A Legend of the South Seas
No one forgets his first foreign country. The light, the architecture, the way they do their eggs. Red money. The dreamy disorientation. The smell of aviation fuel.
I didn't choose Samoa, John did. We were both 22 and starting out on a long backpacking trip, and he bought tickets in Los Angeles with six stops down through the Pacific. Samoa was after Hawaii. We got there in January 1978. We stayed at a Mormon family's house in the capital, Apia, climbed through jungle to Robert Louis Stevenson's grave, then set out for the bigger western island.
The Peace Corps volunteer was on the ferry, a redheaded guy with half a Samoan marriage tattoo on his back. Of course it turned out Bruce and John had grown up a few miles away from one another in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, so he had us back to his seaside village. We met his Samoan wife Ruta and stayed two or three nights.
It rains harder in Samoa than anywhere. The rain against the metal roof made a throaty song that rose and fell, and under a kerosene lantern, as we dined on one of his chickens, Bruce told us about the murder.
A year or so back in the neighboring country of Tonga, a male Peace Corps volunteer had brutally killed a female volunteer by repeatedly stabbing her. There had been some kind of triangle, a Tongan man was involved. Then the American man was gotten off the island. The case had caused all kinds of tension between the Peace Corps and island governments.
Bruce didn't know more than that, didn't know names or dates. The story had passed from one island to another as stories always did in Polynesia, by word of mouth. The only difference between this story and others was that it involved Americans.
And already then, when I heard the legend in my first foreign country, there was a sense that something was wrong. That the original wrong had been compounded.
Ten years went by. I started working as a journalist in New York, and one night at a bar I met another writer, who said that he had been in the Peace Corps. "Where?" "Tonga. I was in Tonga, the first group of volunteers to the Kingdom."
I asked whether he had heard Bruce's story.
"Oh, yes," Fred said. "Later volunteers told me something. Elsa Mae Swenson, that name comes back. That was the victim."
Her name was Deborah Ann Gardner. The next day in the New York Public Library I found the one article about the case that appeared in the New York Times, an inch or two at the bottom of page 7 in January 1977. The wire story was based on an account from the Chronicle, the government newspaper of Tonga, and said that the male volunteer was from New York and a Tongan jury had found him to be insane when he killed her.
Of course I looked him up in the New York phone book, and there he was. He had been listed from a couple of years after the murder.
I called the Peace Corps. Privacy law would be an important factor in any disclosure. "His rights are basically uppermost at this time," a lawyer explained. So I made a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act, and a few months later a package of old records arrived at my apartment with a lot of the pages blacked out.
Deborah Gardner was 23 and a teacher. She lived in a one-room hut in a village at the edge of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. She had been there nearly ten and a half months when she died in October 1976. The older volunteer charged with her murder faced possible hanging. The American government went to considerable lengths to defend him. A lawyer came from New Zealand and a psychiatrist from Hawaii. It was the longest trial in Tongan memory.
After the insanity verdict, the two governments went back and forth. Then the King of Tonga and his cabinet released the man on written assurance from the Americans that he was to be hospitalized back in the United States.
He refused to enter a hospital. The Peace Corps had lacked the power to make him do so, or the will. The case quietly disappeared.
The key was Deborah Gardner's family. Why had they never come forward? Their names and addresses were blacked out of the file on privacy grounds, and though she was from the Tacoma area, there were hundreds of Gardners listed in the local phone books. I made a few calls and sent a few letters, but before long I got on to something else and, telling myself I would return to this story someday, I put the file away in its big rough brown envelope, put the envelope in a box, and put the box in the attic.
Someday turned out to be 1997. I was hiking with a writer friend when he said that Travel and Leisure magazine was sending him to, of all places, the Kingdom of Tonga because it would be the first country in the world to see sunrise on the millennium and had announced a giant celebration.
"That's funny, I have a Tonga story," I said, and told him about the murder.
Michael stopped in the path. "Why are you working on anything else?"
I dug out the old file and searched for any clues to the identity of Deborah Gardner's family. A fellow volunteer had accompanied her body home. Though the name of the "boy escort" was blacked out on privacy grounds, some of the blackouts were sloppy and it was possible to piece his identity together. Emile Hons of California.
An Emile Hons was listed in San Bruno. I called a few times and left messages, finally got him.
Yes, he'd been in Peace Corps/Tonga. Now he ran the big shopping mall in San Bruno. He was guarded, and questioned my information.
"There may have been a triangle, but if there was it involved two palangis, not a Tongan," he said, using the Polynesian word for a person of European descent.
We chatted and Emile seemed to get more comfortable.
"I lived right next to Debbie. I went to the movies that night. When I got home, I opened her door and it was solid blood. I was lucky to bring the body home. She was a beautiful person. Physically, but in spirit also. She was very kind."
But he hadn't stayed in touch with the family, didn't remember their names.
"Her parents were divorced. She had a big woodsy-type guy as a father."
I called Peace Corps headquarters again to see whether the long passage of time might have eased restrictions on the family's names. The information officer was quite surprised.
"This happened twenty-one years ago," he said. "You're the second person to call me about it today."
Jan Worth was a former Peace Corps volunteer, now a poet in Michigan. She was writing a novel about her Tongan experience with the murder in the background. She still thought about Deborah Gardner.
"I'd just arrived in the country, and Peace Corps had a big party for us. We were so grubby, and we were supposed to be modest. She showed up in this white dress. Long brown hair. Beautiful skin. I thought, How dare she look so great? Then a few days later she was dead. Part of the power of the event was her beauty. You couldn't talk about her without there being this halo over her.
"Then all of a sudden we were cast in the dark shadowy side of things. That shadow lasted for the whole time we were there."
Jan had put a classified ad in a Peace Corps newsletter, seeking information about the murder, and several former volunteers had gotten in touch with her to say they were still troubled by the case. One of them had also begun to write about it. So now there were three of us trying to get it into print, trying to end the legend.
For Mike Basile, the murder was the most tragic experience of his life. He had been number two on the Peace Corps staff in Tonga. Now in his mid-fifties, an academic in international studies, he felt the need to make a public record of these events before it was too late. He had begun to do so in the form of long letters to a Peace Corps buddy from his own service in Turkey.
In one letter, Basile described going with his boss to the Tongan hospital at 1 A.M. on the night of the murder.
"Dr. Puloka and Mary, my director, were sitting in the air-conditioned morgue beside the bed on which Debbie's body lay. Puloka rose when we entered, lifted the linen that had been placed over her naked body, her face remaining uncovered throughout. 'She showed some signs of life,' he reported, with some emotion, 'shortly before she was brought here by her neighbors. . . .' I looked, fixed on her. She was beautiful. The puncture wounds were not so evident to my furtive eye, as I concentrated on her face, one that I had seen in my office only the previous week. . . .
"She was sensual, full of young womanliness."
Mike had used Deborah's real name, but was calling the murderer "Joseph." In her novel, Jan was calling him "Mort Jensen."
Both were apprehensive. Deborah Gardner had been stabbed twenty-two times with a large knife, apparently out of feelings of jealousy and betrayal, then the man had gone free and no one knew about it. One reason the case haunted people was their sense that the killer had controlled its outcome, manipulating a number of other parties with a strong interest in the matter, and that the U.S. government—or some small segment of it, anyway—had gone along if only because it did not want the story to come out.
Jan Worth and Mike Basile both understood themselves to be breaking an old seal just by sitting down to write about it. "Something that scares me, twentyone years later, could people that want to talk about it be targets?" Jan said. "Do you think the story will finally be told?" Mike said.
I told Jan that when she finished her novel I'd write an article about it— FIRST NOVEL UNEARTHS LEGEND OF 1976 PEACE CORPS MURDER — and go knock on the killer's door.
So I called him once, just to hear the sound of his household on a Saturday morning. A man answered with a somewhat wired, ethnic voice, sounding alone. I hung up.
A few seconds later my own phone rang. I looked at it as though it might hurt me, and didn't touch it.
A year or two later, Jan sent me the first chapter of her book.
"For most of the volunteers, coming to the Kingdom was just about the sexiest thing they'd ever done," she wrote." You could feel the heat in any group of volunteers. They found each other in dark corners and at the end of the table at the Tonga Club, and talked passionately about everything that was going on. Usually somebody'd be feeling somebody else's thigh at the time. The volunteers eventually got together when the desire—as physical as thirst and not at all discriminating— was just too much to bear."
I'd thought about this story half my life and never really left my desk. I made plans to go to Tacoma.
From "American Taboo" by Philip Weiss. HarperCollins Publishers.
Used by permission.