this was happening, Galya Tannenbaum phoned the Boulder Police and reported a disturbance involving a mental patient. When Officers Dorsey and Stange arrived at the Riha house, she told them that Hana was illegally in the U.S. on an expired visa, that she was a drug addict, and that she had locked herself in her bedroom and was inhaling ether-type fumes.

Officers Dorsey and Stange went next door to the Wilson home and asked Hana for identification – an alien card, passport, or visa. Distraught, Hana couldn’t produce any identification.  Mrs. Hanson interceded, saying, “Where are we? Are we in America or in Russia? She is a criminal? Can you smell the gas?”

Officer Dorsey suggested that Hana return home to her husband. Afraid to return, Hana asked Officer Dorsey to call her New York attorney. He called David Rogosin in New York, who strongly advised the police not to send Hana back to the Riha house.

Tom Riha returned to the Wilson’s home and asked Officer Stange to come with him to his house and search Hana’s bedroom. They found the bedroom door unlocked and, inside, Officer Stange discovered a jar that smelled of ether shoved under the bedclothes. (I had the material analyzed and it was ether.)

Stange’s partner, Officer Dorsey, also returned to the Riha house.  Tannenbaum was on the phone. She claimed she was talking to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Suspicious, he asked Tannenbaum for her official identification.  She could not produce any identification. The Hansons drove Hana to the Boulderado Hotel. Hana Riha remained there until she flew to New York to stay with her aunt.

Because of Tannenbaum’s threats to Hana’s immigration status, I arranged for Hana’s case to be transferred to New York where she now lived.  Hana’s status as a legal resident was quickly confirmed. Interestingly, the immigration file contained two letters dated March 8 and 9, 1969, on which Hana’s signature was forged. The letters clumsily portray Hana as being far less fluent in English than she was.  Galya Tannenbaum is described as Hana’s friend with sole authority to hold her passport and act on her behalf. One letter stated that the only responsibility for me as Hana’s Boulder attorney should be to act in her divorce. I believe that these are the documents which Tannenbaum and Tom Riha tried to force Hana Riha to sign.

* * *

Tom Riha was a fastidious, punctual, careful man. When he failed to meet his classes at CU, his colleagues contacted university officials. On March 20, 1969, the Dean’s office called me and I contacted the Boulder Police. The police went to the Riha home. Thomas Riha’s kitchen table was set for breakfast, but nothing was touched. His personal belongings – shaving items and clothing – were intact. An open briefcase lay among scattered papers on the desk in his study. His date book showed appointments for the next month, including a note for “Dinner Colonel.”

Tom Riha had disappeared.

Riha, who was fluent in Russian, had spent a year as an exchange student in Moscow and had led trips for other professors to Russia, so there was speculation that he may have been involved with the CIA, or even the Russian government. But a Boulder Police spokesman said that he understood that Riha had disappeared on his own accord, and that the police had been told by “an agency” not to worry. The FBI was mum: they said it was their policy not to reveal whether or not an investigation is in progress.

In response to growing concern, CU President Joseph Smiley issued a statement. Smiley said he had contacted a reliable source and received information in confidence that Riha was safe, but that he was unable to learn where he was or the circumstances of his disappearance.  At about the same time that President Smiley sought to allay rumors, Riha’s art collection was donated to the Denver Art Museum and his books were sent to Loretto Heights College. His home and car were sold. The deed of trust and promissory note executed for the sale of the Boulder home were made payable to Galya Tannenbaum.  Tannenbaum stated that she was authorized to dispose of Riha’s property.  She also claimed that Riha was in Montreal and had visited her twice.

Meanwhile, on June 18, 1969, a friend of Tannenbaum’s, seventy-eight year old Gustav Ingwerson, died in Denver. The autopsy found death was due to potassium cyanide.  Tannenbaum presented a will that Ingwerson made thirteen days before his death. She was a principal beneficiary of his estate. Four months after Ingwerson’s death, Margaret Egbert, 51, died in Denver. She left a suicide note that the Denver District Attorney later said was a fraud. She was another friend of Tannenbaum’s. Cause of death – potassium cyanide.

Not satisfied with Tannenbaum’s explanations, Boulder and Denver District Attorneys filed criminal charges against her. The Boulder D.A. charged Tannenbaum with forgery of the deed and deed of trust in the sale of Riha’s home as well as forgery of a check on his account to Judson Aviation in Longmont. The Denver District Attorney charged her with forging Ingwerson’s will and the transfer of title to Riha’s car. A police search of Tannenbaum’s home in Denver uncovered Riha’s passport and driver’s license. In the basement of her home, they found a pound of potassium cyanide.

During the early stage of the investigation, I was contacted by a detective from the Denver Police Department and told there was insufficient evidence to indict Tannenbaum for the two murders. Prosecution would proceed on multiple forgery charges. Hana Riha cooperated with the police and supplied handwriting specimens of Tom’s signature and identified some of his personal property, and also gave them information about her husband’s dental history.

When criminal charges were filed, Tannenbaum’s previous record came up. Twice she had been imprisoned in Illinois for forgery and embezzlement and, in Texas, had been placed on probation for mail theft. Born Gloria Forest, Galya Tannenbaum was married twice and sometimes used her married names McPherson and Scimo. She had a common law marriage with Leo Tannenbaum.

Tannenbaum pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in both Boulder and Denver District Courts. In July 1970, a sanity trial was held before Boulder District Judge John B. Barnard. Psychiatric testimony revealed that Tannenbaum had a long history of mental illness and hospitalization.  Judge Barnard found that Tannenbaum was suffering from a “disease of the mind” and was incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the State Hospital in Pueblo.  Eight months later on March 7, 1971, Galya Tannenbaum committed suicide in the State Hospital. Cause of death – potassium cyanide.

* * *

Tannenbaum’s death did not resolve the mystery of Tom Riha’s disappearance.  At the end of 1971, the New York Times reported that the investigation of Riha’s disappearance caused a serious breach in the working relationship between the CIA and the FBI.  Apparently, the CIA had a strong interest in Riha’s disappearance, but was forbidden by law from conducting intelligence in the U.S. A Denver FBI agent, on his own, had told a CIA employee that there was no foul play in Riha’s disappearance – the professor had chosen to leave for personal reasons. The CIA then urged the FBI to tell Dr. Smiley that Riha was safe, but the FBI refused to do so.  Nevertheless, the CIA went ahead and told Dr. Smiley there was no foul play in the disappearance of Thomas Riha.  When Dr. Smiley let this be known, FBI headquarters in Washington called the Denver FBI demanding to know who leaked that information. The Denver office did not know who leaked it. FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, then contacted the CIA Director, Richard Helms, but Helms refused to name the FBI agent who leaked the information to the CIA. J. Edgar Hoover, furious, broke off liaison with the CIA and ordered that any
subsequent exchange of information between the FBI and the CIA would be by letter only unless authorized by Hoover. Intelligence officials pleaded that their effectiveness would be impaired.

In 1975, James J. Angeton, the CIA former Chief of Counter Intelligence, testified before Congress. “The Riha case, Angeton said, not only caused the FBI-CIA break, but caused the FBI to cut off all its liaison with the entire intelligence community, except for the White House.”

In 1975, Colorado Senator Gary Hart, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a previously classified CIA report that noted an individual (whose name was blanked out) had learned that in 1973 Thomas Riha had been sighted in Prague.

Senator Hart also released another previously classified letter, this one from Richard Helms to J. Edgar Hoover seeking to avoid embarrassing public speculation about the involvement of the CIA and the FBI in Riha’s disappearance. The letter revealed that in 1970, Denver District Attorney Mike McKevitt, interested in investigating Tom Riha’s disappearance, had considered subpoenaing President Smiley about Smiley’s contact with a confidential source that assured him of Riha’s safety. A CIA agent named Todorovich contacted McKevitt and asked him if he would like to talk to Smiley. When McKevitt talked to Smiley, an embarrassed Smiley told the District Attorney that he had misunderstood the information he received and apologized. McKevitt issued a statement that it was an honest mistake and misunderstanding on Smiley’s part. Smiley was not subpoenaed. But McKevitt said at that point he had grave doubts that Riha was alive.

The same year, The Denver Post reported that Colorado Governors John Love and John Vanderhoof withheld a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report about Galya Tannenbaum’s suicide for three and a half years because of Grand Jury investigations and pending litigation. The report had declared that Tannenbaum had hidden cyanide in a body cavity when she checked into the State Hospital. Incredibly, in the hospital she had convinced her mental health worker, Henry T. Madrid, that she was a powerful person with ties to the Mafia. Frightened for himself and his family, Madrid accepted a package from her and hid it in his garage. He returned it to the police after her death. It was cyanide.

On the night she died, Galya Tannenbaum sat with her mental health worker, Henry Madrid. She told him, “I took it . . . do you want to hold my hand?” Then she said, “Of everything I’ve done, I didn’t kill Riha.” When Madrid got up to hold Tannenbaum’s hand, her head rolled back.

* * * *

The administration of the estate of Thomas Riha was complicated and delayed by his mysterious disappearance, the alleged fraudulent conveyance of his property by Galya Tannenbaum, the courts finding that Tannenbaum was insane and finally her suicide. It took ten years to resolve these issues, and once again the CIA was involved.

Thomas Riha’s nephew, Zdenek Cerveny, petitioned the Denver Probate Court for an order declaring that Thomas Riha was an absentee, alleging that Riha had disappeared on March 14, 1969. The Judge determined that Thomas Riha was an absentee, but there was insufficient evidence to establish his death. The petitioner was forced to rely on the presumption of death after seven years of unexplained absence.

The conservator of the Riha estate requested documents from the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act concerning Riha’s disappearance and his reported sighting in Prague in 1973. The CIA refused to produce the documents claiming that disclosure would jeopardize national security.  The conservator filed suit in the Denver U.S. District Court alleging that the CIA had not acted in good faith in refusing to produce documents.  Although Federal District Judge Richard P. Matsch denied the CIA’s motion for a summary judgment, he ordered the CIA to contact Director Stansfield Turner and provide the court what was in the files and what full disclosure would mean in relation to national security and national defense. Stansfield Turner’s response was enigmatic. In October 1977, he wrote, “I am not insensitive to Plaintiff’s desire to determine whether his uncle is alive or dead.  However, in my opinion, the most that can be said about the information contained in agency files is that it is inconclusive.”

The estate of Thomas Riha was finally closed in August of 1979. Five thousand dollars of the total estate of $14,500 was paid to Hana to satisfy a lump sum award for alimony and property division which was ordered by Boulder District Judge Horace B. Holmes in 1969.So whathappened to Thomas Riha? Did Galya Tannenbaum kill him?

Galya Tannenbaum told a fellow patient at the State Hospital that she had used cyanide to kill three persons, among them Riha, whose body she wrapped in a plastic bag and placed in a Denver sewer. Yet the last words she spoke to Henry Madrid, her mental health advisor, before she died were, “I didn’t kill Riha.”

The relationship between Tannenbaum and Riha is puzzling. Thomas Riha, a very intelligent man, was so influenced by Galya Tannenbaum that he interfered with his neighbors who were rescuing his wife. Riha was somehow convinced that Tannenbaum was a Colonel in Army Intelligence and very powerful.

The basis for the FBI conclusion that Riha left on his own accord has never been revealed. The conclusion has been questioned by Riha’s colleagues who claim that Riha would not have left without his passport, and that the conscientious and careful Tom Riha would not abruptly or lightly abandon his collection of art, his books, and his university responsibilities.

The CIA took extraordinary steps to avoid public scrutiny. At the time suspicions were raised by the University community concerning Tom Riha’s disappearance, a CIA agent informed CU President Smiley that Riha was safe and left on his own accord. Denver District Attorney Mike McKevitt publicly discussed subpoenaing Dr. Smiley in the Ingwerson murder investigation, but McKevitt said, “like a bolt out of the blue,” the CIA intervened to prevent him. Even the Senate Intelligence Committee was denied complete information.  Declassified correspondence released by Senator Hart revealed that five specific questions posed by the Senate Committee concerning the information given to Dr. Smiley were simply ignored. The letter from Director Stansfield Turner responding to Judge Matsch provided no helpful information.

After forty-two years, the mystery of Thomas Riha’s disappearance and the strange role of “Colonel Tannenbaum” has never been solved.

Gerald Caplan, Of Counsel to Caplan and Earnest LLC, is a past president of the Boulder County Bar Association and the Boulder County Bar Foundation. Published by permission of the Boulder County Bar Association (

One thought on “The Disappearance of Thomas Riha: An Unsolved Academic Mystery

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Posts of 2016 | ACADEME BLOG

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