Murder in the Peace Corps: Sky TV, July 29, 2016 (Tonga)

Photo by PCV Frank Bevacqua

Photo by PCV Frank Bevacqua (Tonga 1975-77)

I heard recently from Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78) that she and Emile Hons (Tonga 1974-76) were interviewed by two UK freelance producers from Sky TV about the Deborah Gardner Peace Corps 1976 murder in Tonga. The documentary is part of a series called “Passport to Murder” produced for Discovery ID TV. Their segment is luridly titled “The Devil in Paradise.” It is scheduled to air on July 29, 2016.

As Jan wrote me, “Its amazing how that brutal story keeps going and going and going. It affected me strongly to talk about it again and think about it again after 40 years.

Jan Worth-Nelson is a writer and former writing professor at the University of Michigan–Flint. She has published in a wide variety of publications, from the Christian Science Monitor to Midwestern Gothic. Her “Beam, Arch, Pillar, Porch: a Love Story” appears in the new Happy Anyway: The Flint Anthology from Belt Publishing.

Jan has an MFA from the famous Warren Wilson College creative writing program. Her 2006 novel Night Blind is based on the “Gardner murder.”

Night Blind

As Jan wrote me, “Deb’s’ tragic story is deeply significant in my life, although I barely knew her, not to mention the dozens of others affected by her brutal death and its aftermath.  “48 Hours” ran the 2005 show about the murder.

“She was killed by Dennis Priven, a spurned suitor and, obviously, murderously mentally ill young man.

In a 2008 blog post after the 48 hours piece reran, Jan wrote,”This is the story my novel Night Blind is based on. It was wrenching this cold and snowy January night to see old friend Emile Hons emotionally recall the events of that terrible night and the weeks that followed. It was good once again to see New York journalist Phil Weiss on the scene in Tonga retelling the story in his quest to get a measure of justice for Debbie. It was good to see Rick Nathanson, my fellow volunteer whose job was to be a reporter at the Tonga Chronicle, retell his story, and to see the old photos of him — a curly-haired and feisty kid who kept stubbornly reporting the story even though Peace Corps wanted him to shut up. The story of how PC Country Director Mary George twisted the facts and unaccountably repeatedly tried to protect Priven doesn’t get any more palatable with the years — how she and Peace Corps Washington responded is still a craven miscarriage of justice, a dark embarrassment. My heart went out to Mike Basile, our assistant country director, as he remembered that awful autumn — he was put in a terrible position and one feels as if he’s never quite come to terms with it.

“All through these decades I’ve contended the Peace Corps is one of the best American programs ever, but delving once again into this story, the doubts come back. The Peace Corps bureaucrats should have been ashamed. As volunteers, we were all so young, so clueless — we wanted to believe, after Vietnam, after Kent State, after the Detroit riots, after the assassinations, that just one thing from our U.S. of A. could be full of grace. Instead, we got a tragedy and its grievously mishandled aftermath that has stayed with us, demolishing our trust and exacerbating our cynicism. Those of us who lived to tell about it have gone on with our lives. I finally wrote my book, which took me thirty years. And I feel better for it. But it’s not how it should have been. Debbie Gardner shouldn’t have died. It’s a dirty shame.

“But, thinking about the show over night, I come back to this blog entry to add further reflections. It would be grossly unfair to let one homicidal volunteer and one bad country director define the whole Peace Corps, which over its 47 years has placed thousands of volunteers into dozens of countries. The Peace Corps’ history isn’t perfect, but as I noted in my NYC podcast (, it is an international program with a brain AND a heart, and has had an immensely transformative effect on several generations of young Americans.”

The Murder of Deborah Gardner

For those who do not know of this terrible Peace Corps murder, this, briefly, is what happened in Tonga, years ago,

Deborah Gardner joined the Peace Corps in 1975 and was assigned to Tonga where she taught science and home economics in Nukualofa, the capital. It was there that she met Dennis Privan, who had already been in Tonga for a year with the Peace Corps.

Priven became obsessed, it is said, with Gardner who did not share his feelings. This came to a head one night when she accepted a dinner invitation from him. At dinner, he gave her an expensive present and when he made his “moves” she fled his house and ‘escaped’ on a bike.

Priven, however, kept trying to ‘win’ Gardner over and it became so difficult for Deborah that she requested a transfer to another island. Meanwhile, Priven, tried to get his tour extended another year.

The Peace Corps Director denied both requests.

A few months before Priven was to leave Tonga, there was a Peace Corps party and both Priven and Gardner attended. At this party, Priven would see Gardner leave with another guy and he became furious.

A week later, on the 14th of October, he killed Deborah Gardner.

Deb Gardner

Deb Gardner

A neighbor heard screams from Gardner’s house and ran to the house. He saw Priven dragging Gardner out of her home and when Priven saw the man, he fled on his bike.

Gardner died shortly after that in the hospital with 22 stab wounds but not before she named her assailant, Dennis Priven.

Priven then attempted suicide by taking Darvon and cutting his wrists, but then he changed his mind and sought out a friend to accompany him to the police and turned himself in. He was charged with murder and put on tried in Tonga.

At the trial Priven was represented by the lawyer Clive Edwards, who would later become deputy Prime Minister of Tonga. A psychiatrist hired by the Peace Corps testified that Priven was schizophrenic, claiming to be Gardner’s Jesus Christ and that Gardner was possessed by the devil. Priven was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Despite the verdict, the Tongan justice system was reluctant to release Priven. After receiving a letter from the U.S. State Department promising he would be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, Tonga handed him over to the U.S. government. When he arrived in the U.S., however, Priven requested to be released and he was, as the government discovered it had no legal grounds to hold him.

Under pressure from his family and the Peace Corps, Priven ultimately agreed to a psychiatric evaluation. He was interviewed by a psychiatrist associated with the hospital where the government had intended him to serve his commitment. His diagnosis fit the prosecution’s theory; Priven had suffered a “situational psychosis” after being rejected by Gardner. Since the diagnosis determined that Priven was not schizophrenic, he could not be committed.

Priven returned to New York City after he was released by the Peace Corps. His official record was ‘cleared’ of any crime and he went to work for the Social Security Administration until his retirement.

The Peace Corps has been criticized for its handling of the murder, particularly since American Taboo, a book by American TabooPhilip Weiss, on the case was published in 2005, acquainting a wider public with the details. Criticisms include that Priven’s defense in Tonga was supplied by the Peace Corps, that the Peace Corps allegedly went to great efforts to bury the incident, and that Priven was not suffering from a psychiatric disorder that would have allowed him to mount a successful psychiatric defense in an American court.

In 2005, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle looked into the possibility of bringing charges against Dennis Priven for the murder of Deborah Gardner but concluded that Priven could not be tried in any jurisdiction in the United States. Although a 1994 law allows prosecutors to bring charges against an American citizen who kills another American citizen while overseas, and the PATRIOT Act  allows US Courts to try Americans for crimes they may have committed while overseas, neither of these laws were in effect at the time the murder occurred in 1976 and they cannot therefore be applied retroactively to the Gardner murder case, the US Attorney’s office concluded.

Although Priven’s psychiatrist at his trial in Tonga testified that Priven suffered from latent paranoid schizophrenia, a panel of psychiatrists who discussed the murder as a case study in 2005 concluded that Priven was probably suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, which manifests as obsessive involvement with one’s own interests and lack of empathy for others. They further concluded that had he been charged in an American court, he would not have been able to mount a successful defense “by reason of insanity.

Further Note:

Emile Hons, good friend of Deborah, was involved in the prequel and aftermath of the murder trial. He was also picked by the Peace Corps in-country to accompany her body back to the United States. When he returned to the Peace Corps HQ in D.C. he was, however, “questioned” by the agency, (my guess the lawyers) as if he was ‘somehow” involved with the murder, even though Dennis Priven had already confessed and all the evidence supported that admission. I am told those terrible events and months afterwards have left a permanent mark on Emile who has today written a film script of the murder and seeking a producer. Emile, also, and on his own, is still involved with his host country and has many trips back to Tonga helping to raise funds for the islands.

For the majority of the 80 plus Tonga PCVs who served on the island during that time, the fact that Priven still remains “at large” continues to be a huge miscarriage of justice and a sad example of Peace Corps bureaucratic bungling.

If you want to read more about the murder of Deborah, check out an interview with Emile Hons from the East Bay Times:




Leave a comment
  • Well researched and written, and a necessary preamble to the TV installment scheduled for July 29 on Discovery ID, which will no doubt be sensationalized for its audience. I was in the same Peace Corps group as Jan Worth-Nelson. Most of us had met Debbie Gardner but did not know her, as we had been in Tonga for less than a month and were still in training. But we were deeply impacted by the tragedy and it cast a pall on our service time there, hence our long-term interest in bringing it to light so that some societal justice might be served, despite lack of justice via the court system. Thanks to John Coyne for being so thorough in recounting and updating this tragic story.

  • Debbie was like a cool breeze on a hot day. She lit up any room she entered and you always gravitated towards her. I knew her for a year before her murder and that was only as a colleague, a fellow Volunteer. I also knew Dennis for we were in the same group. I think about Debbie every once in a while; Dennis…never!

  • I knew Dennis in his late teens and early 20’s. I was a camper. He was a counselor. I looked up to him. It freaks me out that he got a job to take care of young boys only a few years before he was considered, at least temporarily, schizophrenic. He was subdued and possibly quite depressed. I never sensed that he was crazy or capable of such a heinous crime. I feel very badly for the Gardner family and that the beautiful and happy young woman never got a chance to live out her life. It doesn’t seem fair that Mr Priven has gotten to live out his.

  • I was a student in Tonga when this terrible crime took place. Debbie was a beautiful young woman. Dennis was a stocky guy. He and other PC used to play basketball in the LDS building in Haveluloto.

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