November 9, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tonga: Crime: Murder: Safety and Security of Volunteers: The News Tribune: US Attorney asked to consider bringing charges against Dennis Priven in 1976 slaying of Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tonga: Special Report: 'American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps': November 9, 2004: Headlines: COS - Tonga: Crime: Murder: Safety and Security of Volunteers: The News Tribune: US Attorney asked to consider bringing charges against Dennis Priven in 1976 slaying of Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner
American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

Charges possible in 1976 PCV slaying Charges possible in 1976 PCV slaying
Congressman Norm Dicks has asked the U.S. attorney in Seattle to consider pursuing charges against Dennis Priven, the man accused of killing Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner on the South Pacific island of Tonga 28 years ago. Background on this story here and here.
American Taboo American Taboo
Read the story of Volunteer Deborah Gardner's murder in Tonga in 1976 and how her killer has been free for the past 28 years with the help of the Peace Corps. Read an excerpt from Philip Weiss' book documenting the murder and coverup. Then read an essay by RPCV Bob Shaconis who says that Peace Corps' treatment as a "sacred cow" has exempted it from public scrutiny and that the agency has labored to preserve its shining reputation, sometimes at the expense of the very principles it is supposed to embody.

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Tuesday, November 09, 2004 - 11:15 pm: Edit Post

US Attorney asked to consider bringing charges against Dennis Priven in 1976 slaying of Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner

US Attorney asked to consider bringing charges against Dennis Priven in 1976 slaying of Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner

US Attorney asked to consider bringing charges against Dennis Priven in 1976 slaying of Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner

Charges possible in 1976 slaying

LES BLUMENTHAL; The News Tribune
Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 12:01 AM (PST)

Caption: Peace Corps Volunteer Deborah Gardner was murdered while on assignment in the South Pacific island nation of Tonga. (Photo: Frank Bevacqua)

WASHINGTON – A South Sound congressman has asked the U.S. attorney in Seattle to consider pursuing charges against the man accused of killing a Peace Corps volunteer from Lakewood on a South Pacific island more than 28 years ago.

Though legal experts say it might be a difficult, if not impossible, case to prosecute, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Belfair) formally asked federal prosecutors to review whether charges could be filed against the Brooklyn, N.Y., man who was accused of stabbing Deborah Gardner to death in Tonga in October 1976.

“Deborah’s family obviously considers this situation to be a clear miscarriage of justice and I share their deep concern,” Dicks said in a letter to John McKay, U.S. attorney for Western Washington.

McKay’s office said Friday that it received Dicks’ letter and will respond. “I think we should take a look at it,” said Jeff Sullivan, chief of the office’s criminal division.

Sullivan said a number of issues will have to be researched, but the most critical one may be whether his office has jurisdiction.

“We will look at that first,” he said.

Gardner, a Lakes High School graduate who had been teaching high school biology and home economics in Tonga, was 23 years old when she was killed. Dennis Priven, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, was charged with her murder and faced hanging if convicted.

The Peace Corps hired a lawyer to defend Priven and flew in a psychiatrist to evaluate him. During a nine-day trial, the psychiatrist testified that Priven suffered from latent paranoid schizophrenia. Tongan prosecutors did not have the money to hire their own psychiatrist.

After deliberating for 26 minutes, a Tongan jury found Priven not guilty by reason of insanity.

Tonga released Priven to U.S. officials after a written assurance from a top U.S. embassy official that Priven would be committed to a mental hospital in the United States.

Priven spent two days in a Washington, D.C., hospital. He was allowed to check out after a psychiatrist found no evidence of schizophrenia. Priven received a routine discharge from the Peace Corps and has been living in Brooklyn ever since. Now 52, he worked for the Social Security Administration and retired last year.

Details of Gardner’s killing came to light this summer when a new book, “American Taboo” by Philip Weiss, was published. The CBS news magazine “48 Hours” devoted a show two weeks ago to Gardner’s murder.

“It is not clear to me whether there is any recourse at this time, or whether the U.S. government had, or has, any jurisdiction in this case,” Dicks said in the letter sent to McKay on Friday. “In this regard, I would appreciate it if you would review the facts in the case … and advise whether the government has any jurisdiction and, if so, whether it would now be appropriate or possible to pursue the matter.”

Dicks said he decided to approach federal prosecutors after talking with Peace Corps officials who could provide few details about the circumstances surrounding Gardner’s death, the decision to hire a lawyer to defend Priven or Priven’s return to the United States and his subsequent release.

Peace Corps officials say they have little information about Gardner’s case because it happened 28 years ago and many of the files were routinely destroyed.

“We have little to go on,” said Barbara Daly, a Peace Corps spokeswoman.

Daly said federal law requires the agency to hire an attorney to defend any volunteer charged with a crime overseas, adding that the Peace Corps could not release any information on Priven unless he agreed.

Gardner’s parents, who are divorced, had assumed for years that Priven had been committed to a mental hospital. They first learned that Priven was free when Weiss contacted them while researching his book.

“I still want justice done,” said Wayne Gardner, who lives in northern Idaho and has been in contact with Dicks’ office.

Deborah Gardner’s mother, Alice, who still lives in the Tacoma area, said she has been under the impression there was nothing that could be done.

 Dennis Priven

Caption: Dennis Priven, a fellow Peace Corps worker from Brooklyn, N.Y., was charged with her murder by Tongan police. (Photo: Frank Bevacqua)

“I would love to see him charged with murder,” she said.

Priven has declined to comment.

The legal hurdles before a case could filed – jurisdiction, double jeopardy and the statute of limitations – are formidable. If prosecutors decide to pursue a case, there would be questions about evidence and the faded memories of those who testified at the initial trial.

“It’s a very old case from a faraway place,” said John Junker, who teaches criminal law at the University of Washington law school.

Even though a criminal case against Priven would be a long shot at best, Junker said it should not be dismissed out of hand.

After all these years, legal experts say, the family could not file a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Priven because the statute of limitations has been exceeded.

Junker said it may be possible for federal prosecutors to exert jurisdiction because Gardner was a U.S. citizen working for the federal government when she was slain. He also said there would be no “double jeopardy bar” because Priven was tried in a Tongan court, not a U.S. court.

The real legal problem could come on the issue of statute of limitations in a criminal case. Junker said there is no statute of limitations if it’s a capital case involving the death penalty.

But if there are questions about Priven’s sanity at the time of the murder, prosecutors might not be able to bring a capital case, he said.

Others suggest the jurisdiction could be complicated, and it is unclear what U.S. attorney’s office could bring a case.

When this story was posted in November 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

Your vote makes a difference Your vote makes a difference
Make a difference on November 2 - Vote. Then take our RPCV exit poll. See how RPCV's are voting and take a look at the RPCV voter demographic. Finally leave a message on why you voted for John Kerry or for George Bush. Previous poll results here.
Kerry reaches out to Returned Volunteers Kerry reaches out to Returned Volunteers
The Kerry campaign wants the RPCV vote. Read our interview with Dave Magnani, Massachusetts State Senator and Founder of "RPCVs for Kerry," and his answers to our questions about Kerry's plan to triple the size of the Peace Corps, should the next PC Director be an RPCV, and Safety and Security issues. Then read the "RPCVs for Kerry" statement of support and statements by Dr. Robert Pastor, Ambassador Parker Borg, and Paul Oostburg Sanz made at the "RPCVs for Kerry" Press Conference.

RPCV Carl Pope says the key to winning this election is not swaying undecided voters, but persuading those already willing to vote for your candidate to actually go to the polls.

Take our poll and tell us what you are doing to support your candidate.

Finally read our wrap-up of the eight RPCVs in Senate and House races around the country and where the candidates are in their races.

Director Gaddi Vasquez:  The PCOL Interview Director Gaddi Vasquez: The PCOL Interview
PCOL sits down for an extended interview with Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. Read the entire interview from start to finish and we promise you will learn something about the Peace Corps you didn't know before.

Plus the debate continues over Safety and Security.
Schwarzenegger praises PC at Convention Schwarzenegger praises PC at Convention
Governor Schwarzenegger praised the Peace Corps at the Republican National Convention: "We're the America that sends out Peace Corps volunteers to teach village children." Schwarzenegger has previously acknowledged his debt to his father-in-law, Peace Corps Founding Director Sargent Shriver, for teaching him "the joy of public service" and Arnold is encouraging volunteerism by creating California Service Corps and tapping his wife, Maria Shriver, to lead it. Leave your comments and who can come up with the best Current Events Funny?
 Peace Corps: One of the Best Faces of America Peace Corps: One of the Best Faces of America
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and can you come up with a Political Funny?

Read the stories and leave your comments.

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 Paul W. Neville ( on Wednesday, November 10, 2004 - 7:44 pm: Edit Post

Philip Weiss would stop by my computer center project in Kolovai, Tonga during his research of “American Taboo.” Apparently, his plan is working. The case is finally receiving the attention that it deserved three decades ago. Maybe there will be some sort of justice over Deborah's tragic death after all. Kudos to Mr. Weiss.

By RPCV ( on Thursday, November 11, 2004 - 4:37 am: Edit Post

Will Peace Corps use Dr. Lebensoln again as Dr. Mengala to say he has continued to be insane? Mr. Weiss you should ask the Congress to investigate how many people this Dr. has fired, wrongfully diagnosed or been used by Peace Corps to get the results they seek for a particular situation.

This is a tragedy and thank you Mr. Weiss for bringing before the Public. Obivously, Peace Corps covered this one up like they have in so many other bad situations.


By RPCV ( on Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - 4:28 am: Edit Post

Nothing is happening isn't it. A few calls to Norm Dick would get this ball rolling again. Keeping Pushing. She deserves it.

By D. Waldman ( on Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - 12:35 pm: Edit Post

My fiance was a PCV and I have always thought very highly of the organization from his accounts.
After reading "American Taboo" I am sad to say that my opinion has been deeply affected. I am horrified that this woman's life and death have been largely ignored and her family lied to about what really was done to Dennis Priven. The US Government and the Peace Corps should be ashamed. I hope with all my heart that something can still be done in her name.
I will never forget her.

By Janice Fahey ( - on Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - 10:18 pm: Edit Post

It's about time. I never could understand why federal charges weren't prepared prior to Dennis' return to the U.S. I didn't believe the "double-jeopardy" explanation offered by Peace Corps. How awful it is that the passage of time may be the critical factor.
I never met Dennis or Debbie, but they haunted my Peace Corps experience. My husband and I were in Tonga 19. Our group was the first to arrive in country after the trial. Many of the principals of Weiss' book were still there and became our friends.
The first thing we were told during our orientation was that a Peace Corps girl had been murdered by a Peace Corps guy. We were told to say (if asked) that we had been psychologically screened (not true). And we were told that Dennis was receiving "outpatient treatment."(This statement was accompanied by rolling of eyes.)
I beleive that the staff(not just local but the Washington staff too)did the best they could with the resources they had, and did what they believed was right.
I hope that justice will finally be done.

By Ralph Echols ( - on Thursday, December 02, 2004 - 4:19 am: Edit Post

A sad case made even more so by the poor chance that justice will ever be served.
One wonders if the miserable loser who killed Deborah Gardner feels any remorse for what he did. Probably not. A sociopath doesn't have a conscience.
Thanks to Philip Weis (just started American Taboo) Deborah has entered the lives of a lot of people. Beautiful woman, beautiful soul.
A fellow PC/vol (I was PC/Korea, K24) - Deborah, you're mourned, missed and celebrated by friends, family and even strangers like me. Wherever you are now in time and space, Peace to you, our friend.

By Frederick Edward Pitts ( - on Monday, December 06, 2004 - 2:35 pm: Edit Post

One of the problems with the Peace Corps is the haste to cover negatives and push positives no matter which individual volunteers were hurt. I was in Congo in 72-73 and met some of that head on! For those who have never heard or read a well-rounded honest take on the program, they should take a look at my book THINGS ARE DIFFERENT IN AFRICA.

Frederick Edward Pitts

By allende ( - on Monday, December 20, 2004 - 11:39 am: Edit Post

I am considering entering the peace corps and I was going through a peace corps pamphlet published in 8/04 last night when I was shocked to find a big picture of Dennis Priven smiling while he hung to the signpost that marks a crater. I am pretty sure the photo is of him because I remember seeing it on the 48 hours special. It made me sick to think that the Peacecorps would include a picture of him in its materials.

By Dee Hart ( on Thursday, January 13, 2005 - 5:07 pm: Edit Post

This is the first I'm learning about the Deborah Gardner case, and it's quite painful. That this guy is walking around a free man and that the Peace Corp helped to make that happen makes my blood boil. Sadly, am not suprised, my sister disappeared and is the presumed victim of foul play, was a PCV in Nepal, and the Peace Corp - like any other government agency was basically more concerned about washing its hands and keeping bad publicity down more than anything else. It's a government agency, nothing more nothing less. Expect nothing and you'll get it.

By d. kline ( - on Sunday, January 23, 2005 - 5:49 am: Edit Post

What a hauntingly beautiful woman.
What a tragic story.
It would be nice if justice could finaly be done.
Dennis Priven walking away from this brutal sex crime(because face it, thats what it boils down to.) is a travesty.He needs to pay.

By J. Nichols ( - on Tuesday, February 01, 2005 - 5:09 pm: Edit Post

I'm suprised that I had never heard of the sad story of Deborah Gardner. I grew up not far from where Deborah did near Tacoma. At the time of this sad event I was serving in the military far from home. I can not believe that the Peace corps a organization sponsored by our government could be so blind to justice, of course then there was EL Savador. Hopefully Congressman Dicks has some impact on reopening this case.

By Ron Seibel ( - on Monday, February 14, 2005 - 9:52 pm: Edit Post

Can anyone furnish a current address of David
Priven? Just send it to

I was KZ #1. Seeing injustice gets my blood boiling.

By Anonymous ( - on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 5:49 pm: Edit Post

I just saw this story on CBS mysteries. I feel so bad for Deborah and her family. To imagine this guy is still walking the streets in July 2005 a free man retired from the US Government.

By former volunteer ( - on Wednesday, April 05, 2006 - 7:45 pm: Edit Post

Lebensoln should be investigated by the Congress for his malpractice.

former volunteer

By Robert Forbes ( - on Friday, April 07, 2006 - 12:48 pm: Edit Post

Zigmond M. Lebensohn died on September 21, 2003 at the age of 93.

By Investigation ( - on Sunday, April 09, 2006 - 8:03 am: Edit Post

Does that mean that his diagnosis is no longer valid in the Privens case and others?

They should still go back and review this man's cases with Peace Corps.

By Anonymous ( - on Thursday, May 11, 2006 - 4:08 pm: Edit Post

There are too many of these kinds of stories out there. It's horribly sad. A young girl is killed because she is beautiful, smart and too good for someone like Dennis Priven. Dennis Priven was below average in the looks department and was batting way below the average when it came to woman. I wonder what his mother was like and how he was raised?? For all the Dennis Priven's in the world....realize your fate and deal with it. God, unfortunately, made a pecking order and your kind are at the bottom of the barrell. For all you Deborah's out there, don't encourage, simply say, "NO THANK YOU", and if the "Dennis" persist....
shoot before he shoots you. I can't wait to read about the one where the girl kicks the predators
ass and the dirt bag wakes up in the hospital surrounded by cops. Oh wait....he would probably
end up suing her.....AND WIN. Ain't justice grand?

By Mengala Medicine ( - on Thursday, May 11, 2006 - 10:35 pm: Edit Post

The Peace Corps should investigate everyone of the misdiagnosises Zigmond Lebensoln performed to aide Peace Corps in getting the diagnosis they have sought over the years.

The Congress should revisit Dr. Leadbottom's cases at Peace Corps. Many volunteers have been hurt by this Doctor including people close to Ms. Gardner.

Medical Malpractice is king at Peace Corps.

By gerald86404 ( - on Wednesday, May 31, 2006 - 10:54 am: Edit Post

what ever happen to wrongful death lawsuits? any pro bono lawyers out there want a slamdunk case? he did turn himself in and if our government won't protect are innocent maybe a lawyer would. maybe tonga could extradite priven to hang for murder like the u.s. extradited manuel noreaga. and oh by the way didn't some country invade iraq and put their leader on trial?

By Anonymous ( on Wednesday, May 31, 2006 - 4:25 pm: Edit Post

Pro bono lawyers take on hi profile cases. Do you think they really care about justice for Peace Corps Volunteers? They have never helped any volunteer without capitalizing on our experiences for money.
All volunteers and their families must have a lawyer working for them, paid by the government. We served out goivernment. They should serve us.

By Sydsational ( - on Monday, June 05, 2006 - 3:15 pm: Edit Post

The American government assisting this murderer in getting away with butchering this girl to death has been haunting me since I heard about this story. Then Dennis the Menace is hired by the Federal Government to work for Social Security knowing he was at least a murderer and maybe a nut on top of that? Appalling!!

It was reported that this man has not committed any more crimes since returning to the U.S. How does anyone really know that for sure? If he did commit other crimes after returning, the government might have helped to cover those up also to avoid having egg on their face for helping him to get away with Gardner's murder.

I don't understand why Dennis wasn't left in Tonga. He commited a crime there, why wasn't he left there to pay for the crime he committed? How often has the U.S. government stepped up to save U.S. citizens that go to other countries and commit crimes?

Ship him back!! Let him swing!!

By Anonymous ( - on Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 4:51 pm: Edit Post

I wanted to join the corp when I got out of high school. I am glad that I did not.
In reading some of the comments and hearing a 48 hour report, it is clear that Deborah Gardner was targeted because she was attractive. I get the feeling that this was an issue during the trial.
I can not believe that an orginization that I held in the highest regard is capable of the manipulation that went on during the investigation and trial.
Can he be tried again or would this be double jepordy? He was not tried in the American justice system.

He walked away free. We can only hope that God will give him and anyone involved in the cover up what he deserves.

By Anonymous ( - on Friday, August 10, 2007 - 8:33 am: Edit Post

The Tongan Police should have tried everything to keep Priven in their custody.

Then give him a fair trial and then hang him.

By Anonymous ( - on Friday, August 10, 2007 - 8:25 am: Edit Post

What about the cover up led by the Director on Tonga, Mary aka The Bird Lady?

She was a Miss Priss and did not want a stain on her "career"

By Lopeti Forbes ( on Friday, August 17, 2007 - 10:18 am: Edit Post

Anonymous, please read "American Taboo," or review it again if you've read it already. The Country PC Director in Tonga, Mary George, had already incurred an indelible stain on her career when the murder happened. She did not lead a cover-up -- she was following directives from PC Washington to do everything possible to prevent him from being hanged overseas and get him safely back Stateside. And yes, she was also personally sympathetic to the murderer of a female PCV whom she considered to be a threat and a temptress, which in her misguided mind overrided any consideration of justice for Deb Gardner. But she was not "The Bird Lady." That was instead another female PCV, Barbara Williams, who was also sympathetic to the murderer and guided by the conviction that he needed to be rescued and sent back to the US for treatment. Her intentions were certainly good, but as we all know, the road to Hell is well paved with intentions like those....

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.