American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

A story of murder in Tonga and injustice in the U.S.

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Philip Weiss’ investigative work is a “heart of darkness” tale of idealism and violent death in an exotic land. In late 1975, Deborah Gardner, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, arrived in Tonga—an island kingdom Weiss describes as “a period on the map of the Pacific Ocean.” Already on the islands was one Dennis Priven, a brilliant, troubled young math instructor. Gardner was gorgeous and lively, and soon a handful of Peace Corps volunteers were at least half in love with her—Priven among them. But when Gardner deflected his attentions, he began stalking her. Ten months after
her arrival, Weiss writes, Priven killed Gardner, stabbing her more than 20 times with a dive knife.

Priven was tried in Tonga, defended by a wily attorney—at Peace Corps expense—and found not guilty of murder by reason of
insanity. (Weiss’ re-creation of the trial is particularly gripping.) U.S. officials then maneuvered to bring Priven home, with promises that he’d be committed to a psychiatric hospital.

But back in Washington, D.C., Peace Corps officials declared his service completed and watched him walk out to catch a plane to New York, where he lives to this day. End of story. No explanation to the Tongans who’d worked diligently to conduct a fair trial or to the victim’s parents. The whole dishonorable episode was buried by our government.

Weiss, a journalist for the New York Observer, was haunted by this story for years, and in 1997, he began digging like a possessed archaeologist. What emerged is a riveting narrative and an unforgettable portrait of American volunteers and Tongan officials. For those who’ve been tormented by the incident, Weiss’ exhaustive work must now appear as a kind of catharsis. For most readers, the sorrowing lesson at the center of Weiss’ story is that when it came to pursuing justice and the rule of law, officials in remote, impoverished Tonga were more steadfast and honest than officials of the United States of America. There is a humbling and timely lesson here for all of us citizens of the last superpower.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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