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Murder in the Peace Corps

Since its founding in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent 170,000 Americans to developing countries around the world offering help in projects ranging from housing to health to education to agriculture. Generally, they have adapted well to the countries they serve and have made solid contributions. But there was a notable exception in 1976 when one volunteer murdered another on a South Pacific island, and the crime was lost to memory until an enterprising writer decided to investigate it.

Backpacking in the South Pacific in 1978, Philip Weiss first heard of a rather mysterious Peace Corps murder in the island kingdom of Tonga. As the years passed, more details emerged and finally in 2000 Mr. Weiss went to see the mother of the young woman who had been murdered.

He was shocked to learn she had not been told her daughter's killer had escaped punishment and was living undisturbed in New York city with a good salary. "Meeting her and realizing that she had no clue about what had happened to her daughter's killer, that the Peace Corps kept her in the dark, made me angry and that is what determined me to write this book," he says.

After exhaustive research and dozens of interviews of Americans and Tongans, Mr. Weiss pieced together the murder and its aftermath in his book, American Taboo, also the subject of a recent documentary on the CBS television network.

The story begins in 1975 with the arrival of a group of Peace Corps volunteers in Tonga; among them Deborah Gardner, 23, pretty, vivacious and fun loving. The male volunteers took notice, especially Dennis Priven, brooding and rather tightly wound who always wore a six-inch hunting knife in his belt. His attentions made Deb Gardner uneasy, and she eventually asked for a transfer from Tonga.

There were ample warnings of the tragedy to come. Apparently obsessed with Ms. Gardner, Priven suggested putting a listening device in her small house or stealing her car. "This isn't Russia, Dennis," another volunteer cautioned. But the group supervisor, Mary George, a former fashion model and Capitol Hill lobbyist, did not seem concerned.

Then one night Mr. Priven entered Deb Gardner's house, unsheathed his knife and stabbed her 22 times. Her death was lingering and painful. There was no question who did it. Priven was observed at the crime scene and left behind plenty of traces. If there was ever an open-and-shut case, writes Mr. Weiss, this was it. But it didn't turn out that way.

The cover-up began at once, says the author. Trying to defend both Priven and her Tonga program, Mary George suggested some Tongan might have been the killer. The word "murder" was avoided in Peace Corps communications, and a psychiatrist and attorney were provided from overseas. In the ensuing trial, writes Mr. Weiss, the baffled Tongans were no match for the Americans with their mysterious jargon. Priven was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

While locked up, Priven had wondered if the incident would affect his career, but in fact, he didn't have much to worry about. Though he was supposed to be committed to a mental hospital in the United States, a psychiatrist ruled he was no danger to society, and so he landed a job with the Social Security administration in Brooklyn, where he remains to this day.

Patrick Hogan, associate Peace Corps director for Safety and Security, says the law was followed in the case, although many documents pertaining to it are no longer available. He says the crime was horrific and the pain of the Gardner family unimaginable. "We are a small organization, and it is very family like," he says. "To lose a family member, even many years ago, fills us with a profound sense of sadness, and the fact that the death was caused by another member of the family just compounds the sadness. And that sadness does not really diminish with time."

Philip Weiss thinks the U.S. Government still has something to answer for and hopes his book will lead to a long-deferred investigation of the case. At least, he believes he has been able to bring some resolution to the Tongans.

"The people there I think are very gratified that their efforts to find justice for Deb Gardner against the U.S. Government, actually, have been honored," he says. "While they did not do the best job of prosecuting Dennis Priven, they tried their guts out and were overwhelmed by the American government, which just wanted the incident to go away."

Associate Peace Corps Director Hogan says such a mishap could never occur again. There would be an immediate investigation and an ombudsman would be assigned to the family of any Peace Corps volunteer in harm's way. And the family would be kept informed on a regular basis.

While interviewing people with some knowledge of the case, Mr. Weiss found several who would not discuss it, Dennis Priven among them. "He has disconnected his phone and he has declined all comment," he says. "When I sent him a copy of the book, as I promised him, it came back with a giant sticker on it saying: ‘Refused.’"

But if Mr. Priven will not talk, Mr. Weiss expects others will after reading his book and perhaps finally bring some justice to the murdered Peace Corps volunteer.