Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga

The brutal murder of Peace Corps volunteer Deborah Gardner in Tonga became a scandal because the Peace Corps and the U.S. State Department tried to keep the murder from tainting the organization’s reputation. Dennis Priven, whom Gardner identified before she died as the one who stabbed her, was found not guilty by reason of insanity by a Tongan jury. He returned to the United States and was soon freed from custody.

Summary of Event

Late at night on October 14, 1976, Deborah Gardner, a twenty-three-year-old high school teacher and Peace Corps volunteer, was attacked in her home in Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific. Abundant physical evidence—a knife, a flip-flop, a broken pair of glasses—as well as Gardner identifying her assailant led to the eventual arrest of another volunteer, Dennis Priven. [kw]Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga (1976)
[kw]Murder of Volunteer in Tonga, Peace Corps Conceals (1976)
Priven, Dennis
Gardner, Deborah
Peace Corps
State Department, U.S.;and Peace Corps murder[Peace Corps murder]
Priven, Dennis
Gardner, Deborah
Peace Corps
State Department, U.S.;and Peace Corps murder[Peace Corps murder]
[g]Australasia;1976: Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga[01560]
[g]Tonga;1976: Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga[01560]
[c]Murder and suicide;1976: Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga[01560]
[c]Corruption;1976: Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga[01560]
[c]Law and the courts;1976: Peace Corps Conceals Murder of Volunteer in Tonga[01560]
George, Mary
Hons, Emile

The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of 169 islands. The Peace Corps had been sending volunteers to Tonga since the early 1960’s, mostly to serve as high school teachers, writers, and engineers. A poor nation with a limited agricultural economy, Tonga relied on American aid and, as events would show, was willing to accept American promises at face value to preserve good relations with the United States.

Born and raised in New York, Priven had been a volunteer in Tonga since 1974 and had a reputation as a brilliant although emotionally and mentally disturbed individual. According to Philip Weiss, author of the book American Taboo (2004), an account of the scandal, Priven had warm friendships with male volunteers but was bashful around attractive women. He had odd personal habits. He was rarely seen without his diving knife, an intimidating weapon with a six-inch blade. Weiss notes that Priven carried the knife to class when teaching mathematics and science classes in the Tongan high school where he was assigned.

Less well known to others was that sometime in 1975, Priven developed vague stomach pains and had to be evacuated to Hawaii for medical care. In Hawaii he was given Darvon (propoxyphene), a commonly prescribed narcotic analgesic during the early 1970’s. Chemically similar to methadone, Darvon is addictive and was prescribed during the mid-1970’s often for pain associated with opioid withdrawal and stomach cramps.

Priven, agnostic and cynical, loved to mock what he considered the repressed attitudes of the Tongan people, whose culture blended folk beliefs in spirits and magic with evangelical Christianity. He was judgmental of volunteers who tried to participate in Tongan culture. As one might expect, Priven was no more able to get along with his supervisors in the Peace Corps. As Weiss describes, he was frequently contemptuous of Mary George, the country director for the Peace Corps in Tonga.

By late 1976, Priven, who hated Tonga and Tongans, was applying for an extended tour of duty; he reacted violently when his application was denied. He had fallen in love with Gardner and thought he could make her love him. Throughout 1975 and into 1976, he tried to cajole and manipulate her into dating him, and he eventually began stalking her.

Gardner, who joined the Peace Corps as a teacher in early 1975, was remembered as a woman of exceptional beauty and spirit, a caring friend, and a devoted teacher. Later, in 1976, a combination of personal disappointments, frustration with cultural double standards, and a fear of Priven made Gardner depressed and desperate to escape.

As several writers noted, there was no shortage of people eager to go out with Gardner; the few men she fell in love with, however, ended up disappointing her. For whatever reason, none of the relationships worked, and Gardner became increasingly frustrated and felt more and more alone. Adding to her frustration were the cultural double standards she and other women were expected to follow.

As Weiss notes, the Peace Corps expected volunteers to follow local customs. Behaviors that would not have raised an eyebrow in the United States were deeply shocking to Tongan mores. For instance, Gardner loved to go bicycling alone or with a boyfriend and she dated several men. In Tonga, young women were not supposed to do these things. George, the country director in Tonga, advised Gardner to change her behavior and ordered her to take cultural sensitivity courses. Gardner, according to Weiss, stated that she would rather die than live a life in which she could not do what she wanted, when she wanted.

Matters came to a head in mid-October, 1976, when a group of new volunteers was set to arrive in Tonga. Priven had recently been denied an extension and was simmering with anger. Gardner was depressed and her behaviors were flamboyant. She had too much to drink at a party for new volunteers and made a scene, falling twice and eventually lying down on the dance floor. She was escorted out of the dance by Emile Hons, a close friend of both Gardner and Priven. Hons and Gardner had been having a discreet romantic affair, and they spent the night together after the party, unaware that Priven had been spying on them.

On October 14, Priven surprised Gardner while she was getting ready for bed. He overpowered her and stabbed her more than twenty times. Hearing her cries for help, Tongan neighbors startled Priven, who fled in a panic, leaving behind at the scene his eyeglasses, a flip-flop, and the murder weapon: his diving knife. Later that night, Priven turned himself in to police, showed them several self-inflicted wounds on his wrists, and told them he had tried to kill himself.

In the wake of this vicious murder, an informal conspiracy developed to shield Priven from the consequences of his crime. The conspiracy included volunteers who were friends of the accused; they withheld evidence of his guilt because they believed he needed medical and psychological treatment, not conviction and execution. The conspiracy included Peace Corps supervisors who decided to defend Priven yet keep the matter as quiet as possible, largely to protect the agency’s image. The Peace Corps paid for a top-notch defense attorney and a psychiatrist to testify that Priven was insane when he stabbed Gardner to death.


After Priven was found not guilty by reason of insanity, members of the U.S. government stepped in to negotiate his release. The Tongan government was promised that Priven would be committed to a psychiatric facility in the United States until he was no longer a danger to himself or others. Later, Weiss notes in his book, members of the Tongan government were lied to. They were told that Priven was shot, by a member of Gardner’s family, when he stepped off the plane that brought him home.

In fact, the terms of the negotiated agreement between the Tongan and U.S. governments were unenforceable. In the United States, it took pleading by friends and the threat of a poor letter of reference to convince Priven to go to a private hospital in Washington, D.C. An examination of him found no evidence of insanity. The psychiatrist explained the murder as a situational psychosis that was unlikely to recur. Priven could not be held against his will legally, and he walked free with a new passport and a clean letter of reference from the Peace Corps. He worked for the U.S. government until he retired in 2003. In 2005, federal prosecutors, who had been asked by a U.S. representative from Gardner’s home state of Washington to review the murder case for possible retrial, concluded that Priven could not be retried by a U.S. court because the murder happened outside the United States. Tonga
Priven, Dennis
Gardner, Deborah
Peace Corps
State Department, U.S.;and Peace Corps murder[Peace Corps murder]

Further Reading

  • Lipez, Richard. “A Killer Among Us.” The Washington Post, June 27, 2004. A review of Weiss’s book, American Taboo, written by a former Peace Corps volunteer.
  • Murphy, Dave. “Not So Peaceful.” San Francisco Chronicle, December 17, 2004. An interview with Emile Hons, friend of Gardner and Priven, about the murder and its aftermath.
  • Weiss, Philip. American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. A book-length account of Gardner’s murder, Priven’s freedom, and the scandal’s repercussions.
  • _______. “Stalking Her Killer.” New York Magazine, May 24, 2004. A feature-length article about author Weiss’s confrontation with Priven in New York City.

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