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Stalking Her Killer

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Dennis Priven, center, Emile Hons, with knife, and friends the year before the murder. Priven's jealousy of Hons's relationship with Gardner is said to have pushed him over the edge.  

Dennis and his older brother, Jay, a coach at Boys and Girls High, stopped speaking. He was the eternal Peace Corps volunteer. He wore his beard heavy and rode his bicycle everywhere. He didn’t look people in the eye.

He married a Hispanic woman in the early nineties. By 1996, he was divorced, still living in the apartment he had grown up in. He worked at Social Security, as a top computer manager: area systems coordinator. He made $78,000 a year.

I’d spent years thinking about Dennis, even dreaming about him. It had become more than a writing project—one that I’d started several times over the decades. It was something approaching a mission. Deb Gardner was alive in me, in a sense. I was surprised at how much anger I felt over the injustice done to her by Priven and her own government. In the late nineties, I’d taken the story up in earnest, going to Tonga several times. And finally, toward the end of my reporting, I approached him. I wrote him a letter, saying I was writing a book about the events in Tonga in 1976 and wanted his help. A few days later, I was standing outside the Sheepshead Bay subway station, trying to chart his movements, when I got a call on my cell phone. It was Dennis; he wanted to meet me. “This will be short,” he said.

Workmen were eviscerating Broadway at Prince. The jackhammers were going, girls walked by in their slip dresses. From the coffee bar at the front of Dean & DeLuca, I saw a girl whose lace underwear showed above her wrap skirt and thought about how these women would have seemed to the kids in Deb’s Peace Corps group, Tonga 16, with their long dresses to wear in a conservative, Christian society.

I’d spent years preparing to meet Dennis. In my knapsack I had documents from New Zealand, the analyses the government had done for the Tongans on Deb and Dennis’s clothing 26 years before. I wanted to be ready if he said he was innocent.

Dennis arrived promptly at noon. He was the man I’d seen in Brooklyn a few days before, with dark glasses and a fixed, lowered, oxlike expression.

We shook hands, and Dean & DeLuca suddenly felt tight as a closet. He gave a tilt of his head, and we went out.

“Do you go by the standard journalistic ethics?” he said, turning onto Prince.

“Yes, why?”

“So . . . everything I tell you is going to be off the record.”

“Okay.”

And I interpreted that in the strictest way. “Everything I tell you.” Not anything he asked me, or showed me.

We spent the afternoon together. As we talked, we walked up and down lower Manhattan, sticking to the big avenues. In some ways he was the most important person in the story, and I didn’t understand who he was.

There were two theories about him. One was the anybody-can-snap theory that an old colleague of his, Gay Roberts, had told me in New Zealand. In his second year in Tonga, Dennis was isolated and unhappy, and one bad thing after another had happened, till he’d snapped, Gay said—it might happen to anyone. Then there was the evil-genius theory that the Tongan police minister, ‘Akau’ola, and Deb’s former boyfriend Frank Bevacqua, subscribed to. Dennis was a poker player. He’d planned this to a fare-thee-well, playing lawyers and governments and shrinks off each other.

Dennis walked beside me, now and then giving the faintest smile. The same untelling mug that people had watched during his nine-day trial. He stared straight ahead through dark-brown Armani glasses, but now and then I got a glimpse of his eyes: deep-set, dark, big, liquid holes. I couldn’t say what he was thinking, though when I told him the Gay Roberts theory he went to a plate-glass window and traced a big circle on it with his finger and then stuck his finger in the middle of the circle.

His beard was shaved neatly around his mouth and cheeks, but his shoulders in a cutoff Champion T-shirt were hairy, and he had a funny walk in his jeans shorts. His manner was so sensitive that it sometimes seemed feminine. There was that tenderness Barbara Williams had seen. Now and then he reached out and grabbed me, to stop me from walking into traffic, and the sense his friends had had in Tonga, that he would do anything for you, was mine. A couple of times he stopped me in a brotherly way to tug the zipper up on my knapsack. It was his mind that was most interesting. It was strange, and it could go anywhere. And he was funny.

When we hit Union Square, he pulled out a folded piece of paper and read me a proposal. He said I could convey his terms to my editors, so I will report its fuzzy outline here: Dennis had no interest in my book coming out, but if I waited a few years to publish he would tell me everything.

I should have anticipated such a gambit. Emile had described to me a chilling visit to Dennis in jail after the murder when Dennis had unfolded a grand double-jeopardy scheme in which Emile would come forward at the last minute of the trial and take the rap, freeing Dennis— after which Dennis would come forward during Emile’s trial. In this way, Dennis had theorized, they would both go free.


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