‘They’ve covered it up’: Backlash swells over Peace Corps worker’s involvement in death in Africa

by Tricia L. Nadolny, Donovan Slack and Nick Penzenstadler, USA TODAY; Kizito Makoye

The mother of a man killed in a 2019 car crash involving an American woman who left the United Kingdom and avoided prosecution said she was stunned to learn a similar incident occurred just days before in Africa. In that case, U.S. officials whisked from Tanzania a Peace Corps employee who killed a mother of three in a car crash after drinking at a bar and bringing a sex worker back to his home.

Charlotte Charles — whose 19-year-old son Harry Dunn died when the wife of a U.S. State Department employee driving on the wrong side of the road struck him with her car — called U.S. officials “barbaric” for helping Peace Corps employee John M. Peterson avoid prosecution in Tanzania after he fatally struck Rabia Issa. The U.S. Department of Justice has also declined to pursue charges against Peterson, citing a lack of jurisdiction.

“My heart really hurts for that family,” Charles told USA TODAY. “I know what it’s like to feel completely abandoned by the U.S. government. I know what it’s like to have my child or, in their circumstances, a family member, just swept under the carpet. Like their life didn’t matter. Like we mean absolutely nothing in comparison to the U.S. government.”

“My heart really hurts for that family. I know what it’s like to feel completely abandoned by the U.S. government. I know what it’s like to have my child or, in their circumstances, a family member, just swept under the carpet. Like their life didn’t matter.”

Although Dunn’s case drew international attention and caused diplomatic tensions between the United States and British governments, Issa’s August 2019 death three days prior remained almost completely hidden. The only public accounting of the incident was tucked in a routine Peace Corps Office of the Inspector General report to Congress last year that didn’t name Peterson, Issa or even the country where the incident occurred.

Last month, USA TODAY for the first time revealed Peterson’s role in Issa’s death and the fact that officials with the Peace Corps and the U.S. State Department arranged for him to leave the country before he could be charged by Tanzanian authorities. Peterson remained on staff at the agency for another 18 months before resigning in February. The details have sparked anger around the globe and renewed calls to reform or abolish the Peace Corps, a federal agency that sends thousands of volunteers each year to often remote locations with the mission of promoting “world peace and friendship.”

In online forums and on social media, hundreds of people expressed outrage over Peterson’s actions and how agency officials responded. Former Peace Corps volunteers posted that they felt compelled to raise money or find other ways to help Issa’s family, and some said they felt ashamed to have once served the agency. A union official representing Peace Corps rank and file employees sent an email calling for the senior leaders involved in assisting Peterson to be “be named, shamed and then fired.” In Tanzania, where the incident was on the front page of a major English newspaper earlier this month, the nation’s top police official said he was previously unaware of the events and has directed his team to open an investigation.

The Citizen, the largest English newspaper in Tanzania, on Jan. 8 published an article about the death of Rabia Issa.THE CITIZEN

“The interest for us was to get the family or the person who was actually the victim of the incident so we can get the whereabouts, what happened, who was responsible,” Tanzania Inspector General of Police Simon Sirro told USA TODAY.

Peace Corps officials are now trying to tamp down the outrage over Peterson’s actions and the U.S. government’s role in helping him escape accountability.

In a statement last month, Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn said Issa’s death “broke my heart and horrified me” and offered condolences to her family. But Spahn declined to be interviewed and did not provide details of how the matter was handled, including the amount of taxpayer dollars spent in the aftermath, sparking calls for more transparency and accountability. The statement also referred to the circumstances surrounding Issa’s death as a “traffic incident,” prompting a flood of criticism on social media from members of the Peace Corps community who said officials were minimizing the events.

Spahn, who did not lead the agency at the time of the incident, issued another statement last week that offered additional insight into the financial compensation she says the agency provided Issa’s family. Spahn said Peace Corps officials worked with a lawyer in Tanzania and in 2019 deposited a “mutually agreed upon sum to support her sons” into a bank account opened by her oldest son. Spahn gave no further details about the transaction.

Spahn also said she would not release any more information about the agency’s investigation into Peterson’s actions due to legal and privacy concerns.

Relatives of Rabia Issa have kept this photocopy of John Peterson’s drivers license they said police gave them after her death.

Relatives of Rabia Issa have kept this photocopy of John Peterson’s drivers license they said police gave them after her death.

Peterson, 67, has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

State Department spokesman Daniel Binder declined to answer questions about the agency’s role in helping Peterson flee Tanzania and referred reporters to the Peace Corps. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki referred questions to the State Department.

Benja Issa, Rabia Issa’s 23-year-old son, in an interview called it “pure evil” that U.S. officials helped Peterson leave the country and said that if officials were truly remorseful about Peterson’s actions they would have supported the family as they buried his mother. Instead, he said, the family had to pay to release Rabia Issa’s body from the morgue as they waited for any sort of compensation.

Issa said he and his family thought the money they received came from the company that insured Peterson’s vehicle and that they did not know Peterson worked for the Peace Corps. He said a local woman they believed to be a lawyer contacted them and told them to pick an administrator of the estate and to open a bank account. He said they did not discuss the amount the family would receive.

“She had asked us to sign on the document confirming that we had received the money even though we did not yet receive the money,” Issa said. “She said to us signing beforehand would save her time. So we signed the document without knowing why we were signing and without having received the money.”

“I don’t believe Peace Corps is saddened by the killing of my mother. They did not give us any moral support during the burial of our mother. If they wanted to cooperate with the family, they wouldn’t dare to help the suspect escape.”

The family was not given a copy of the document and later received just shy of 26 million Tanzanian shillings, the equivalent of roughly $11,200 dollars, he said. (He previously told USA TODAY the family received 20 million Tanzanian shillings but said he since found a piece of paper where he had written the full amount.)

He said Spahn offering condolences two years after his mother’s death rung hollow.

“I don’t believe Peace Corps is saddened by the killing of my mother,” he said. “They did not give us any moral support during the burial of our mother. If they wanted to cooperate with the family, they wouldn’t dare to help the suspect escape.”

The inspector general’s summary, along with USA TODAY’s reporting, shows the chaotic scene unfolded just before dawn on Aug. 24, 2019 in Dar es Salaam after Peterson, then the director of management and operations for the Peace Corps in Tanzania, drove a sex worker from his government-leased home back to the area where he had picked her up. Peterson crashed into one woman and injured her, then fled the scene of the accident. At a sharp turn, he fatally struck Rabia Issa as she set up a roadside food stand.

Peterson kept driving, slammed into a pole and was taken to a police station. He refused a breathalyzer and was released to receive medical attention. Staff from the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps arranged for Peterson to leave the country, so quickly that Tanzanian authorities were not able to charge him first, according to the inspector general. The watchdog said the U.S. government deemed it a medically necessary evacuation.

The neighborhood in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where Rabia Issa’s relatives live.

The fact that such a tragedy was kept under wraps for so long has riled members of the Peace Corps community who already believed the agency suffered from a lack of transparency.

Mathew Crichton, a member of the executive board of the Peace Corps Employees Union, said the response among staff who have reached out to the union has been “one of shock, disappointment, and real moral injury.” In an email to members, he wrote that the Peace Corps “sacrificed a significant piece of our Agency’s soul for an ill-defined short-term gain when they simply swept this under the rug 2 years ago”

“We must not let them do it again by enforcing a culture of silence now,” Crichton wrote.

Glenn Blumhorst, the president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, which represents former volunteers, said he has spoken with agency officials since USA TODAY first published its investigation but that they have shared very little with him. He called it “an appalling situation” that shows the “imperative for a culture shift” within the agency.

“Peace Corps going forward must be more transparent,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Peace Corps told USA TODAY that shortly after the incident, the agency placed Peterson on administrative leave and suspended his security clearance, pending an investigation. He continued to collect a paycheck, payroll records show. The spokeswoman said federal law does not allow foreign service workers to be unpaid while their security clearance is suspended.

Agency officials have not explained why their investigation into Peterson took more than a year.

The outrage in response to Issa’s death has been particularly strong among the active community of former Peace Corps volunteers spread around the globe.

One woman started a fundraiser to benefit the Issa family that has received more than $14,000 in donations. Another former volunteer collected signatures on an open letter that calls on the agency to undertake a full investigation into Peterson and others involved in responding to the incident. A group of about two dozen former volunteers has met several times in recent weeks to discuss ways to push for systemic change at the agency and to support Issa’s relatives, whether that be offering financial resources or something else.

Allison Eriksen, president of Friends of Tanzania, a nonprofit that funds development projects in the nation and counts many returned Peace Corps volunteers among its members, wrote in a letter to Spahn on behalf of her group that the fact that volunteers serving in Tanzania at the time were not told about the incident could have put them at risk by leaving “them unprepared had they encountered hostility from Tanzania citizens who learned of the tragic events and circumstances under which the Peace Corps staff member was removed.”

She proposed several reforms, including requiring that volunteers are given sufficient information when a Peace Corps staff member causes death or severe injury to a local citizen. She said the Peace Corps should also propose and support statutory changes that would allow agency staff to be prosecuted in the United States for crimes committed abroad.

“We urge the Peace Corps to take steps to ensure justice in this particular case, and to turn this tragedy into a catalyst for needed change,” Eriksen wrote.

Christopher Langguth said he is working to reconcile the events reported by USA TODAY with his own time as a volunteer in Tanzania’s southern highlands from 2015 to 2017. He said he is proud of the work he did there, projects that included helping rebuild a school and promoting female entrepreneurship by providing 100 women with piglets they could use as breeding stock.

Christopher Langguth, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania

“We need more than just the lip service of ‘We’re sorry.’ And ‘This isn’t what represents the institution.’ Because it clearly is, after they’ve covered it up for two years and tried to bury it.”

“I miss it a lot,” he said of the country. “And yet it is painful to think about now in this frame, in this context of what’s happened.”

He said any trust he had in the agency has eroded.

“I don’t know how they fix this,” he said. “A complete overhaul. More accountability. Bringing justice to the Issa family is the first thing that needs to happen. Outside of that, we need more than just the lip service of ‘We’re sorry,’ and ‘This isn’t what represents the institution.’ Because it clearly is, after they’ve covered it up for two years and tried to bury it.”

Others say there is no way to fix the Peace Corps and that the incident is more evidence of their longstanding belief that the agency does more to benefit volunteers who use the experience to launch their careers than the communities they work in.

Rwothomio Gabriel Kabandole, a member of No White Saviors, an advocacy movement based in Uganda that aims to challenge white supremacy in mission and development work, said officials’ years-long silence surrounding the events is evidence that the agency’s priority is protecting its image.

“A public service organization that can’t even be open to the public until they are caught red handed,” he said. “You can’t reform that.”

Tricia L. Nadolny, Donovan Slack and Nick Penzenstadler are reporters for USA TODAY. Tricia can be reached at tnadolny@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @TriciaNadolny. Donovan can be reached at dslack@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @DonovanSlack. Nick can be reached at npenz@usatoday.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.

Kizito Makoye is a freelance reporter based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Kizito can be reached at kizmakoye@gmail.com; on Twitter at @kizmakoye; and on phone or WhatsApp at +255-713-664-894.

 

5 Comments

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  • This is outrageous. I am trying to get more information about the Go Fund Me effort. I would like to see a Congressional investigation into what happened and how to make sure it never happens again.

    But, again, the general public, including USA journalists, lump anyone associated with Peace Corps into the same “bucket”. This incident happened in 2019 during the Trump administration. The Peace Corps Director, Jody Olsen was nominated by Trump and confirmed by a Republican Senate. The Secretary of State , Pompeo, was nominated by Tump and confirmed by a Republican Senate. Those two are long gone and are not interviewed for this article. It was their decisions not the current Peace Corps administration, which created this horrible mess. They should be held accountable. It is important to note that the perpetrator of the car accident resigned his Peace Corps post within days of the Biden administration being installed.

    Peace Corps Volunteers are NOT employess of the Peace Corps and do not belong to any employee union. Peace Corps Volunteers are supervised by Peace Corps administrators and have NO control over what those administrators do.

  • National Peace Corps Association Glenn Blumhorst wrote more about the efforts of RPCVs to help the family;

    Here from the NPCA news letter is the following:

    “There are many in the Peace Corps community who want to take action now. One effort includes a GoFundMe page established by returned Volunteer Libby Glabe, who served in Sierra Leone. Friends of Tanzania, a group formed by returned Volunteers who served with the Peace Corps in Tanzania, will be issuing a letter demanding action and accountability.

    Another team of returned Volunteers is working to harness the desire for action in ways that will ensure that actions going forward will meet the needs of Rabia Issa’s family. They have created a Facebook group, Justice for Rabia Issa. And it is important to underscore this fact: Rabia Issa’s family has been living with this tragedy since August 2019. It is only now that broad attention is being drawn to this crime here in the United States. If the family had given up hope for justice, that is understandable. But we want to ensure that justice is done for the family. And we want to ensure that the efforts of the Peace Corps community truly try to address the family’s needs, rather than what we think is best for them.”

  • The intensity of the comments by so many RPCVs and former staff, by Friends of Tanzania, and by the National Peace Corps Association indicate the issue’s sensitivity and the need for the fullest possible disclosure.

    Coincidentally, an OIG Evaluation of the Tanzania post was in progress at the time of the incident, and the evaluation’s scope period included the incident’s date. The report (a public document) found that “The post poorly engaged and coordinated with the host country government.” It is uncertain if/how this finding was impacted by the incident and its aftermath. Significant findings with volunteer impact included the absence for numerous years of safety and security reviews and country risk evaluations required by policy and missing site crime incident documents. Carol was copied as the Africa region’s Chief of Operations on the final report of 22 recommendations.

    Many of us are getting set for another round of visits to and communications with Capitol Hill to expound on Peace Corps’ virtues and needs, and it would be nice to learn beforehand from the agency, rather than the press, any additional details.

  • Thank you. The State Department was also involved with the decision.

    Peace Corps has had an administration system unique to federal agencies. The actual work is done by Volunteers, non-employees, and the tenure of most employees is limited to five years, with many exceptions. The only employees not limited to the five year tenure rule are the overseas host country nationals manning the administrative units in each host country.

    It was created in the 1960s to serve the needs of that time. I think it no longer can accomplish its mission to meet the needs of the 21st Century. That means a re-examination of how the agency is governed, not an elimination of it. It is remarkable that Volunteers have been able to carry out the Three Goals. Good Luck on the Hill.

    Spahn was not Director of the Africa region’s Chief of Operations at the time of the incident, according to her Linkedin post. Again. according to Linkedin, she assumed the post in December of 2019, and I think the accident happened in August of 2019. I believe when the OIG’s report was completed, there were no Volunteers in the field. The best way to see how the agency has followed up on the OIG recommendations is to make a Freedom of Information Act to both the OIG and the Peace Corps asking for that information. FOIAs can take a lot of time for a response.

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