May 31, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tonga: Crime: Murder: Safety and Security of Volunteers: The News Tribune: Violent death, no justice for Peace Corps volunteer

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tonga: Special Report: 'American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps': May 31, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tonga: Crime: Murder: Safety and Security of Volunteers: The News Tribune: Violent death, no justice for Peace Corps volunteer
Violent death, no justice for Peace Corps volunteer

Violent death, no justice for Peace Corps volunteer

Violent death, no justice for Peace Corps volunteer

Violent death, no justice for Peace Corps volunteer

LES BLUMENTHAL; The News Tribune

WASHINGTON - Deborah Gardner was considered by some to be the prettiest woman in the Peace Corps - a free spirit with a quiet side whose sense of adventure and idealism led her from the South Sound to a high school in the South Pacific where she taught biology and home economics.

But in the fall of 1976, the 23-year-old Lakes High School graduate from Lakewood was stabbed to death on the island kingdom of Tonga.

Nearly 28 years later, the case has resurfaced in a book that provides new details about her slaying and its aftermath, including the broken promise that allowed Gardner's alleged killer, another Peace Corps volunteer, to remain free and lead a seemingly normal life.

Philip Weiss, author of the book "American Taboo," said the actions of the Peace Corps in the days, weeks and months after Gardner's slaying were "indefensible" and amounted to nothing less than a cover-up.

Advance copies of the book already have spurred interest on Capitol Hill. One Tacoma-area congressman, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Belfair), said he will ask the Peace Corps and the State Department to review their files to assure that actions taken by the agencies at the time were proper.

As for Gardner's parents, the book has brought back unpleasant memories.

"I can only read a few pages at a time," said Gardner's mother, Alice, who still lives in the Tacoma area. "It's hard for me to read. I have to stop. I think of her all the time."

After all these years, Gardner's father, Wayne, still wants justice. "I would tie the hangman's knot," Gardner said from his home in northern Idaho. "I would help him up the steps of the scaffold."

Though Weiss first heard of the murder in 1978 from a Peace Corps worker he met while backpacking in Samoa, he didn't start his research until nearly 20 years later.

The story Weiss tells, based on hundreds of interviews and a protracted search of records held by the Peace Corps, the State Department and the National Archives, is a chilling account of a crime Weiss believes still begs for a federal investigation.

Not guilty by reason of insanity

The man accused of stabbing her 22 times, Dennis Priven, was reputedly the best poker player on the main island, yet a loner who had become obsessed with Gardner, according to the book. Peace Corps officials in Tonga were warned about Priven's growing fixation with Gardner. Nothing was done.

In the weeks before her murder, Deborah Gardner had grown increasingly anxious because of Priven, then 24, and attention from other male colleagues. She asked local Peace Corps officials to transfer her to one of Tonga's outer islands, according to Weiss' account. The transfer was denied because it was considered too remote for a single woman.

Within hours of Gardner's death, Priven turned himself in, though he didn't confess. Charged with murder, Priven could have been hanged if convicted.

 American Taboo

U.S. law requires that the Peace Corps hire a lawyer to defend one of its workers charged with a crime. In this case, the agency hired Tonga's best lawyer and flew in a psychiatrist from Hawaii to evaluate Priven. Almost immediately, Peace Corps officials, both in Tonga and in Washington, D.C., focused their attention on saving Priven and protecting the agency's reputation, according to Weiss' book. "They did so to preserve their own careers, to preserve the American presence in the South Pacific and to preserve the churchly image of the Peace Corps," Weiss wrote.

After a nine-day trial, a jury took 26 minutes to find Priven not guilty by reason of insanity at the time of the slaying. The Hawaiian psychiatrist testified that Priven suffered from latent paranoid schizophrenia.

The Tonga prosecutors didn't have the money to hire their own psychiatric expert.

After the verdict, the judge in the case said Priven was a "volcano" who required "long-term if not permanent" incarceration, the book said. But Tonga didn't have a mental hospital, and authorities didn't know what to do with him.

In the end, Priven was released to Peace Corps officials after a written assurance from a top U.S. embassy official that he would be committed, either voluntarily or involuntarily, to a mental hospital in the United States, according to the book.

He wasn't.

Free after two days in hospital

After two days in Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C., Priven was allowed to check out after a psychiatrist said he could find no evidence of schizophrenia, according to the book.

He received a routine discharge from the Peace Corps and settled in his parents' apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., where, Weiss said, Priven apparently still lives. Priven worked for the Social Security Administration before retiring from his $78,000-a-year job last year, Weiss said. He turned 52 last Friday.

Until contacted by Weiss several years ago, the Gardners, who are divorced, believed Priven had been committed to a hospital. They had no idea he was free.

"I still haven't heard from the Peace Corps," said Wayne Gardner. "I don't tolerate liars. I detest them. But that's what the Peace Corps did. It was one big lie."

Gardner said he first learned of his daughter's death while moose hunting in Alaska, where he was living at the time. Alice Gardner said she was notified while at work in a Bon Marche department store in Tacoma.

But not until Nov. 2, 19 days after Deborah Gardner's death, would the Peace Corps issue a brief press release saying one of its volunteers had been killed in Tonga and another had been charged with murder, according to Weiss' book. The announcement went largely unnoticed. The papers were filled with stories about Jimmy Carter's election victory over President Ford.

 American Taboo

As news of Gardner's slaying spread at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., the agency's lead counsel said in a memo that all "outside communications" about the case, particularly to the families, needed to be "carefully controlled," though it didn't specify why, according to Weiss' account. Weiss wrote that U.S. officials manipulated the Tongan justice system during the trial, lied to the Tongan government to secure Priven's release and misled Gardner's parents.

"They had covered up the case," Weiss said.

In fall 2002, Weiss decided to confront Priven.

No public remorse

Weiss said the meeting was "civilized" and described Priven as a "deeply alienated, brilliant person. But he was cold, very cold."

In the end, Weiss said Priven didn't admit anything.

"He has never expressed remorse in any public way," Weiss said. "Does he feel it? I don't know."

Weiss said he has not heard from Priven since they talked. His book, published by HarperCollins, will be released Tuesday.

Efforts by The News Tribune to reach Priven were unsuccessful. The telephone company had a phone number for Priven but wouldn't release it, at the customer's request. The phone number Weiss has for Priven is connected to a fax machine. After a request for an interview was faxed, a woman called back to say there was no Dennis Priven at that number.

Both the Peace Corps and the State Department had no comment on Weiss' book.

"Unfortunately, because the case is 28 years old, we don't know anything," said Barbara Daly, a Peace Corps spokeswoman.

Daly said the Peace Corps could not release information about Priven without his authorization. In addition, Daly said that when a Peace Corps volunteer in a foreign country is charged with criminal activity, the case is immediately turned over to the State Department or the Justice Department.

Ken Bailes, a State Department spokesman, said any records on the Gardner case would have been sent to storage long ago.

"I know zero about this," he said.

Doing something meaningful

Alice Gardner says that after all the years, she has finally come to terms with her daughter's death.

"She was beautiful, with gorgeous expressive eyes that sparkled," said Alice, who has remarried and asked that her current last name not be used.

While attending Lakes High School, Alice said, her daughter volunteered in the geriatrics and emergency room at Tacoma General Hospital. During the summer when she attended Washington State University, she worked at The Ram, a tavern in the Tacoma area, and as a car hop at a local drive-in.

"I wasn't shocked when she entered the Peace Corps," Alice said, with a long pause as she checked her emotions. "She wanted to do something meaningful."

 American Taboo

Since Weiss first contacted her three years ago, Alice Gardner has known that the story of her daughter's death was going to be told. She, too, would like to see justice done, but realizes it's unlikely. "I don't think there is anything anyone can do," she said.

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: The News Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Tonga; Crime; Murder; Safety and Security of Volunteers



By Bob Utne ( - on Wednesday, June 02, 2004 - 12:01 am: Edit Post

Another example of the failure of the US Government to help bring to justice the murderer of a Peace Corps Volunteer is the Karen Phillips situation. Karen was murdered in Gabon in late 1998 and her murderer remains free. It is apparent that Karen's murderer would now be in prison if the FBI would have been immediately dispatched to gather, preserve and present at trial the ample DNA evidence.

The Peace Corps needs to dictate to all host countries that in the case of either a murder or rape of a Peace Corps Volunteer that the Peace Corps will immediately dispatch FBI agents to investigate the crime and be allowed to present any evidence found in the appropriate court.

Bob Utne, Gabon 1 (1962-1964)

By Paul Sack ( on Wednesday, June 02, 2004 - 1:54 am: Edit Post

One should not generalize.

In 1966 in Tanzania, while I was Country Director of the Peace Corps, one of our Volunteers was arrested by the Tanzania Government for the murder of his wife. I had no idea whether he was guilty or not and did not--as was apparently the case in Tonga--feel that it was my job to get the Volunteer acquitted. Rather, I thought it my responsibility to be sure he had a competent defense and a fair trial. An important goal was to keep the issue from becoming, "Did the Tanzanian Government have the right and ability to try and hang an American?" which some sources made clear could have become the issue.

What I did was to arrange for an independent autopsy of the body and for a highly competent East African attorney to represent the Volunteer. We then left matters to the highly competent Tanzanian courts.

Happily, the Volunteer was acquitted.

Paul Sack

By Gina Covello ( - on Thursday, June 03, 2004 - 12:19 am: Edit Post

Paul Sack. I only know what I am reading right here and it is not the same as the case you are referring to. If these are the facts then, he was determined not guilty by reason of insanity. The US Peace Corps agreed to have him committed to a mental hospital. They reneged on their agreement. Priven violently ended somebody's life and has not had pay for his crime in any way.

To say the records have been "sent to storage" is a cop out in a big way. Go get them and dust them off!! If a crime committed by a Peace Corps Volunteer is turned over to the Dept. of Justice, then deal with it. I once worked for the Dept. of Justice and was SICKENED by the corruption there. I got out after a little less than a year and would never work for that agency again. Sounds like somebody is too lazy to do his or her job and s/he is not getting any pressure to investigate. The pressure probably needs to come from Gardner's parents.

By Ron Seibel ( on Thursday, June 03, 2004 - 12:29 pm: Edit Post

A Country Director of PC once told me about a volunteer that bought a pistol and threatened to kill the President of the Phillipines. He received an Administrative Termination. Back in USA he demanded and was given a hearing at great expense to PC flying in witnesses. The hearing upheld the AT, but it was close. The CD told me there would be more terminations, but PC doesn't want the bad PR.

By Ron Seibel ( on Thursday, June 03, 2004 - 12:32 pm: Edit Post

A Country Director of PC once told me about a volunteer that bought a pistol and threatened to kill the President of the Phillipines. He received an Administrative Termination. Back in USA he demanded and was given a hearing at great expense to PC flying in witnesses. The hearing upheld the AT, but it was close. The CD told me there would be more terminations, but PC doesn't want the bad PR.

By Robert ( on Sunday, June 06, 2004 - 11:16 pm: Edit Post

I am not currently in the Peace Corps, but I am planning to apply in the next year or so. I am wondering, however, why the PC does not administer a psych exam, or similar evaluation instrument? It seems to me that the cost would be worth it if it kept similar scenarios from occuring.

By ADH ( - on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 3:05 pm: Edit Post

I'm a PC applicant and I was 100% on my medical inventory section of the application. As a result I had to address counselling as a child relating to my parents divorce. However I could not have checked that box and PC would have been none the wiser. I aggree that their should be a mental physcial but I also think funding should and could be better spent elsewhere (in country counseling support).

By Jon ( on Friday, June 11, 2004 - 2:36 pm: Edit Post

Here's a question for Philip Weiss. What is the name of the psychiatrist who was flown to Tonga from Hawaii?

By Earl Million ( - on Thursday, June 17, 2004 - 8:57 am: Edit Post

Did the first murder of a Peace Corps volunteer occur in Liberia in 1970? I thought I heard that on the radio soon after it happened.

By justaskingnows ( - on Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - 10:09 am: Edit Post

The murder could have happened in any volunteer environment where the male voluneers outnumber the female volunteers. I'm sure the murder would have less likely to have occurred if the female volunteers outnumbered the male volunteers. Incidentally, does anyone know of a city where the female volunteers outnumber the male volunteers?

Otherwise, when a female volunteer steps off the plane you can hear the male volunteers humming "Bad Touch" (You and me baby aren't nothing but mammals...") and the female volunteer will, in the minds of the male volunteers, look like Victoria's Secret models (I guess the tropical heat and marijuana has that effect). They will jostle each other for a date with the only White Volunteer in whatever hemisphere they are in.

By David Grove ( - on Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - 11:10 pm: Edit Post

Paul Sack,

If I remember correctly, in the Tanzania case you describe, in which the PCV husband was charged with having pushed his PCV wife off a cliff to her death, the court returned a Scottish verdict, "Not Proven", and not a "Not Guilty" verdict.

BTW, there was at the time some uncertainty whether the PC could expend its funds to defend a PCV charged with a crime, in particular a crime allegedly committed against another PCV. It is my recollection that the PC General Counsel at the time concluded that the PC did have such authority under existing federal law. I don't recall whether the PC Act was thereafter amended expressly to confer such authority.

As for Robert's question about psyche exams, in olden days Washington-based PC Field Selection officers picked over PCV Applicants' noodles during the then long (10-12 weeks) training programs, which were typically conducted on university campuses in the US and its territories. I don't know whether PCV Priven underwent such field selection review in 1976, or how such evaluations are conducted today, if they are. Even when such an extensive field selection process did exist, some PCVs, at least in Nigeria, did suffer psychological and emotional problems during their service that required their early return to the US. It should be noted that persons contributing to this thread have so far identified only a few situations of the kind described here in the 32 years of the PC's existence, during which time hundreds of thousands of PCVs have served overseas, often under very difficult circumstances, physically and emotionally.

David Grove
Nigeria V (1962-1964)
PC/GC, 1967-1969

By Sally Lewis Bishop ( on Thursday, July 01, 2004 - 1:23 pm: Edit Post

"As for Robert's question about psyche exams, in olden days Washington-based PC Field Selection officers picked over PCV Applicants' noodles during the then long (10-12 weeks) training programs, which were typically conducted on university campuses in the US and its territories. I don't know whether PCV Priven underwent such field selection review in 1976, or how such evaluations are conducted today, if they are. Even when such an extensive field selection process did exist, some PCVs, at least in Nigeria, did suffer psychological and emotional problems during their service that required their early return to the US."

Oh, David. Boy do I remember the Psych "testing" we had to undergo at U. of Mich. in 1962! The prevalent joke among the Volunteers was that the head of the Psych team was writing her PhD. thesis about the "Psychology of PC Volunteers"! I think we had some sort of test or "counseling" session every single day of training (2 1/2 mo.)

But one thing that, in spite of the jokes and ridicule, I have (in hindsight) decided is that the testing worked! As far as I know we had no instances of mental breakdown and few of our group had to be sent home early for any reason.

I wonder if any sort of testing was done for Mr. Priven? If it was then such an obviously unstable person should never have been sent overseas. And if it was and he was passed for whatever reason then it seems to me that the parents of the victim have a really good reason to *sue* the PC for mismanagement - no matter how long ago this happened!

Does anyone know if there is any Psych testing of current volunteers? Questions on an application form do not count so far as I am concerned - it's too easy to figure out the "correct" answer and lie!

By Eden ( on Thursday, July 01, 2004 - 2:08 pm: Edit Post

Psychological testing would be a great thing to implement, but it seems a little unrealistic, given the number of people who apply every year. Besides, in the Tongan case, it doesn't sound to me like Priven had any disorder to begin with, so the pre-service testing wouldn't have identified anything anyway.

As far as I'm know, there is no extensive testing done on PCVs at all. When I was in PST in 1998 (Ukraine), we each had a short interview with some of the training staff, but nothing that was any more in depth than, "How do you think you will handle living in a remote area?"

By Dennis McLoughlin ( - on Thursday, July 01, 2004 - 7:37 pm: Edit Post

Just to put in a quick word for Peace Corps Tonga and the Peace Corps in general, having served as a volunteer from 1999-2001 in Tonga it was excellently and fairly run when I was there. I was never asked by a Tongan about the Gardner murder, which suprises me. It was only a rumor when I was there; I never heard anything specific. The atmosphere withinthe Peace Corps there was very much one of working within the system, and subject to the laws and mores of Polynesian culture, and Tongan law specifically. I do think there is something about the isolation of the Peace Corps, especially an island atmosphere like Tonga, where there is very little opportunity to "get off the rock." It can be a very unnerving and confining sensation to get used too. I also feel, somewhat guiltily, thankful that Peace Corps Tonga didn't fall apart in 1976 [and this may have been due solely to the efforts of the misguided and overprotective CD at the time] because my experience there was amazing, and mightn't have happened but for the cavalier way this was treated by the U.S. government in 1976. That said, the murder of Deb Gardner and subsequent freedom of her murderer is a serious blemish on the record of Peace Corps Tonga and the administration of the Peace Corps. Deb Gardner deserved more respect, but more importantly, I think, the the people and government of Tonga deserved more respect. They deferred to our government with assurances that we would do justice, and we dropped the ball.

Dennis McLoughlin
RPCV Tonga (99-01)

By BeingPC ( - on Thursday, July 01, 2004 - 11:26 pm: Edit Post

Reality Check - PC and PC

Disabilities Act of 1980s and the terminiation of psych testing (considered potential discrimination under new law). PCV candidates cannot be rejected due to mental illness or other mental conditions alone if they can demonstrate said condition has been, is being and can be managed at available posts. This has been good in protecting PCV candidates against discrimination for a variety of medical conditions. On the other hand, PC also ends up with PCVs who have histories of mental illnesses (or other afflictions such as alcoholism) and then do not manage the illnesses appropriately in the overseas environment. Also, PC must rely on the honest response to the medical survey, although a PCV can be terminated for false / misleading info and/or deliberate ommission.

Privacy Act - PC is rarely at liberty to discuss or respond to inquiries about PCV incidents or other PCV affairs (although PCVs and their families can and often do express their views and grievances publically).

It can be a tricky buisness. Sometimes, its Catch 22.

By daniel ( - on Friday, July 02, 2004 - 6:11 am: Edit Post

That is right they can be teriminated for false and misleading information and deliberate ommission.

Wow! we finally agree on something. Amazing.

You as former staffer should know, that PCV should not have to discuss their medical situation in public but because Peace Corps wrongfully separates volunteers in "false light situations" families and former volunteers are unfairly placed before the public because of fear and ineptitude on behalf of staffers.

This whole process has been a reality check on all of us, hasn't it. I am glad they have the investigator on the Walter Poirier's case. This should have happened two years ago.

Peace Corps volunteers will have more rights than ever in the future. Volunteers who have been wronged will become lawyers themselves and we will have the ombudsman's office too. Perhaps in the future, money too from private sources and the congress. This will help volunteers in the future and the whole program.


By BeingPC ( - on Friday, July 02, 2004 - 12:00 pm: Edit Post

I completely support the Privacy and Disability Acts. However, we need to recognize and deal with some of the challenges raised by further protections (e.g., more PCVs with mental health histories serving overseas). The comment about the privacy act is merely to point out that while you and others are free to complain and make allegations in a public forum, PC is not at liberty to "defend" itself or elaborate on actions and legal reviews in that same public forum. Therefore, you are at liberty to publically promote a one-sided version of events, and this is precisely what you do. However, the protections afforded by the privacvy act are far more important than this.

By Sally LEwis Bishop ( on Friday, July 02, 2004 - 3:31 pm: Edit Post

"PCV candidates cannot be rejected due to mental illness or other mental conditions alone if they can demonstrate said condition has been, is being and can be managed at available posts."

Ok, I'm not even going to argue about the rightness or wrongness of this. It's a fact - a law - so we are bound to observe it. But isn't there a "loophole" or "escape clause" in this law? I seem to remember that *if* you can show that the disability, or condition, would adversely affect the performance of the job then you are allowed to refuse employment.

Can't PC define some types of mental illness as inherently opposed to the performance of the job of PC Volunteers and/or staff. I'm thinking primarily of things like bi-polar disorder or some forms of schizophrenia. These are treatable by medication but if the patient stops taking the medication (for any reason) they can recur - sometimes with deeper, more violent symptoms!
Surely this type of reaction would have adverse effects on the job of a volunteer? Unless we can place each volunteer or staff member in a position where they are ALWAYS with someone else who can check that they have taken their medication then how can we ensure the mental and physical health of the volunteer is not affected?

As Peace Corp we are, in some sense, a part of the diplomatic corps of the US. It behooves us to NOT place volunteers who give a bad general impression of our country!

By BeingPC ( - on Friday, July 02, 2004 - 5:51 pm: Edit Post

Sally -

As for current law and policy, PC is obligated to accommodate disabilities to the extent that is reasonable, taking into account needed medical support, cost of accommodations, etc. If there is no post that can reasonably accommodate a certain disability or other mental or medical health condition that must be managed, then, yes, PC need not accept that candidate for service. The medical office reviews these case by case in determining medical clearance, and CDs are consulted - within the bounds of confidentiality - if the medical office and in-country PCMOs determine it's possible make such a placement.

However, some candidates do not fully disclose conditions and appear healthy at the time. For those that do fully disclose conditions, many are accepted if a post determines the conditon can be reasonably accommodated. Unfortunately, the new stresses of PCV service often result in a PCV not managing a conditon overseas that s/he was managing adequately in the US. I've had PCVs with bi-polar conditions who did not follow medical instructions or stopped taking medications and ended up being medevaced and terminated. It can indeed be a strain on in-country resources via the added attention and site planning adjustments required from PCMOs and other staff.

It's not good for PC, the host country or the PCV to place a PCV in a situation that s/he cannot manage and/or the post staff doesn't have the means to support. It's a frustration for all.

That saif, since the 80s when the act was passed, PC medical staff and post management staff have learned to identify and deal with these situations early. In the meantime, PC and host countries around the world have benefited from more diversity among PCVs and the experiences of those with disabilities. The mental health category and determining what is fairly reasonable accommodation continues, however, to be a sensitive and intricate issue.

By TonyRomano ( - on Tuesday, July 06, 2004 - 1:10 am: Edit Post

Dennis McLoughlin - I was in Tonga, 77-79, and the Tongans were well aware that he was released on his return to the US, and the rumor among PCVs was that the agency was afraid of being sued for having driven him insane enough to do this. Most of us were aware of how "expertly" he disected her veins and arteries.

By steve berman ( on Tuesday, July 06, 2004 - 7:20 pm: Edit Post

In 75 there was no psych evaluation that I remember. I met a PCV in-country with a past history of mental illness hospitalization (who had a 2nd psychotic break during service), and another who had obvious prejudice against host country nationals (He told me he could never make love to a black woman).
Steve -RPCV Swaziland 75-7.

By Anne M Talovich ( - on Wednesday, September 22, 2004 - 11:55 pm: Edit Post

I find it shocking that no one wants to see justice for Deborah Gardner. Dennis Priven murdered her in a most brutal way and then walked into his new life with not a shred of remorse. This waste of skin has been living as though he were actually human for almost 30 years after snuffing out the life of a 23 year old woman with her whole life ahead of her. Dennis Priven was nothing but a rabid dog the night he stabbed Deborah to death and should be treated as such. Where I'm from, we put rabid dogs down. There were others who should be held accountable for this shameful slaying but Deborah's blood is on Dennis Priven's hands and he should suffer justice for it.

By Betty almaraz ( - on Thursday, November 04, 2004 - 6:59 pm: Edit Post

Debra was a beautiful gurl that made a big impact in peoples lives. i hard it find to believe that Dennis could just be set free after taking her life away. And that the us govt didnt make any justice. But we will always remember debra.RIP

By Someone ( - on Monday, June 20, 2005 - 11:18 am: Edit Post

This whole situation is BS. This man got away with murder and should be prosecuted by the US. There is no other way to put it.

By Lupe Fonua ( - on Wednesday, October 05, 2005 - 9:10 pm: Edit Post

Hullo to all!!! My name is Lupe Fonua aka Folaumoetu'i and I'm Tongan. I have come across this site accidently and it has brought back unbearable grief and sadness as Miss Deborah Gardner was my science teacher,1976. I can remember it clearly as if it was yesterday, the morning I went to school and was told that Miss Gardner had been murdered.....there was silence throughout the whole school, a sheer disbelief that such evil can happen to someone we loved and close to. Tears flowed freely as we tried to deal with our grief & pain in our own individual ways. Prayers were offered up at school for Miss Gardner and her family. It was a morning that I and many others will never forget for the rest of our lives even now as I'm writing this I feel for Miss Gardner and her family.
Miss Gardner was the most beautiful 'Palangi' (white person) I had ever set eyes on. She had the looks and the figure!!! Tongans would regard her as skinny as Tongans love a bit of curves in women (it's slowly changing now though). Miss Gardner love to wear skirts and blouses. The skirts were long denim ones as they were the fashion then, she loves her hair down and in class we would never get sick of looking at her. She was pleasant, kind and was always willing to help when we need. I would like to thank Miss Gardner's parents for the joy that we had in sharing her life and may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding be with you and your family now and for ever.

'Ofa atu

By Anonymous ( - on Friday, November 04, 2005 - 9:37 pm: Edit Post



By RHF ( - on Tuesday, November 08, 2005 - 1:00 pm: Edit Post

Dear Anonymous - Despite the slowdown in public attention to the murder of Deb Gardner, many are still interested in reaching some closure beyond what the book has provided, even as the legal justice system is apparently reluctant to re-open the case. Dennis Priven still lives in 1C of the same apartment building where you lived. What year did you learn what he had done and when did you last see him? If you respond to this inquiry with an email address or some other way to contact you, I would like to engage in a little dialogue.

By BRAD WEINER ( - on Friday, November 18, 2005 - 11:37 pm: Edit Post



By RHF ( - on Saturday, November 19, 2005 - 8:34 am: Edit Post

Mr. Weiner - Thanks for responding. What's most interesting is the time that you learned about it... so soon after it happened, when family denial was in full play, but the ugly truth got out nonetheless. I've sent you an email, so perhaps we'll continue some discussion privately.

By Anonymous ( - on Saturday, November 19, 2005 - 4:03 pm: Edit Post



By brad weiner ( - on Saturday, November 19, 2005 - 2:59 pm: Edit Post

dear rhf ur e-mail mosy likely ended up in my deleted file ---without me noticing it ----please resend tks

By RHF ( - on Saturday, November 26, 2005 - 7:34 am: Edit Post

Brad - I sent email again on 11/21 to your email address: I you still didn't receive, try sending one to mine: & I'll respond.

By Anonymous ( - on Wednesday, February 08, 2006 - 5:21 am: Edit Post

I suspect that you are beating a dead horse...

By Anonymous ( on Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - 5:17 pm: Edit Post

I am outraged after reading the details of Deborah Gardner's death and Mary George's complicity in it. Mary George should be penalized in some way; that is, criminally and civilly by paying some type of retribution to society by community service and/or jail time and by paying Miss Gardner's family a monetary restitution. I am appalled that the government was also complicit in this murder. I am appalled that Dennis Priven is free and has been all these years. It's outrageous. The government needs to make restitution to the Gardner family and to the American and Tongan peoples for this atrocity and the lies.

By Anonymous ( - on Thursday, September 28, 2006 - 3:24 pm: Edit Post

I would really like to find this Mary George and give her a piece of my mind. I hope that karma finds a way to punish Deborah's killer and Mary George!

By Deborah Ann Gardner ( - on Tuesday, January 23, 2007 - 11:04 pm: Edit Post

I agree with everyone who encourages Deborah's parents to file civil changes against the man . . sometimes in a corrupt society - we have to take justice in our own hands.

By Anonymous ( - on Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - 6:14 pm: Edit Post

"By ADH ( - on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 03:05 pm: Edit
I aggree that their should be a mental physcial but I also think funding should and could be better spent elsewhere (in country counseling support).

Money is definitely needed for other things, but shouldn't we make sure that the PC is mentally able to function and give support where it's needed before it even attempts to help other countries? It's like stretching before exercising- it helps one become prepared for the feats, but if they do not warm up they can't act to their full potential. And if they have a condition where they can not perform the activity in accordance to what is needed, or risk their safety or the safety of others, it's definitely worth it to not have that person participate. We are making an extra effort to help other countries, and to say that money would be "better spent" in helping that country rather than making sure the PC is suitable to help is ridiculous. It would be dead money- it wouldn't be able to be used correctly. The PC should make sure that all of their volunteers are no less than 100% able to do what is needed.

By Monika Kilinganoa ( - on Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - 10:38 pm: Edit Post

Hellow! I am Monika a Tongan who have been teaching in a school where Ms Gardiner was killed. Back in 1981 then, people were still talking about the tragic incident. I think it is still very sad, when we have not done our duty and put things into order. Finding this site also helped me to find out if my Dad's great friend (PC) named Larry who was teaching in the primary school (GPS Faleloa) between 1965-1967. Later on I have been working with more volunteer in Lapaha. Great to have met and being good friends with them all. At the moment I am in Fiji but love to hear from any of my friends.

By Anonymous ( - on Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - 6:55 pm: Edit Post

In 1981 I was in my third teaching at Tupou High School, the school where Dennis Priven taught in 1976. No one said a word about Dennis Priven, Deborah Gardner or the murder. Many of the people I taught with were associated with either or both of these two people and the subject never came up for discussion. 95% of what I know about the murder I learned from reading "American Taboo" 30 years after the fact. Most of the rest of what I know about it I learned from conversations after reading the book with persons mentioned prominently in the book.

Roger Reed

By Rodney Tupa ( - on Sunday, October 28, 2007 - 6:24 pm: Edit Post

Does the Tongan authorities did their job at the first time or they ignored it?

By Anonymous ( - on Monday, January 28, 2008 - 5:36 pm: Edit Post

I was saddened to see this on 48 hours. Such a young beautiful person murdered,why? Because of a jealous selfish animal. Is it another one of those men who loved her so much he killed her! My heart went out to the mother who missed out on her daughters whole life. I am sickened by the cover up and how this obviously guilty man walked free. Still he has not had to take responsibility for his actions. He should now be made to spend the rest of his life with the mentally insane. Agencies are more interested in covering their own bases then a human life . It sickens me. May some justice be done for Debra Gardner finally.

By Amelia Folaumoetui ( - on Friday, April 04, 2008 - 9:59 pm: Edit Post

Debra Gardner will forever be in our minds, soul and heart always. It brings back sad memories to us her students of Tonga High School 1976. She shared her life with us, taught us and learned Tongan with us. Her beautiful smile, her long hair, flowy skirt and intelligence is my fond memories of Deborah. My name is Amelia Folaumoetu'i and like my sister Lupe Fonua, we found this site by accident......I 3 years after she did!!!

I hope one day to meet any of her family, to give them a hug on behalf of my fellow students. May she rest in peace!!! May God comfort her family and hopefully the Government of the United States will see that justice is done. I am sorry if the Tongan Government did not fullfill its obligations but our trust in the US authorities is perhaps our shortfall. Would love to contact the Gardner family.

'Ofa atu
Amelia Folaumoetu'i

By william edington ( on Tuesday, April 08, 2008 - 6:35 pm: Edit Post

Paul Sack's comment that his intention, as the director of the Peace Corps in Tanzania, was to give the volunteer charged with murdering his wife, a competent defense rather than to have him acquitted, is an outrageous lie, and he knows it.

The Peace Corps, including Mr. Sack, in fact did everything in its power to get the accused off the hook, from flying in an American lawyer to hiring the best trial lawyer in East Africa. It warned volunteers not to approach authorities with incriminating evidence against this volunteer, which included a friend of the victim, whose testimony might well have convicted the husband. It became a cottage industry during the pre-trial and trial period for volunteers in the area to share what they knew about the case, and the efforts of the Peace Corps to suppress damaging information. Events leading up to the trial, and the trial itself created a great deal of ill-will among Tanzanians towards the Peace Corps because of its heavy-handedness in attempting to influence events.

Give credit to the lawyers however. With an avalanche of damning evidence, they got him off. The very expensive defense that was mounted achieved the desired result. Only the verdict, given by a panel of three judges, rather than a jury, was not "not guilty", which the Peace Corps assiduously sought, but the weaker acquittal of "not proven" a carryover of the British judicial system. Had the Peace Corps not engaged in wide-scale tampering of the process, virtually every volunteer in that area understood the verdict would have been guilty because the volunteer WAS guilty.

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.