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Stalking Her Killer

In 1976, a young Peace Corps worker in Tonga stabbed Deborah Gardner, another volunteer, 22 times, and went free, with the help of the U.S. government. The killer is alive and well and living in New York City.

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Deb Gardner was said to be the "most beautiful girl in the Peace Corps."  

At 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, I stood on the south side of Montague Street in Brooklyn watching the Social Security offices, waiting for Dennis to come out. I wasn’t sure what he looked like. I had a number of photographs of him at age 24, a thickly built blond guy with thinning hair and broad heavy planes in an intelligent face. Bearded, introverted. But what use were the pictures? They were from 1976. Dennis had lately turned 50.

Having gotten a primer from a private-eye friend about tailing people, I followed a few fiftyish Dennises down the street. None of them seemed right. Then it got to be 5:20 and I was heading home myself when a man came out of the office door and everyone else on the rush-hour block seemed to vanish. Most of his hair was now gone, but the beard was still there, and so was the inward intensity, the determined anonymity. Dennis’s oddball spirit was so distinct and strong that it had passed unchanged from the old pictures I carried. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, carried a knapsack, wore photogray glasses, as he had worn jeans and a T-shirt and carried a knapsack and worn photogray glasses 26 years before, on the night that Deb in one of her last acts had knocked his glasses off, breaking them. He had left them in the blood on the floor of her hut, got on his bike, bicycled off into the darkness.

He looked like what he had been then: a Peace Corps volunteer. I followed him down the street and into the subway, then lost him.

I’d first heard of Dennis more than 25 years ago. In 1978, I was 22 and backpacking around the world when I’d crashed with a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa named Bruce McKenzie. He said that a year or so back in the Kingdom of Tonga, a tiny island nation in a crook of the date line, a male Peace Corps volunteer had killed a female volunteer. There had been some kind of triangle. He was a spurned or jealous lover. He had stabbed her many times. The American government had moved heaven and earth to get him out of Tonga. Bruce didn’t know any names, but he said the case had caused considerable friction between the Peace Corps and Pacific-island governments, and hearing this by the light of a kerosene lamp, with the heavy rain clattering on the roof, I formed a romantic idea of a story out of Maugham or Conrad, of something terribly wrong that had unfolded in an out-of-the-way place. A true idea, as things would turn out.

I returned to the story several times in the intervening years, learning the killer’s name, Dennis Priven, and something of the government machinations that had given him his freedom. It became an occasional obsession, something that nagged at me all my adult life.

The victim’s name was Deborah Gardner. She was 23, a natural girl in a seventies way, with a laid-back, Pacific Northwest vibe. In Tonga, in 1976, she rode her bicycle everywhere by herself at night even when people told her she shouldn’t, she didn’t wear makeup, she put her thick dark hair up in a rubber band at night and took it down in the morning, washed her clothes by stamping on them barefoot in a basin with a Jethro Tull tape going. She decorated her one-room hut with tapa cloth and native weavings, and lay on her bed all afternoon reading Heinlein or Hesse.

Her hut was on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital city, alongside the home of a gangling, humorous Californian named Emile Hons, who was friendly with Dennis. Deb taught science and home economics at the leading educational institution in the country, Tonga High School.

“He must have spent $100 on this dinner,” Deb said. “Doesn’t he know I don’t want to go out with him?”

People said she was the prettiest girl in the Peace Corps.

She dressed modestly, in denim skirts and men’s button-down shirts, but men still noticed her big laugh and the way her body moved. There were 70 other volunteers in the country, and sometimes it seemed like every guy in the capital wanted to go out with her. She had dated two New Yorkers, ethnic exotics to her own western-mixed Lutheran background; and then a third New Yorker had wanted to date her, too.

She was polite to Dennis Priven. He lived a mile or so away from her and taught chemistry and math at the leading Methodist high school. Most volunteers were wary of him. He was the best poker player on the island, and took everyone’s money, and they did not understand why he didn’t look anyone in the eye and carried a large Seahorse dive knife with him everywhere.

Still, he had a few close friends, drawn to him by his humor and intelligence. “[He] succeeds at what he wishes to do,” volunteer Barbara Williams wrote home about Dennis. “Since he has a beard & usually wears cut-off blue jeans, the Tongans think he’s sloppy—which he isn’t. Keeps his desk, bookshelves, home very nearly neat as a pin. The students are scared of him, not knowing that beneath that gruff exterior lies a tender heart of the sort that rescues fair damsels in distress. He’d hate to think so, though, disliking sentimentality. All in all he’s too good to waste—I keep wanting to match him up with some fluffy little wisp of a girl with a will of iron. They’d live happily ever after.”

Dennis pined for the voluptuous girl with the Kelty backpack from Washington State. One night, he awkwardly invited Deb to come over to his house for dinner, and she accepted. His friends helped him put the meal together. Emile thought of it as a high-school gambit, and other friends of Dennis also saw the date in high-school terms. Perhaps implicit in the planning was a judgment of Deb—Dennis was a serious soul, Deb was a party person. He’d be good for her.

The dinner went badly. Dennis had high expectations and had gotten Deb a gift, spending real money. He was full of awkward feeling, and the situation became unpleasant. She ran out of his house, got on her bicycle, rode into the night.

When Deb saw a former boyfriend, Frank Bevacqua, later, she was upset. “He must have spent $100 on this dinner. Doesn’t he know I don’t want to go out with him?”

“You have to tell him that.”


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