American Taboo

Who Murdered A Beautiful Peace Corps Volunteer In Tonga?

The isolated South Pacific island nation of Tonga is a kingdom unto itself. It's 6,000 miles from the California coast, 2,000 miles east of Australia. It's a sleepy, peaceful place with a unique culture, which is partly what drew a young Peace Corps volunteer named Deborah Gardner to work there in 1975, a decision that took her life.

In Tonga, Correspondent Susan Spencer talks to many people who still remember the night almost 30 years ago, on Oct. 14, 1976, when Gardner was stabbed to death in her hut. Those who weren't around then have heard the stories told and retold. But the truth about what really happened to her, and to her killer, has taken a long time to emerge. It's a tale of love and adventure, and ultimately of murder.

"At some level, I don't believe she's gone. To me it's like this person is still, it just happened," says writer Phil Weiss, who first heard rumors of the murder in the late '70s, while backpacking in Samoa. It haunted him, until finally, four years ago, he began researching his new book, "American Taboo."

"It became everything to me. I decided that I was gonna drop everything and find out what happened to Debbie Gardner," says Weiss. "At some point, I went through the looking glass on this thing."

Weiss quickly discovered that he wasn't the first man to have had that reaction to Gardner. Fellow Peace Corps worker Emile Hons remembers the very moment in December of 1975 when he first laid eyes on her at a welcoming ceremony for her group of new volunteers.

"When she smiled, you had to smile," says Hons. "You didn't necessarily know why she smiled, but you were forced to smile."

Frank Bevacqua, a fellow Peace Corps worker, also dated Gardner for a time. "There was just something about her that wanted you to be around her," says Bevacqua. "She just made you feel like the world was a better place to be in because of her."

Weiss says that every guy in the Peace Corps wanted to go out with her. "But I think she had to turn a lot more away," he says. "It was the 1970s, too, and there was a lot of sexual pressure on the young women."

Gardner was outgoing and friendly, but as a science major from Washington State University, Weiss says, she also had a serious side. To get closer to the culture, she chose to live in a Tongan neighborhood outside of town, in a simple one-room house.

"She enjoyed more of the village life," says Weiss. "She had a good relationship with the Tongan families across the way. She liked decorating her house with Tapa cloth and woven mats from the market."

She also loved her Peace Corps job, teaching science at Tonga High School with fellow teacher Telehiva Fine. "You're like sisters, sort of, and then, I think, seeing that she accepted us. We accepted her. She was just one of us," says Fine.

But after roughly six months on Tonga, Gardner was beginning to have problems – among them, another Peace Corps volunteer, Dennis Priven.

"Dennis was very shy, very intelligent," says Weiss, of the 24-year-old Brooklynite. "But a lot of people found Dennis to be weird, introverted, bizarre."

"He was really intense. He was a combination of a kind of New York aggressive, and quite shy," says Barbara Wilson, who went through training with Priven. "He sometimes offended people, not from any desire to offend people, but because he really didn't care what they thought."

He also had one trademark quirk: a 6-inch diving knife, usually strapped to his belt. And it was soon clear that Priven had a crush on Gardner.

Priven so wanted to impress her that at one point, he surprised her with an intimate, and unwanted, candlelight dinner. "Eventually, Dennis made a clean breast of all his deep feelings for her, feelings which she did not reciprocate," says Weiss. "She ended up leaving there in a hurry. She was very upset."

"She was sad," adds Bevacqua. "'I wish he wouldn't do that. He just didn't seem to understand. Nothing's gonna happen.'"

But Priven just wouldn't take the hint. He started hanging around the Peace Corps office at about the time Gardner picked up her mail. He would follow her occasionally. And he'd even show up, uninvited, at Tonga High School, where she worked.

Was Gardner afraid of Priven? "Yeah," says Hive. "I think that I can say that she was."

Friends had begun to notice changes in Priven, and some, including Hons, were concerned enough to alert the Peace Corps director of Tonga. "I went and talked to her about it, that I thought he might be losing it a little bit," says Hons.

But the director of the office, a 47-year-old ex-model and political appointee named Mary George, did nothing.

Friends say Gardner requested a transfer off the main island, partly to get away from Priven. Priven, however, wanted another year in Tonga, partly to be near Gardner. Whatever her understanding of the situation, George said no to both requests.

Then, the Peace Corps party, on Oct. 9, soon turned into a wild night. Many volunteers got drunk, including Gardner, who left the party with Hons around 10 p.m.

"We walked the bikes home, and I don't know for a fact, but I think Dennis followed us home," recalls Hons. "I don't know if that was a turning point, but he was angry about it. I was with her, I guess, and he wasn't."

Volunteers noticed that Priven was slowly beginning to unravel days after the party. And even George noticed. Weiss says that George had turned down Priven for a third year: "He felt that Emile, his good friend, had taken advantage of Deb, and Deb had continued to turn him down. He snapped."

On Oct. 14, 1976, Wilson remembers seeing Priven at school. "He just looked pale and looking away, and just gone," she says.

That evening, Bevacqua remembers being outside the town movie theater when Priven rode up on his bicycle: "I remember walking back into the theater and saying, 'Boy, I just had one of the weirdest conversations with Priven I ever had.' ...Something spiritual. It just gave me the creeps. And off he went."

Weiss says that evening, Priven found his way to Ngele'ia, Gardner's village outside of town. Priven was armed with a metal pipe, a syringe, two bottles of cyanide, and his 6-inch diving knife.

"It would have been around 9:45 that night. Deb had put on her white nightdress. She was preparing to go to sleep. And Dennis appeared," says Weiss. "He went berserk. He hit her with a metal pipe and then just started stabbing her."

Gardner fought for her life. Priven stabbed her 22 times and began to drag her body to the door – at which point her screams had called the neighbors from the bush.

"I heard a scream. I know there's something happening in there," says To'a Pasa, who was just 15 at the time of the murder. He came running from his house across the road. "I was very scared. I was thinking to myself, 'There is someone there inside trying to rape her.'"

Suddenly To'a, who recognized Priven, says the door opened, and Priven appeared at Gardner's front door, dragging her into the doorway. "He saw me. I know he saw me. But I just stand there and watch," he says. "Outside the fence. It was a full moon."

When Priven realized he was being seen, he dropped Gardner face down in her doorway and bicycled off through the rugby field and into the night. Left behind was a knife, as well as a flip-flop, a pipe, syringe and cyanide.

"What he had planned was to kill Deb and then to kill himself with the cyanide," says Weiss, who thinks Priven's plan was derailed when he saw To'a, who cried out for help.

Weiss says a Peace Corps driver asked Gardner who did this. The answer: Dennis Priven.

To'a's family took Gardner to the hospital. The doctors did their best at the emergency room, but they couldn't save her. "She was perforated all through her body," says Weiss. "She was a mess."

Hons raced to Gardner's house the minute he heard that Priven had hurt her. "I came to the door. It was open about two inches. The light was on. I pushed the door open. And there was blood everywhere," recalls Hons. "And it just shocked my soul. Then I saw Dennis' backpack, his knife, his flip-flop, his glasses all in the blood. There was a handprint down the wall with blood. And I just stared."

Bevacqua heard the news from George. "She told us she was stabbed. And I remember looking at her and going, 'Where's Dennis,'" says Bevacqua, who immediately suspected Priven because of the way he was acting.

Weiss says his initial reaction to the Peace Corps when they heard that Gardner's body had turned up at the hospital was basically, "We gotta find Dennis."

Everyone was out searching that night, scouring the island. They feared that Priven would kill himself next.

Weiss says Dennis went home, and tried to kill himself by taking painkillers. But in the early morning hours of Oct. 15, 1976, Priven turned himself in, and was charged with murder. "We're approaching a moment where there is going to be the biggest crisis in the history of Peace Corps," says Weiss.

In Tonga, murderers hang. And what possibly could be more scandalous than for one volunteer to be hanged for the murder of another? "Mary [George] was hoping against hope that Dennis hadn't done it," says Weiss.

In fact, in her first telex to Washington that night, after Priven was in custody, George implied that Gardner's Tongan neighbors might be involved.

"Even after everyone knew it was Dennis, already that effort by the Peace Corps to put the blame somewhere else. And to make things go away," says Weiss. "That impulse has seized the Peace Corps within moments of Deb's death."

Later that day, a Peace Corps official from Washington contacted Gardner's mother, Alice. Gardner's parents were divorced, and her father, Wayne, got the news while moose hunting in Alaska. "He told me my daughter was dead," recalls Wayne. "But they didn't know how she died or what. ... I was in shock."

Hons was pressed into service to take her body home. "It obviously shocked me to even think of that," he says. "I felt Mary George would take her home or Mike or someone."

Gardner's ashes were scattered in the waters off Puget Sound, and shortly thereafter, George wrote Deb's mother -- first offering condolences, and then urging sympathy for Priven.

Priven, meanwhile, was refusing to talk either to his lawyers or to the police. But his friends dropped by the jail frequently to chat.

Back in America, Gardner's death in faraway Tonga, went unreported. The Peace Corps issued its first press release on Nov. 2, election day. It was 19 days after she was murdered.

But there was no hiding the news in Tonga. "I think the Tongans were very angry that we had brought this terrible thing into the country," says Wilson.

Priven was going on hunger strikes every time the Tongans tried to move him to the maximum security prison outside town. "He used these hunger strikes as the Tongan officials understood as 'He's manipulating us. But we can't let him die on our watch, because we'll be blamed,'" says Weiss.
Tonga wasted no time, and Priven was in the dock less than two months after Gardner's brutal murder. "It was a great curiosity and the courthouse was jammed with students of Dennis, students of Debbie," says Weiss.

But there were no Peace Corps volunteers present, since George advised them to stay away. But she was present every day of the trial. Nathanson was also in the courtroom as part of his Peace Corps job at the Tonga Chronicle. He was the only reporter at the trial, which was one too many for George. "Mary George didn't want him going near the story," says Weiss.

Some of Priven's friends didn't want Nathanson telling the world either. "They sort of jumped on me about my coverage of the trial, that it was no good for the Peace Corps program. It certainly wasn't good for Dennis. After all, Dennis is one of us," recalls Nathanson. "And my response was, 'Well, what about Debbie Gardner, you know? Wasn't she one of us, too?' 'Well, she's gone. It's unfortunate. We have to worry about Dennis.'"

Prosecutor David Tupou never had tried a big murder case, but he was very confident. He had all the evidence from the crime scene, and eyewitnesses who had seen Priven leaving Gardner's house.

"They thought they had a slam dunk," says Weiss. But the defense had its own secret weapon: Clive Edwards, the greatest criminal defense lawyer in Tonga. He was paid by the Peace Corps to defend Priven.

Edwards says Priven refused to speak to him during the entire case and trial: "I thought there was something wrong with him." And Priven did nothing to correct that impression, and he sat stone-faced while his lawyer now simply dismissed the evidence as meaningless.

"There was no clear-cut evidence that he was, actually, responsible for the stabbing," says Edwards. "His knife was produced. But, his knife had been left there on other occasions."

The defense also had help from a bumbling police investigation. "They took crime-scene photos the next day, and failed to check the old camera, and they were empty [no film]," says Weiss. The only crime-scene photos were taken six days after the crime – and after friends had cleaned up the blood-soaked hut.

But the prosecution did have its eyewitness, To'a Pasa, who was 16 at the time of the trial. "They'd been trying everything ... and I said, 'No way. That's him I saw," recalls To'a. "It's, you know, I won't change my mind because it's the truth."

"It was the most dramatic moment in the trial. And he was unswerving throughout in his knowledge that that was Dennis Priven," says Weiss.

Faced with a convincing eyewitness, the defense suddenly changed its strategy. Priven would plead insanity, although no lawyer had ever argued an insanity defense in a Tongan court.

"They used words like 'possessed by devils' because the jury was a group of seven Tongan farmers, with elementary school education largely. They didn't speak English," says Weiss.

With the Peace Corps footing the bill, the defense even brought in Dr. Kosta Stojanovich, a psychiatrist from Hawaii with a resume a mile long. Weiss says he was the "most educated person the Tongans have ever seen in their lives."

Stojanovich testified that Priven suffered from latent schizophrenia, with episodes triggered by stress. He said that Priven was delusional and that he thought Gardner was an evil force who had to be destroyed. But he also said that Priven had no recollection at all of having killed her.

Tupou says he didn't believe it, but Tongans didn't have the money to bring in their own psychiatrist to say that. "I felt myself, a loner, outside. I'm not being helped," says Tupou. "And these are two Americans, both Peace Corps. They're helping one but not the other."

The trial lasted nine days, the longest in Tongan history. The verdict took 30 minutes. "The courtroom was jammed," says Weiss. "Students of Dennis were crouched at the window, staring at Dennis' face. And a policeman came to this door and said, 'He has been saved.'"

Priven was found not guilty by reason of insanity. "I think the Peace Corps was just dancing in the streets at that point," says Weiss. "It was jubilation."

Edwards never will forget what happened next. "Dennis would not speak to me, acknowledge me anywhere and then all of a sudden he comes, thanked me," he says, about the first time Priven had ever spoken to his lawyer. "I almost fell down. I was surprised."

Did he think Priven was really crazy? "I think he could be very shrewd," says Edwards.

"This guy is a genius in his own mind," says Weiss. "And he pulled off one of the greatest crimes in Polynesian history."
The insanity defense spared his life, but it left Priven's fate in limbo. The Tongans assumed that they would be able to deal with Priven, but Tonga had no mental hospital. So within hours of the verdict, the Peace Corps began its tug-of-war to get Priven off this island and home.

The State Department made promises in writing, pledging that if Priven was released to U.S. custody, he would be committed to a mental hospital until he no longer was a danger.

In January 1977, two friends and a Peace Corps doctor escorted Priven to Washington D.C. Fellow volunteers assumed that Priven was headed for treatment, but he had no intention of doing that. Instead, says Weiss, he demanded a ticket back to New York.

The Peace Corps did convince Priven to see a psychiatrist, assuming Priven again would be found insane, giving it leverage to commit him. But, to everyone's shock, the doctor concluded that Priven, at least on that day, was a danger to no one."

"This psychiatrist came to the belief that Dennis was not a paranoid schizophrenic, he was just a really somewhat disturbed guy who was led on by a girl who was the girl of his dreams," says Weiss. "And she led him on and shut the door, and he snapped and experienced a situational psychosis."

Priven couldn't be committed against his will, and there were no legal grounds to hold him. So Priven simply went home to Brooklyn. The new administration happily closed the books on this whole case, after helping him one last time.

"He's getting a passport a month after he gets back. He gets a completion of service, which is what any volunteer who completes his service gets," says Weiss. "Just like anybody else."

Weiss says Priven has led a small, anonymous life since then. He's divorced, and he recently retired after working for decades for the U.S. government.

"Twelve years after Deb's death, he was working for Social Security," says Weiss. "And ultimately was their top computer guy in the Brooklyn office."

Priven refused to talk to 48 Hours Mystery about the case. His former boss, Mary George, sent word that she, too, has nothing more to say. She left the Peace Corps and government in 1977.

Beyond that, Patrick Hogan, director of security for the Peace Corps today, begs off answering questions about this case. He says records are too incomplete to pass judgment. "An event such as this is like a death in the family, and compounded by the fact that another family member caused that death. We're very sorry," says Hogan.

Spencer asked him how officials could not have known that they'd have no control over what happened to Priven once he got home.

"I don't know what they knew. I don't know what they said," says Hogan. "I don't know what agreements or assertions they made to the government of Tonga. I simply don't know."

Spencer asks if he thinks the Peace Corps owes the Gardner family an apology? "To the extent that the Peace Corps of 28 years ago did not bear its responsibilities, that is most regrettable," says Hogan. "We are very sorry for the pain caused the Gardner family."

He insists that today, the family would have the support of a very different Peace Corps, welcome news to the Gardners, who feel the Peace Corps has been less than candid about Priven in the past.

"What I am now is angry at my government. I trusted them," says Gardner's father, Wayne.

But was Priven truly crazy, or was he disturbed and coldly calculating? "This guy has been able to lead a semi-normal life in Brooklyn, wearing his Giorgio Armani glasses and going to work at $80,000 a year in Social Security," says Weiss. "Now, he can't do that. He's known. What happened is known, and that will follow him to his grave.

Back in Tonga, the tiny kingdom Deb Gardner so loved, long memories are a part of tradition.

"I still believe that he'll live with it until the end of his days," says Telehiva Hive, a fellow teacher with Gardner. "If you commit a crime on the soil of Tonga, it will eventually find you out in the end."
  • Rebecca Leung

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