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Stalking Her Killer


Dennis Priven outside the primary school in Tonga where he taught math and science.  

Over the next few months, Dennis’s thoughts about Deb became more sinister. It upset him that she skinny-dipped in violation of tapu, or taboo (the word is originally Tongan), and did not thank him enough after he had put in a sink for her. She found it impossible to escape him. He came to her school on his bike every day to visit, even after her vice-principal had told him that he was not welcome there. And though his behavior—the knife he always carried, some bizarre and menacing statements—drew the official attention of the small Peace Corps staff, he somehow managed to hang on into the last months of his two-year service.

In part to escape him, Deb applied for a transfer to another island. Then in October 1976, the Peace Corps held a dance for a new group of volunteers, and that night seemed to unhinge Dennis. Deb got drunk, and fell twice on the dance floor, and then Emile took her home, accompanied her into her hut.

Five nights later, Dennis arrived there himself. He had his dive knife with him, and also a syringe, a metal pipe, and two jars containing cyanide. Later his friends would learn that he intended a surgical murder, in which he would club Deb with the pipe and make her unconscious, then destroy her. But Deb started fighting him, fending off his knife with her hands, leaving horrible wounds; ultimately, Dennis stabbed her 22 times. Her Tongan neighbors discovered him dragging her out the front door. He jumped on his bicycle and fled into the dark, and the neighbors brought her to the hospital in the back of an old green truck. Doctors worked valiantly, but the damage to her aorta and carotid artery was so severe she would have died if Vaiola Hospital had been the Mayo Clinic.

Dennis’s plan called for him to kill himself, as he told friends later, but he changed his mind about that part. At midnight, he bicycled to the house of a friend, Paul Boucher, and the two of them went to the police station. Why have you come here? asked the Tongan detectives. I have tried to kill myself, he said. He had taken an overdose of Darvon, and feebly cut his wrists.

“Do you know Miss Deborah Gardner?” asked Chief Inspector Faka’ilo Penitani.


“Was she a friend of yours?”

“I have nothing to say.”

“It appeared to me that all pity was with Priven and none was shown to the dead girl,” said the Tongan prosecutor. “I find this very strange justice.”

Two days later, Emile brought Deb’s body home to the United States. Deb’s parents were divorced, her mother living in Tacoma, her father in Anchorage. They came together at the funeral for the first time in years, and though they were disturbed when a Peace Corps official said that the government would have to pay for Dennis’s defense, they accepted the policy.

Dennis had done it; he was locked up, and was going to be for a long time.

In the weeks to come, the Peace Corps threw itself completely behind Dennis. A volunteer was in a primitive jail, facing hanging. The future of the Tongan program was at risk. The woman’s shell-shocked parents did not show up in country, and no one in the United States knew about the case. The Peace Corps was careful to keep it that way. Even when it reported the case to Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller so that he could send condolence letters to the Gardners, the message was oblique. “She died shortly after her arrival at the hospital.” Nothing about a murder. And though policy called for immediate announcement of volunteer deaths, the Peace Corps waited nineteen days, till November 2, 1976, the day of the presidential election, Carter over Ford. The story was buried.

Over the next three months, the Peace Corps did all it could to make the nightmare in Tonga go away. It brought in Tonga’s most famous lawyer from New Zealand to represent him. It summoned a psychiatrist from Hawaii who testified that Dennis was a paranoid schizophrenic. Dr. Kosta Stojanovich’s words were translated into Tongan as “double-minded” for a jury of seven Tongan farmers, none of whom had graduated from high school.

There was no counter-expert. There wasn’t a psychiatrist in all the kingdom, and the Tongan government could not afford to bring one in. And though the prosecution tried to demonstrate that the murder grew out of a jealous triangle, Peace Corps witnesses proved elusive on this score. Even Emile said that his relationship with Deb was “brother-sister.” The jury went out for 26 minutes before rendering an insanity verdict, and Crown solicitor Tevita Tupou complained bitterly to the king: “It appeared to me that all pity was with Priven and none was shown to the dead girl. The Peace Corps effort may have been made to try and save the name of the movement from the embarrassment of one of their members being convicted of murder. I find this very strange justice if this was the case.”

The worst was yet to come. The Tongan police minister was for keeping Dennis at the Tongan prison farm. But the king and other members of the Cabinet deferred to the Americans. The State Department gave a letter to the prime minister promising that Dennis would be hospitalized involuntarily in Washington till he was no longer a danger to himself or others, and that if he made any effort to escape his fate, he would be arrested. These were misrepresentations. Sibley, the hospital the State Department cited, only accepted voluntary commitments, and when he got back to Washington in January 1977, Dennis refused to go in. Peace Corps lawyers then desperately called the Washington police, who said that they had no power to arrest Dennis.

At last, under pressure from the Peace Corps, his parents, and the two friends who had brought him back, Dennis agreed to see a psychiatrist at Sibley. Zigmond Lebensohn reached an opposite conclusion to Stojanovich’s back in Tonga. Dennis wasn’t psychotic, he was shy and sexually inexperienced and had suffered a “situational psychosis.” He had been led on by a pretty girl who then slammed the door. “For this kind of guy, that triggered everything. Everything went kaflooey,” Lebensohn later told me. He could not commit him. After the case ended in 1977, a story went out among teachers and doctors and policemen and schoolchildren back in Tonga: Dennis Priven was dead. He stepped off the plane in the United States, and someone from the girl’s family, her uncle or brother, came up and shot him on the tarmac. The story went around like wildfire. People wanted to believe it. The story satisfied a deep social understanding, that if somebody killed someone, it would catch up with him, he would die.

But Dennis didn’t die. He was free. He went home, moved into his parents’ co-op in Sheepshead Bay. He got a clean discharge from the Peace Corps—Completion of Service—and a month later applied for a new passport, and reportedly got it. He rejoined his Brooklyn College fraternity poker game, though the frat brothers joked that you should keep sharp objects away from him. Once, a group of buddies confronted him about Tonga—Did that really happen? Dennis shrugged. He said it had happened, it was a long story.

His family came apart. Miriam, his sickly mother, died a year after his return. Sidney, his printer father, moved to Florida with a new wife.

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