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A Cover-Up at the World's End
1,760297.story, A Cover-Up at the World's End
A Cover-Up at the World's End
U.S. officials have much to answer for in a Peace Corps killing in Tonga.
By Philip Weiss
The Kingdom of Tonga is a tiny Polynesian archipelago of 100,000 people about 1,200 miles northeast of New Zealand. In 1976, 80 Peace Corps volunteers were posted to the kingdom, most of them working as high school teachers in the Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa. They led a simple life. They rode black Chinese one-speed bicycles to school, spent part of their $2-a-day stipend on beer at the Tonga Club on Friday nights, and now and then had dances with taped rock music on faraway beaches.
Deb Gardner lived by herself in a hut near the bush at the east edge of town. She was a 23-year-old biology teacher from Tacoma, Wash. — dark-haired, outdoorsy and something of a free spirit. One of her many suitors among the volunteers was Dennis Priven, 24, a muscular blond who was considered the best poker player on the island. He was a brilliant, bespectacled introvert from Brooklyn who taught math and chemistry at the leading high school and went everywhere with a dive knife on the waist of his cutoffs. Gardner was polite to Priven but rebuffed his advances, and he grew obsessed with her.
On the night of Oct. 14, 1976, Priven rode to Gardner's hut carrying a metal pipe and his knife, prosecutors said later. He stabbed her 22 times, then rode away on his bike. Neighbors carried her in a pickup truck to the hospital, where she died.
Two days later, by the time Gardner's body had left the island en route to Washington state, a concerted American effort to obstruct the process of justice had already begun. In an apparent effort to protect the image of the Peace Corps, the U.S. government would do its utmost that week and in the months and years afterward to make sure that justice was not done, in a travesty that still rankles the few people who knew about it, one that still begs for resolution.
Under Tongan law, Priven faced hanging, if convicted, and the case seemed to jeopardize the future of the aid program, the only American presence in the kingdom. The American government threw itself behind him. The Peace Corps brought in the leading Tongan lawyer from New Zealand to represent Priven and a psychiatrist from Hawaii to testify that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, words translated into Tongan as "double minded" for a jury of farmers. The Tongan prosecutors could not afford to bring in a psychiatrist to counter the testimony, and many in Tongan government came to feel that they were fighting the most powerful government in the world on behalf of Deb Gardner.
"It appeared to me that all pity was with Priven and none was shown to the dead girl," the crown solicitor complained to the king. " … I find this very strange justice."
After a nine-day trial in December 1976, jurors deliberated for only 20 minutes before finding that Priven was not guilty because he was insane when he did the act, and after considerable wrangling over whether he would continue to be confined in Tonga, the State Department presented a letter to the Tongan prime minister promising that Priven would be involuntarily hospitalized in Washington, D.C., until he was no longer a danger, that his parents had agreed to commit him and that he would be arrested if he refused to enter the hospital. But these were misrepresentations. The hospital did not accept involuntary patients, Priven's parents could not legally commit an adult child and, as it turned out, Priven refused to go into the hospital. And so, 3 1/2 months after stabbing Deb Gardner to death, Priven was walking free back in Brooklyn. The Peace Corps gave him the equivalent of an honorable discharge. A month later he got a new passport.
It was as if nothing had really happened, out there at the end of the world.
The most idealistic of American programs had behaved like any other government agency. From start to finish, it did all it could to bury the matter. Memos to higher-ups such as Vice President Nelson Rockefeller left out the fact that Gardner had been murdered, describing her death in deceptively neutral terms. The Peace Corps all but suppressed its news release on the death. Before reporters contacted Gardner's mother, the Peace Corps' top lawyer had prepared a warning for her: "Once out, all out," implying that the Gardners had something to hide because their daughter had been sexually active. Later, the parents were too heartbroken to follow up.
But knowledge of the Peace Corps' manipulations and Priven's release ate at those who knew about it. The story became a legend in the South Pacific. That is how I heard about it, when I was backpacking through Samoa in 1978. And it haunted many of Gardner's friends.
How could such a travesty have occurred? The case was handled throughout by midlevel American bureaucrats who felt that they might stem embarrassment to our country by smoothing the matter over and preventing it from getting political or public attention. Owing to Tonga's remoteness, they were successful — for 28 years anyway.
Today, however, it is not too late to achieve some measure of justice. Gardner's parents say they were deceived by the Peace Corps and have demanded redress. They deserve a vigorous if belated response. Congress should investigate the death and summon the aging officials who have refused to explain their conduct. And the Justice Department should seek ways to retry Priven here for his actions in 1976.
Philip Weiss is the author of "American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps," which tells the story of Deb Gardner's death. It was published this month by HarperCollins.