Cover image for American taboo : a murder in the Peace Corps
American taboo : a murder in the Peace Corps
Weiss, Philip.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2004]

Physical Description:
viii, 369 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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Corporate Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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HV8079.H6 W45 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
HV8079.H6 W45 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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TABOO (n) [Tongan tabu]

1: a prohibition against touching, saying, or doing something for fear of immediate harm from a supernatural force.

In 1975, thirty-three Peace Corps volunteers landed in the island nation of Tonga. It was an exotic place -- men wearing grass skirts, coconut-thatched huts, pigs wandering the crushed-coral streets -- governed by strange and exacting rules of conduct. The idealistic young Americans called it never-never land, as if it existed in a world apart from the one they knew and the things that happened there would be undone when they went home.

Among them was a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman who, like so many volunteers before her, was in search of adventure. Sensuous and free-spirited, Deborah Gardner would become an object of desire, even obsession, in the small expatriate community. On the night of October 14, 1976, she was found dying inside her hut, stabbed twenty-two times.

Hours later, another volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police, and many of the other Americans were sure he had committed the crime. But with the aid of the State Department, he returned to New York a free man, flown home at the Peace Corps's expense. Deb Gardner's death and the outlandish aftermath took on legendary proportions in Tonga; in the United States, government officials made sure the story was suppressed.

Now Philip Weiss unravels the truth about what happened in Tonga more than a quarter century ago. With bravura reporting and vivid, novelistic prose, Weiss transforms a Polynesian legend into a singular artifact of American history and a profoundly moving human story.

Author Notes

Philip Weiss has been a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor to Esquire, Harper's Magazine, and the New York Observer. He lives in upstate New York.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

This searing portrayal of the government cover-up of the murder of a young female Peace Corps volunteer in 1976 contains more in-depth investigative work than do most true-crime accounts. Weiss, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, first heard of the murder in the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga almost 25 years ago. Not rumor but documented fact revealed that a 23-year-old science teacher from Tacoma, Washington, was stabbed 22 times in her hut. Her attacker, another Peace Corps volunteer, was brought to trial in Tonga and brought home to the U.S., where he is today, a free man. Long troubled by this miscarriage of justice, Weiss investigated the case a few years ago. What he finds regarding both the Peace Corps' and the State Department's cover-ups of a brutal crime is profoundly disturbing. Weiss writes in novelistic, literary, journalism style but includes references to back up his every assertion. Gripping reading. --Connie Fletcher Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this compelling and disturbing expos?, veteran journalist Weiss details a decades-old travesty of justice stemming from the brutal murder of a young Peace Corps volunteer. Moving seamlessly between the events of the 1970s and his recent inquiries, Weiss brings back to life Deborah Gardner, an idealistic Northwesterner who traveled to the obscure South Pacific kingdom of Tonga to serve as a science teacher. Gardner rapidly acquired a slew of suitors, both welcome and unwelcome; one of the latter in particular, Dennis Priven, couldn't get the message that his attentions were unwanted. Despite numerous warning signs that Priven was a ticking time bomb, the local Peace Corps director ignored the problem, and one night Priven surprised Gardner in her home and brutally stabbed her more than 20 times. Though the murderer was identified by eyewitnesses and made numerous incriminating remarks, the Peace Corps chose to intervene with the local authorities and vigorously support his defense at trial (in which Priven was found not guilty be reasoning of insanity). Its outcome and aftermath, by this account, only compounded the Peace Corps' monumental failures of judgment. Readers of works on the Bonnie Garland case will find the relegation of the victim to the background and the protective shield thrown up by a supposedly moral community around an unrepentant killer familiar, but even novice true crime readers will find this a gripping and deeply sad story that will do little to bolster faith in the U.S. government's ethical priorities. Agent, Joy Harris. 3-city author tour. (June 1) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



American Taboo A Murder in the Peace Corps Chapter One A Legend of the South Seas No one forgets his first foreign country. The light, the architecture, the way they do their eggs. Red money. The dreamy disorientation. The smell of aviation fuel. I didn't choose Samoa, John did. We were both 22 and starting out on a long backpacking trip, and he bought tickets in Los Angeles with six stops down through the Pacific. Samoa was after Hawaii. We got there in January 1978. We stayed at a Mormon family's house in the capital, Apia, climbed through jungle to Robert Louis Stevenson's grave, then set out for the bigger western island. The Peace Corps volunteer was on the ferry, a redheaded guy with half a Samoan marriage tattoo on his back. Of course it turned out Bruce and John had grown up a few miles away from one another in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, so he had us back to his seaside village. We met his Samoan wife Ruta and stayed two or three nights. It rains harder in Samoa than anywhere. The rain against the metal roof made a throaty song that rose and fell, and under a kerosene lantern, as we dined on one of his chickens, Bruce told us about the murder. A year or so back in the neighboring country of Tonga, a male Peace Corps volunteer had brutally killed a female volunteer by repeatedly stabbing her. There had been some kind of triangle, a Tongan man was involved. Then the American man was gotten off the island. The case had caused all kinds of tension between the Peace Corps and island governments. Bruce didn't know more than that, didn't know names or dates. The story had passed from one island to another as stories always did in Polynesia, by word of mouth. The only difference between this story and others was that it involved Americans. And already then, when I heard the legend in my first foreign country, there was a sense that something was wrong. That the original wrong had been compounded. Ten years went by. I started working as a journalist in New York, and one night at a bar I met another writer, who said that he had been in the Peace Corps. "Where?" "Tonga. I was in Tonga, the first group of volunteers to the Kingdom." I asked whether he had heard Bruce's story. "Oh, yes," Fred said. "Later volunteers told me something. Elsa Mae Swenson, that name comes back. That was the victim." Her name was Deborah Ann Gardner. The next day in the New York Public Library I found the one article about the case that appeared in the New York Times , an inch or two at the bottom of page 7 in January 1977. The wire story was based on an account from the Chronicle , the government newspaper of Tonga, and said that the male volunteer was from New York and a Tongan jury had found him to be insane when he killed her. Of course I looked him up in the New York phone book, and there he was. He had been listed from a couple of years after the murder. I called the Peace Corps. Privacy law would be an important factor in any disclosure. "His rights are basically uppermost at this time," a lawyer explained. So I made a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act, and a few months later a package of old records arrived at my apartment with a lot of the pages blacked out. Deborah Gardner was 23 and a teacher. She lived in a one-room hut in a village at the edge of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. She had been there nearly ten and a half months when she died in October 1976. The older volunteer charged with her murder faced possible hanging. The American government went to considerable lengths to defend him. A lawyer came from New Zealand and a psychiatrist from Hawaii. It was the longest trial in Tongan memory. After the insanity verdict, the two governments went back and forth. Then the King of Tonga and his cabinet released the man on written assurance from the Americans that he was to be hospitalized back in the United States. He refused to enter a hospital. The Peace Corps had lacked the power to make him do so, or the will. The case quietly disappeared. The key was Deborah Gardner's family. Why had they never come forward? Their names and addresses were blacked out of the file on privacy grounds, and though she was from the Tacoma area, there were hundreds of Gardners listed in the local phone books. I made a few calls and sent a few letters, but before long I got on to something else and, telling myself I would return to this story someday, I put the file away in its big rough brown envelope, put the envelope in a box, and put the box in the attic. Someday turned out to be 1997. I was hiking with a writer friend when he said that Travel and Leisure magazine was sending him to, of all places, the Kingdom of Tonga because it would be the first country in the world to see sunrise on the millennium and had announced a giant celebration. "That's funny, I have a Tonga story," I said, and told him about the murder. Michael stopped in the path. "Why are you working on anything else?" I dug out the old file and searched for any clues to the identity of Deborah Gardner's family. A fellow volunteer had accompanied her body home. Though the name of the "boy escort" was blacked out on privacy grounds, some of the blackouts were sloppy and it was possible to piece his identity together. Emile Hons of California. An Emile Hons was listed in San Bruno. I called a few times and left messages, finally got him. Yes, he'd been in Peace Corps/Tonga. Now he ran the big shopping mall in San Bruno. He was guarded, and questioned my information ... American Taboo A Murder in the Peace Corps . Copyright © by Philip Weiss. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps by Philip Weiss All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 A Legend of the South Seasp. 1
2 Tonga 16p. 8
3 Swearing Inp. 16
4 The Tonga Clubp. 29
5 Steilacoomp. 43
6 The Perfect Volunteerp. 48
7 Strandedp. 61
8 The Dance at the Datelinep. 72
9 Prayers in the Bedford Truckp. 81
10 The Searchp. 92
11 Tapup. 102
12 "Help Me Tell the Untold Story of the Murder of Deborah Gardner"p. 110
13 Next of Kinp. 113
14 The Sendoffp. 126
15 A Vision in the Cathedralp. 137
16 Funeralsp. 150
17 The Jailp. 163
18 Extraterritorialityp. 178
19 "A Flick of the Tip"p. 189
20 Once Out, All Outp. 200
21 Wayne's Appealp. 209
22 At Seap. 215
23 Tonga in the Dockp. 232
24 Tevolop. 246
25 The Verdictp. 257
26 Privy Councilp. 273
27 Never-Never Landp. 285
28 The Earthquakep. 299
29 American Taboop. 308
30 Condolence Callsp. 316
31 The End of the Legendp. 322
32 Behind the Bricksp. 330
33 Getting Away with Itp. 340
A Note on Sourcesp. 349