We all blame Peace Corps Staff for something, and sometimes we’re right, but what went particularly wrong with the administration, both in Africa and in Washington, D.C., was what they did (and didn’t do) involving the tragic murder of Kate Puzey in Benin in 2009. What is particularly galling is that the Acting Director of the agency at the time of the murder was an RPCV Jody Olsen (Tunisia 1966-68) who has made a career of working for the agency, mostly through Republican connections from Utah (So much for In, UP and Out!) and she should have known how to take care of PCVs and their families, but she didn’t. Olsen was followed in the job by Director Aaron William (Dominican Republic 1967-70) and while eventually he apologized to the Puzey Family, he was famous for hiding under his deck when asked to speak to news agency. At one point, Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83), showing courage for the agency, went to Atlanta and appeared on 20/20 and was blinded sided on camera with facts and information she didn’t even have! It was a period that was so bad for the agency that no one in the administration would come near the Peace Corps when we celebrated the 50th Anniversary. Now much of the blame can be focus on the incompetent Non-RPCV Schedule-C political hacks in the Peace Corps’ Public Relations Office (which they call a Press Office) who just wanted to sweep the brutal in-country murder under the rug, but the real lack of leadership by Olsen and Williams hurt the Peace Corps and showed that these two RPCVs were more interested in protecting themselves than Volunteers.
Now, thankfully, we have Volunteers who served with Kate Puzey, and who have stepped up to set the record straight. And recently Aaron Kase published an e-book on the murder and we had the opportunity to talk to him about the tragedy and his new book.
Aaron, tell us a little about yourself.
Well, I grew up in Philadelphia, then got a degree in history at Grinnell College in Iowa.
After college, I got a generic office job and wasn’t thrilled about the career trajectory it offered, so I decided to join the Peace Corps because it offered a challenge, and an adventure. I saw it as a unique opportunity to experience a life totally different from what I had known.
Q. Where did the Peace Corps send you?
I was a small business volunteer in Burkina Faso from 2006 to 2008. I worked in a rural village called Zogore. My primary project was to encourage agroforestry and combat desertification, and with a counterpart, I was also involved with other projects like wood-conserving stoves, beekeeping, HIV/AIDS outreach and even a student newspaper.
Q. With that background, how did you get involved with the Kate Puzey’s murder and end up writing a book about the crime?
Shortly after I returned home from Burkina Faso I heard about Kate Puzey’s murder in her rural village in Benin. The news was completely shocking because she lived in very similar circumstances to me and so many of my friends, and our villages always seemed like the safest places in the world. Foul play was unthinkable. It wasn’t until about two years later when I was working for a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia that I learned of the larger circumstances surrounding Kate’s death and how mistakes by her Peace Corps office may have contributed to it. I had the Peace Corps contacts, I knew the language and the culture of West Africa, and I had training in writing and reporting, so it felt like I had no choice but to pursue the story. There was also a personal side after I met Kate’s family at a memorial to her in Washington D.C. I wanted to do what I could to help push the case toward a resolution, or at least make people more aware of it.
Q. For RPCVs who do not know of the murder, how would you sum up what occurred in Benin?
Kate had informed Peace Corps Benin that one of her teaching colleagues in the village, who was also a Peace Corps contractor, was suspected of serial sexual misconduct with his students. Peace Corps then told the contractor he would not be rehired, and why, creating a potentially dangerous situation because he could easily guess who had told on him. The office didn’t take any steps to ensure Kate’s safety, or even make sure that she was aware of their plan so she could act to protect herself.
Q. Having heard about the murder and meeting the family, what were your next steps towards writing your book about it? Did you return to Africa?
First, I spoke with several of Kate’s friends from the Peace Corps to hear their stories and get contacts for who to talk to in Benin. Then I flew to Benin for on-the-ground reporting.
Q. When was this?
Kate was killed in March 2009. I visited her village in June 2011. I spent several days in Badjoude, the village where Kate lived for nearly two years, and spoke with her friends, colleagues and neighbors to learn more about her life in Benin and what had occurred over her final days. Numerous people were incredibly generous with their time and assistance to help me build a more complete picture of the story, although I can’t say I discovered anything with a meaningful impact in regard to finally resolving the case. The biggest thing that stood out to me was the depth of the community’s grieving more than two years after the fact, which speaks to the impact that Kate made on her village.
Q. Did you ever get in touch with anyone at the Peace Corps HQ in D.C.?
I reached out to Peace Corps but they weren’t commenting, due to the ongoing nature of the investigation. I also filed a FOIA with the agency for information regarding the case but didn’t receive much that was new or useful. Most notably, a report conducted by the Inspector General regarding the agency’s actions before and after the murder has still not been released.
Q. What should Peace Corps HQ, the Director, etc., done when this happened, in your opinion?
The Peace Corps informed Kate’s father of her death via telephone, while he was in the hospital for cancer treatment. Then they dumped her belongings unaccompanied in the family’s driveway. Kate’s family said they were subsequently stonewalled and treated like a PR or liability problem, as opposed to a grieving family.
Outside of the circumstances of this particular incident, Peace Corps does have risks and a few volunteers die each year in the course of their service. I think it’s important to acknowledge those risks and treat the families of volunteers humanely in the event something does happen. Hopefully reform legislation passed in 2011 which includes improved next-of-kin notification practices will be effective.
The law also included whistle-blower protections for volunteers to report problems with Peace Corps staff members. There’s no way to anticipate every situation, however, so hopefully the big takeaway is that country headquarters around the globe got a wakeup call to never act cavalierly when it comes to the safety of their volunteers.
Q. Who was the Peace Corps Director at the time?
It was Acting Director Jody Olsen. Aaron S. Williams took over full-time in August 2011 and eventually apologized to the Puzey family for their treatment by the Peace Corps.
Q. What’s taking place in-country now about a trial?
Every year, there are rumors that there could be a trial in November, and then it doesn’t happen. Last year, Congress asked the FBI to take a more active role in the investigation to try to turn up more evidence that could finally lead to a trial. I don’t know of any developments since then.
Q. How is the best way for people to read your book, Murder in Benin: Kate Puzey’s Death in the Peace Corps ?
Q. And yourself, Aaron, what are you doing?
I’m continuing my writing career with a mix of corporate gigs and reporting for online magazines like VICE Munchies and Reset.me. My favorite piece I’ve published recently is the story of eco-warrior Peter Berg, for nattative.ly. To see more you can visit my website ataaronkase.com or follow me on Twitter @aaron_kase
An excerpt from Aaron Kate’s book Murder in Benin
After the murder, volunteers contend that they were kept in the dark by the Peace Corps. Administrators contacted them to tell them that Kate had died, but mentioned nothing about a murder until the news was aired on Beninese radio. Since Kate had been sick, some volunteers initially thought that she died from malaria, or maybe had been in a car accident. Other than answering some questions for a Peace Corps Inspector General investigation, Kate’s friends say they felt left out of any official inquiries and wondered why the American Embassy, Peace Corps, and FBI wouldn’t be more interested in what they might have known. Since her cohort closed service in the summer of 2009, they’ve struggled to stay up to date on the trial. “We tried, almost, I would say desperately would be an appropriate adverb - to remain in the loop,” says Megan Grann. “But that was like pulling teeth.”
Meanwhile, the entire Peace Corps Benin staff involved has since left the agency.
Jacques Bio and Florence Honvo-Bello were forced to resign, followed by Sheryl Cowan’s resignation in June 2009, a move characterized by some Peace Corps employees as falling on the sword. The former country director has been barred from speaking about the murder as part of her resignation agreement.
While former volunteers remain unhappy with Peace Corps Benin, the Puzey family had an even worse experience with the agency’s national headquarters. When the news broke, the Peace Corps chose to telephone Kate’s father, even though there is a Peace Corps regional office in Atlanta and it would have been a simple matter to deliver the news in person. Harry Puzey, battling cancer, was lying in a hospital bed and hooked to an I.V. when he learned via telephone that his daughter had been killed. Later, when the Peace Corps returned Kate’s things to her family, they dropped them unaccompanied in the driveway. After that, the Puzey family had difficulty even reaching anyone in the Peace Corps, and attempts to get information were met with stonewalling. Subsequent Beninese country directors after Cowan were instructed to in no way communicate with the victim’s family.
“In all cases, the Peace Corps treated us like a potential legal or public relations problem rather than a grieving family suffering an unthinkable tragedy,” Lois Puzey said in written congressional testimony about the case.
The Peace Corps Inspector General conducted an investigation after the murder, interviewing volunteers and staff members, but attempts to see the results have also been blocked. The Peace Corps has claimed the report is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act Law because it relates to an ongoing investigation. However, the Inspector General did agree to meet with the Puzey family, and confirmed to them without revealing more details that there had been a breech of confidentiality within the Peace Corps Benin office prior to Kate’s death.