Remembering the Murder of PCV Deborah Gardner (Tonga)


In the late Nineties, shortly after I had taken over the job of manager of the New York Recruitment Office for the Peace Corps, I got a call from a reporter at the New York Observer newspaper. I thought he was calling to ask me about the Peace Corps and to write an article about the agency. Well, in a way he was, but he started by asking if I knew anything about the murder of a young PCV woman in Tonga in 1975. The reporter’s name was Philip Weiss and he didn’t realize he had stumbled on an RPCV who was fascinated by the history of the Peace Corps and obsessively collected PCV stories.

Phil Weiss

Phil Weiss was also obsessed, but by the murder of this PCV in Tonga. In 1978, when he was 22 and backpacking around the world, he had crashed with a Peace Corps Volunteer in Samoa named Bruce McKenzie. This PCV told him how on Tonga a male Volunteer had killed a female Volunteer and gave Phil the gory details.

Weiss came back to the US to have a career as a journalist, writing for the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Harper’s and other magazine but the story of the murder in Tonga stayed with him and he began to do his research, beginning with other Tonga RPVCs, including Jan Worth (Tonga 1976-78), who would publish in 2006 the novel Night Blind that uses a version of the murder in her book.

When Weiss telephoned me, he was beginning to do research with “official” Peace Corps and was, as he told me, surprised at how forthcoming I was (well, I was an RPCV after all; and we know how they like to talk!) Weiss would  cite Peace Corps Writers and the articles we had done in our newsletter on that murder in his Acknowledgements when his book American Taboo A Murder in the Peace Corps was published by HarperCollins in 2004.

Several years after that, writing for the New York Observer, Weiss would in the January 2, 2007 issue, give the murder of Deborah Gardner another spin in an article entitled: The Dark Side of Gerald Ford’s Legacy: the Peace Corps Murder.

The Dark Side of Gerald Ford’s Legacy:
the Peace Corps Murder

by Phil Weiss
New York Observer, January 2, 2007


Deborah Gardner

Let’s add one thing to Gerald Ford’s legacy: the greatest scandal in Peace Corps history, the freeing of a murderer to save the image of the agency, and to try to preserve Pres. Ford’s reelection hopes in ’76.

Ford never learned of the scandal, that’s what his office told me when I was writing a book about it a few years back. Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, also said in 2002 that he had no memory of the case. But Ford’s midlevel political appointees handled the matter, suppressing it and botching any idea of justice.

The murder took place three weeks before the presidential election on Oct. 14, 1976 on a Martha’s Vineyard-sized island in the South Pacific, Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga. A Peace Corps Volunteer named Dennis Priven, then 24, from Brooklyn, murdered a fellow volunteer, Deborah Gardner, 23, of Tacoma, WA., by stabbing her repeatedly in her hut that night. An introverted high school chemistry teacher, Priven had been stalking Gardner, a biology teacher, for weeks. She had rejected his advances. On October 16, her body left the island. Two days after that her funeral took place in Tacoma with no media attention.

John D. Dellenback

John D. Dellenback

Ford’s appointees at Peace Corps and State had bottled the case up. The director of the Peace Corps, a former Ford crony in the House, moderate Oregon Republican John Dellenback, went campaigning for Ford right after the murder happened, and made sure that no one heard about it. Dellenback had led prayer breakfasts on the Hill to help the government heal after Watergate, but he did nothing for Deborah Gardner. Peace Corps violated its own rules on publicity, making sure not to release news of the murder for 19 days, till November 2 the afternoon of the general election. The story was buried in the newspapers.

Peace Corps and State then threw the American gov’t behind Priven, discouraging the Gardner family from taking any role in the case. “Once out, all out,” political appointees warned Deb Gardner’s mother a not so subtle suggestion that if the case was aired, her daughter’s privacy would be thoroughly compromised. The U.S. paid for Priven’s defense, and paid for a psychiatrist to come out from Hawaii to examine and then testify for the disturbed young man, all in an effort to spare him the outcome that any Tongan would have experienced: the gallows.

The Tongan government and prosecutors were pursuing Gardner’s interests, but those officials felt totally manipulated by Ford appointees who converged on the island. It was a tiny country of 100,000 people and no traffic lights, and it turned to New Zealand for what limited assistance it got in the case. Priven was found not guilty by reason of insanity in December 1976, and Ford’s appointees, including the Ambassador to New Zealand and Tonga, Armistead Selden, another former congressional buddy, and the charge d’affaires, Robert Flanegin, then went to work to get Priven released.

Dennis Priven in Tonga

The Americans promised to put Priven away back here. But these promises meant nothing. Priven came back to Washington in January 1977, days before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, and though Peace Corps mounted a flimsy effort to keep him in Sibley Hospital, Priven declined the offer and within days returned to Brooklyn a free man just three months after he had stabbed a fellow volunteer 22 times. Not a word in the press. A few years later, he was working for Social Security as a computer dude.

Yes, Gerald Ford was a moderate Republican steward who helped heal the nation after Watergate fair enough. But he was also a nincompoop on foreign relations who issued vaguely-spiritual bromides while watching out keenly for his own political ambitions. Those presidential attributes, reflected in his appointees, allowed the Peace Corps murderer to slip between the cracks…

From The Washington Post

This meticulously deconstructed tale of a Peace Corps volunteer murdering another in Tonga and basically getting away with it has to be one of the most exotic true-crime books of recent years, and one of the saddest. Philip Weiss, a journalist who first heard of the case 26 years ago while backpacking in the South Pacific, is still seething over the injustice of a brutal killer going free and the U.S. government’s cover-up of the ugly debacle in order to save careers and preserve the Peace Corps’s smiley-face sheen.Weiss names names, confronts the killer in New York City and plainly aches to have his book right some wrongs. But we’re dealing here with a man Weiss convincingly portrays as a manipulative “evil” sociopath — and with a murky legal situation as well. So, little may come of Weiss’s efforts beyond some vague “closure” for people close to the victim, plus an exhaustively researched book that is intermittently spellbinding — as when late in the book Weiss lunches with the killer at a Dean & Deluca in Soho — but it is a third longer than it needs to be, and is unconvincing whenever it tries to transmute its material into a story of American lost innocence.

Deborah Ann Gardner, 23, of Tacoma, Wash., had been teaching science in the tiny South Pacific kingdom of Tonga for less than a year when, on the evening of Oct. 14, 1976, she was stabbed 22 times with a long knife. Tongan neighbors heard her screams and saw a man one of them recognized drop the badly injured young woman on the doorsill of her small house and ride off on a bicycle. Before Gardner died en route to the hospital, she was asked by Pila Mateialona, a Peace Corps driver, “Who did this to you?” She replied, “Dennis.”

Everyone involved, including the eyewitness, knew that meant Dennis Priven, a 26-year-old New York science and math teacher nearing the end of his two-year Peace Corps tour. Unlike Gardner, a popular, smart, open-spirited knockout of a woman, Priven was moody, geeky and one of the cynics in the group. Every Peace Corps group has a few volunteers whose distaste for the culture they’ve been dropped into sours into open scorn, and Priven was one of them. At the time of the murder, Priven had recently been turned down for a third-year extension, and he had also been rejected romantically by Deb Gardner. She had dated other volunteers, and Priven “thought he should get a turn with her.” When she said no, Priven stalked Gardner and killed her.

No one has contested the essentials of this outline, confirmed at the time by forensic evidence. So why, beyond a few months’ pre-trial detention, has Priven never been punished for his crime? Because a Tongan jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity, the first such verdict in the country’s history. U.S. officials led the Tongan government to believe that if Priven was let go, he would be locked up back home in a humane institution for the criminally insane. These officials knew all along, however, that legally Priven could be committed to a U.S. mental hospital only if he volunteered. Once in Washington, Priven announced he intended to do no such thing, asked for and received his last Peace Corps paycheck, and went home to Brooklyn.

Tapu is the only Tongan word to have made it into the English language, brought back by Capt. Cook in the late 1700s as “taboo.” In Tonga, it means “forbidden,” but, as Weiss observes, the word also has “an intangible spiritual quality, with the weight of a curse.” Peace Corps volunteers in Tonga were bemused when some acts, innocuous to them, were considered tapu. For instance, a brother baring his stomach to his sister was tapu since “the stomach was considered a sexual part, for it slapped during sex.”

Tongans were, if anything, far more inclined to find American customs and morality unfathomable in the immediate aftermath of Gardner’s murder. The Peace Corps seemed to care more about Priven than his victim, or her friends, or her confused and distraught family back in the United States. Peace Corps volunteers have no diplomatic immunity, and the local authorities wanted to follow Tongan law, which meant putting Priven to trial under their jurisdiction and either imprisoning or hanging him. The Peace Corps, suddenly not so respectful of local customs, just wanted to get Priven out of the hands of these backward Third Worlders. How would it play stateside if these islanders strung up a young American? How would congressional budget makers react?

Twenty-five years later, a Tongan who had been one of Gardner’s students told Weiss how sickened he and others had been to see Peace Corps officials, as well as a few morally confused volunteers, carrying meals to Priven in his jail cell and strategizing his defense with a Tongan New Zealander known as the Perry Mason of the Pacific. “I was a baby,” the former student said, “and then I was toughened forever.”

Some of the officials depicted here are right out of Evelyn Waugh. Especially wondrous is the director of the Tonga Peace Corps program, Mary George, a born-again Christian and former fashion model with a bone-crushing handshake, who got her job through Ford-administration political connections. One day in church she had a vision that Priven was innocent and was being railroaded, and from then on she skirted Tongan and U.S. law at every opportunity, trying to get him sprung.

State Department mediocrities breezed in and out of the picture, assuring the king that friendly relations with Tonga were all-important, so let’s just make this sticky business go away. Some Peace Corps officials were conscience-stricken and maneuvered toward a facsimile of justice. But legal ambiguities and a tsunami of image-mongering soon overwhelmed their efforts.

While Weiss lays all this out exactingly and with a nice feel for both Tongan and Peace Corps life, in the end it’s unclear why he believed this sorry saga was worth a long book instead of a long magazine article. He is rightly outraged that the Peace Corps, an organization he terms “one of the noble achievements of postwar American society,” hypocritically corrupted the justice system of a country whose culture it had pledged to respect and serve. But Weiss never makes the case that the Gardner-Priven horror was anything more than a weird aberration in the Peace Corps and in international legal history. Deb Gardner was the unlucky victim of a man who is a moral nullity, and the most chilling thing about Weiss’s story is that it may have no meaning at all.


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  • I must say, no matter how many years go by, the memory of this tragedy never fails to hit hard…and also the outrage about the role of the Peace Corps in covering it up. It was not just a tragedy but a travesty; the enormity of the insult to Deborah Gardenr and her family has never been adequately acknowledged. I was so proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer — as with so many PCVs, the experience changed my life immensely — but all that pride and idealism was severely challenged and, in part, broken by what happened in October, 1976, in Tonga. Thanks for mentioning my novel…I thought that finally finishing the novel after 30 years would help give me peace about it, but…it lingers still in the darkest part of my memories and subconscious. Phil Weiss did an honorable job of telling that story respectfully and factually in American Taboo, and I thank him for that. You might know that there also is a highly lurid version of the story produced in 2016 by British TV in a series called “Passport to Murder: The Devil in Paradise.” Emile Hons — who accompanied Deborah’s body back to the States; Michael Basile, who was assistant country director at the time; and I were interviewed by the camera crew: it was emotional and uncomfortable. Here’s a link to it:

    To me, though, it’s not just the violent, bloody details that matter, but the deep injuries, fear, anger, and grief left behind in that Peace Corps community and with our Tongan families, friends and colleagues. Some of the worst of America followed us there…it continues to infuriate me.

    • Dear Jan Worth-Nelson,

      It might comfort you to know that the killer, Dennis Priven of the Peace Corps., who escaped justice in 1976 for the murder of Deborah Gardener in Tonga, has finally answered to a higher power: The obituary of one Dennis Priven of Brooklyn, NY, born May 28, 1952, died on April 1st, 2023, at the age of 70, in Brooklyn, New York, appeared recently online. While I’m not 100% certain that this is the same Dennis Priven in question, I’m about 99.9% certain that it is. Google it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. That said, he finally paid for what he died, even if not in the legal way–which he should have!

      NOTE: I see that you posted this comment on March 17th of this year, and he passed away only two weeks later. Therefore, you have now been brought up to date on the fate of Dennis Priven. And a certain closure has finally been brought to this murder case. Perhaps Philip Weiss, who authored the book, “American Taboo”, should be notified about this….if he isn’t aware of it already(?)

      Robert M. Kern

      • Thank you. Yeah, we all found out about Dennis Priven’s death within the past couple weeks — not sure how it all got discovered, but we found it oddly appropriate his stated date of death was April. 1. A number of us could not resist cursing him as he goes to the underworld. Emile Hons said, “the world is a little brighter today” when he found out. But Peace Corps still remains dishonorable and outrageous in its handling of this tragedy. After all these years, some of us just can’t quite give up our outrage about that.

        • Hello, Jan. My wife and I served in Tonga from December 1977 thru December 1979. I was the chemistry/physics teacher at Tupou High during that time. Our entire group was kept in the dark about the murder of Deborah Gardner. None of the Volunteers who were there on that sad day in October 1976 ever spoke about it, at least not in my presence. Neither did any of the Peace Corps staff or the staff/students of Tupou High. Of course, nothing was said at our staging in San Francisco.

          After becoming aware of what happened through American Taboo, I’ve often wondered who taught chemistry between the time Mr Priven was arrested and the time that I started around January 1978, roughly a 14 month gap. I know from Weiss’ book that some volunteers substituted for Priven immediately after. Bill McIntyre returned to Tupou High my second year, as the biology teacher. I suppose he could have filled that gap as a chemistry teacher. If you have any information about this I would like to know.

          Just a note in passing about the cyanide that Priven had; there was none in the Tupou High lab stock room that I recall and certainly no reason for anything like that to have been there in the first place. Tonga High would sometimes loan us materials we might not have, such as radium, but I can’t imagine any reason they would keep cyanide.

          Sincerely, Max Raymond

        • I couldn’t agree more with you about the shameful, and incompetent behavior of the Peace Corps in this horrible incident. But what about the Tongan court, who acquitted Dennis Priven, and let him go a free man? They were just as accountable for him getting away with this, as the Peace Corps was! Then, too, I have my own theory as to exactly WHY they let him go: While technically, the murder was committed on Tongan soil, they really may have felt that, because it was a case of an American murdering another American, the whole mess was for America to sort out, and not them. All they wanted, was “out” from the whole sordid affair.

          Even though they were lied to by the Peace Corps, who promised Dennis Priven would be institutionalized in the US once he got back home (which we know he was NOT), they were basically glad to simply “expel” him from Tonga, and be rid of him once and for all.

          Now, had he killed a Tongan woman instead of an American woman, I would hazard a guess that he would have been convicted….and either executed, or sent to a Tongan prison for life. Too bad neither of them happened(!!), but, that’s just an opinion–which can never be proven right or wrong. Anyway, that is what I believe. Would you agree I might have a valid point, here?

          Robert M. Kern

  • In the intervening year, 1977, Bruce Dykstra taught at Tupou high school; he recalls he taught at least chemistry.He and I had just completed our two year stint in PC Fiji and we were asked to go to Tonga on just a few days notice because of the murder. we stayed just one year in Tonga due to pregnancy. Lorene Dykstra

  • Thanks for your updated story. I was working in Gainesville, Florida in 2004, when a fellow came to our laboratory for training on a scientific instrument. He told me that he worked as a PCV in Tonga in 1975, and that he replaced a mathematics teacher, but he didn’t tell me the circumstances. Two weeks later I was listening to NPR at lunch and the book (American Taboo) was being discussed. I went into my bosses office and told him how strange it was that we just trained the PCV that apparently replaced Dennis Priven. My boss yelled at me and said that he “didn’t want to talk about it”. I coward out of his office, but a couple hours later he came to me and told me the story. His name was Dave Gardner, and Deborah was his cousin. They were the same age and they were very close. Dave Gardner died of gallbladder cancer in 2013(?).

  • I was a day away from going to Sierra Leone with the PC as an agricultural extension worker…but I chickened out (this was back in ’66). However, after reading the story about Denis Priven I’m glad I didn’t go
    P.S. May he rot in hell!

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