by Tricia L. Nadolny, Donovan Slack, Nick Penzenstadler
and Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — An American Peace Corps employee in Tanzania in 2019 killed a mother of three and injured two others in a series of car crashes that began after he left a bar where he had been drinking and brought a sex worker back to his government-leased home. Witnesses pelted the man’s car with rocks and pursued on motorcycles as he fled the scenes of his crimes. The chaotic and deadly episode ended when he slammed into a pole and was detained by police.
But within hours, Peace Corps and U.S. Embassy staff rushed the man onto a plane and out of the country. Tanzanian authorities were unable to charge him first, and the U.S. Department of Justice later declined to file criminal charges because of a lack of jurisdiction.
The man remained on Peace Corps staff for 18 months before resigning in February, the agency said.
The incident was briefly mentioned in a June report to Congress from the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General. But the summary is sparse and lacks key details. It does not say when the incident happened, identify the African nation where it took place, name the employee or say how much in U.S. taxpayer dollars was spent in the aftermath. It also does not identify the woman he killed, who is referred to only as a “street vendor.”
USA TODAY has since interviewed nearly a dozen sources familiar with the Aug. 24, 2019, incident, including Americans who knew of the events at the time and relatives of the woman who was killed, several of whom were at the scene of the crash in Dar es Salaam. The newspaper’s investigation identified the driver as John M. Peterson, then the 65-year-old director of management and operations for the Peace Corps in Tanzania.
The woman Peterson killed was 47-year-old Rabia Issa, who was the primary breadwinner in her family, according to her relatives. Issa was gathering firewood around dawn at the roadside stand where she sold fried cassava and other foods when a small SUV barreled off the street and hit her, her sister Hadija Issa said.
Family members of Rabia Issa gather Dec. 9 at their home in the Msasani neighborhood of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.“When we arrived at the scene, we found a huge crowd of onlookers looking at the lifeless body of our sister draped in a cloth lying on the ground,” she said in Swahili, tears rolling down her cheeks as she stood amid the labyrinth of concrete shacks where she lives.
Issa’s family keeps a faded black and white copy of Peterson’s Tanzanian driver’s license they said police gave them. They said they know little else about Peterson and believed he worked at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam.
Relatives of Rabia Issa have kept this photocopy of John Peterson’s drivers license they said police gave them after her death.“We don’t know anything about the man who killed my mother,” Benja Issa, Rabia Issa’s 23-year-old son, said. “When we went to the police the following day, he had already been released, and the car was taken away from the police station.”
The disturbing episode clashes with the Peace Corps’ aspirational mission of promoting “world peace and friendship” and raises new questions about whether those in charge of fulfilling that promise have done so at the expense of the communities they and the agency’s volunteers are meant to serve. In response to an investigation earlier this year by USA TODAY into the agency’s mishandling of sexual assaults of volunteers, officials in recent months have pledged to undertake reforms and increase transparency. Yet Peterson’s case shows the federal agency quietly cleaned up the deadly incident, and two years later, officials refuse to answer key questions about what happened.
Carol Spahn, the agency’s chief executive, declined to be interviewed for this article. In a written statement, she said Rabia Issa’s “tragic death broke my heart and horrified me. Nothing can replace the loss of Ms. Issa’s life or heal the harm experienced by so many, and my condolences go out to her family, the other victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by this tragedy,” said Spahn, who was country director in Malawi at the time of the incident.
Of Peterson, she added, “The actions of this individual are in total contradiction to the values of the Peace Corps, and we strongly condemn them.”
Former Peace Corps director Jody Olsen, who led the agency at the time of the incident under the Donald Trump administration, did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives from the White House and the State Department, which was led at the time by Mike Pompeo, also declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests for comment.
Peterson, now 67, lives in Maryland, according to property records. USA TODAY attempted to reach him by phone, mail and in person. A man resembling photos of Peterson on his Tanzanian drivers license and posted online answered the door at his home. The man told a reporter he wasn’t Peterson, then said, “I don’t want you talking about me,” before closing the door. Two women associated with Peterson, one who identified herself as a relative, told a reporter they would let Peterson know about USA TODAY’s inquiries. The women did not respond to later calls or messages.
A Peace Corps spokeswoman told USA TODAY the agency in December 2019 expressed condolences and provided financial compensation to Rabia Issa’s family and to one other individual injured in the incident. The spokeswoman declined to disclose how much was paid to Peterson’s victims and their families.
Rabia Issa’s relatives told USA TODAY they received 20 million Tanzanian shillings, the equivalent of about $8,700, after her death and were told the money came from the company that insured Peterson’s vehicle. By the time they received that payment, they said they had already been evicted from their home because they could not afford the rent.
The Peace Corps has a long history in Tanzania, which was one of the first two countries to participate in the program when it was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. In the 60 years since, the agency has deployed more than 241,000 Americans to countries around the globe for typically two years of service. To do so, officials must maintain an often delicate balance with the foreign governments that welcome volunteers into its borders — a relationship that in Tanzania was already strained before Peterson killed Rabia Issa.
An official at the Tanzania Embassy in Washington referred questions about the incident to the country’s ministry of foreign affairs, saying that “since the unfortunate event happened in Tanzania,” officials there were better suited to address it. A spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs did not answer questions about the incident.
While word of Peterson’s actions quickly traveled to officials at the Peace Corps in Washington, volunteers serving in Tanzania at the time were never told what had happened. Days after the incident, country director Nelson Cronyn informed volunteers and staff in an email that Peterson was “out of the country on leave, possibly for an extended time.”
In an odd coincidence, three days after Peterson killed Rabia Issa, the wife of an American diplomat in the United Kingdom was accused of striking and killing a 19-year-old motorcyclist while driving on the wrong side of the road, sparking an international scandal. The woman, Anne Sacoolas, left the country, and U.S. officials declined to extradite her to face charges. The incident prompted a debate about diplomatic immunity, an agreement under which certain foreign diplomats and their families are protected against prosecution in foreign countries. (Overseas Peace Corps employees do not have diplomatic immunity.) The teen’s family, aided by a team of lawyers, later filed a lawsuit against Sacoolas in Virginia and reached a settlement this year. Its terms were not disclosed. U.K. court officials said last week they will try Sacoolas on criminal charges in early 2022, but it’s unclear if she will appear in person or by video.
There has been no such outrage or outpouring of support for Rabia Issa and her family.
They said they are struggling to pay for essentials and for Issa’s youngest son’s education. One sister said they dream of starting a small business to support the family, as she once had.
They also hope to see Peterson punished some day for what he did and said they believe the U.S. government owes them an apology for its role in helping Peterson avoid justice.
Roland Ebole, an expert on East Africa with Amnesty International based in Kenya, said he was not surprised to hear that U.S. officials quickly spirited Peterson out of the country, given the United States’ fraught relationship with the regime of then-President John Magufuli. Ebole said while incidents of this severity are rare in Africa, it is not uncommon for expatriates from western countries who commit lesser crimes, such as assault, to be ferried home.
“Justice rarely prevails because locals don’t have much power to follow it all the way to the end,” Ebole said.
Several individuals who spoke with USA TODAY about the situation did so on the condition that they not be named, given the politically sensitive nature of the incident. One former volunteer who learned about the incident when it happened said she was so disturbed that Peterson faced no consequences, while a local family was left to grieve, that she tried to bury the memories. Two years later, it still gnaws at her. “It was shocking and very upsetting,” she said.
“The people who normally work for Peace Corps, and the volunteers especially, they’re really great people. They’re there to help and support and empower people,” she added. “And incidents like these are tragic and terrible and need to be handled properly, because we don’t want them to be black stains on the organization. Hiding them is just creating a blacker stain.”
Report: Drinking, sex, preceded chaotic chase and fatal crash
Peterson started working for the Peace Corps in Dar es Salaam, the bustling commercial capital on the coast of the Indian Ocean, in 2017, payroll records show. Raised in Iowa, he previously served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in the 1980s, according to a blog post written by a relative. He later moved around West and South Africa working in the foreign aid community.
In 2019, Peterson was one of four American employees in the Dar es Salaam office, which was mostly staffed by Tanzanian nationals. As the director of management and operations, he was in charge of a range of administrative duties, including overseeing the post’s finances. He made roughly $135,000 a year, payroll records show.
The events that led to his abrupt departure are briefly detailed in a 259-word summary from the agency’s inspector general, Kathy Buller. Buller declined to be interviewed for this article, and her office declined to provide additional details about the incident, directing reporters to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The watchdog’s summary, along with USA TODAY’s reporting, shows the events began after Peterson drank an “undetermined amount of alcohol” at a bar, picked up a sex worker and drove her in his diplomatic-plated Toyota RAV4 to his government-leased home. The neighborhood, known as the Msasani Peninsula, is frequented by expats and wealthy Tanzanians. The area has embassies and popular bars but also pockets of shanty housing.
Peterson paid the woman for sex, according to the inspector general. Around 5 a.m., he drove her back to the area where he had picked her up and, though it was a clear and dry morning, struck a bystander on the way. The woman’s injuries were severe but not life-threatening. A group of angry onlookers gathered, and when Peterson took off — with the sex worker still in the passenger seat — motorcycle drivers chased close behind.
He plowed through a sharp turn and hit Issa as she was setting up her food stand. Peterson kept driving. A short distance later, the sex worker leapt from the moving vehicle and was injured. Eventually, Peterson slammed into a pole and was detained by police.
By the time police made it to Issa, she was dead. Bystanders watched as her body was covered with a cloth.
Rabia Issa was setting up her food stand at this corner around dawn on Aug. 24, 2019 when a small SUV barreled off the street and struck her.Her family said she had woken before dawn that morning and left the home she shared with several relatives, making her way through the dark streets of Dar es Salaam to the corner where she earned the equivalent of about $10 a day selling cassava, doughnuts and plates of rice and meat.
The second oldest of eight siblings, Issa was the first of her family to move to Dar es Salaam from Tunduru, a township in southern Tanzania near the border with Mozambique, where she was born. Her siblings said she hoped to make a better life in the city, and other relatives soon followed.
Two of her sisters — 33-year-old Rehema Issa and 27-year-old Hamida Issa — said they often helped their sister at the food stand and were preparing to join her when they heard about the car crash.
“Neighbors told us about the shocking news, which left us completely devastated,” Rehema Issa said.
Benja Issa, the oldest son of Rabia Issa.Benja Issa, Rabia Issa’s oldest son, said the money they received after her death did not go far. He said about 7 million Tanzanian shillings was taken by middlemen who helped the family communicate with officials from what he believed to be the company that insured Peterson’s vehicle. Of the roughly $6,000 that was left, some went to repairs on the family’s home in Tunduru and to payments on a loan Rabia Issa had taken out for one son’s schooling, Benja Issa said.
Four relatives now live in a single room and Rabia Issa’s children, who had lived with her before her death, are scattered. Relatives sent her youngest, 9-year-old Ausi Mohamed Issa, to live with his grandmother in Tunduru. Her 19-year-old son Gudluck Hamidu Issa is studying at a boys government boarding school in the southwest corner of the country, nearly 400 miles away.
Benja Issa had the solemn task of identifying his mother’s body at the hospital morgue. She had suffered internal bleeding and a brain hemorrhage, he said. On her death certificate, the cause of death was summarized in a single word — unnatural.
The family buried her the next day in a cinderblock-walled Muslim cemetery near their home, beneath the shade of a neem tree. The grave is marked with a simple curved headstone, her name handwritten into the concrete slab.
“I feel a stabbing pain in my heart,” Benja Issa said through tears. “This man ended the life of my mother. My brothers and I are suffering because of him, yet there’s nothing we can do.”
Hasty evacuation leaves scant public records, accountability for Peace Corps worker
After killing Rabia Issa and smashing into a pole, Peterson was detained by Tanzanian authorities. They took him to a local police station, where he refused to take a breathalyzer and was released to receive medical attention.
The inspector general’s report does not provide details on who brokered Peterson’s release. But it says staff from both the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps arranged for his departure from Tanzania, which happened so quickly that local authorities were unable to charge him first. The U.S. government deemed it a medically necessary evacuation.
Within a day of Issa’s death, Peterson was on a flight back to the United States.
The hasty evacuation came as the Peace Corps was in the midst of discussions with the Tanzanian government over delayed work permits for some of its volunteers. President Magufuli had tightened restrictions on foreign workers and nongovernmental organizations, part of a broader tension between Western leaders and a regime that had been accused of human rights violations, election interference and censorship of journalists.
By early 2020, talks over the permits would stall, leading to one group of volunteers being sent home early and another’s service being canceled before they arrived. But in the months before the incident involving Peterson, staff told volunteers by email that they were working hard to sort out the issues. Volunteers without permits were advised to avoid travel and contact staff if they had any problems with immigration officials or police.
Photos by Peter Mgongo, for USA TODAY