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Stalking Her Killer

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Top, Emile Hons, left, with Deb Gardner. Dennis Priven crumpled this picture when he saw it in Garner's house. Priven's Seahorse knife, above, remains in the Tongan police file.  

What I told Dennis was that he should come forward because of the havoc the case had left in the minds of a hundred or so people who knew about it, the idea that a person could kill someone and walk away from it. I reminded him of what Tongans had said to him many times, that he must apologize to the girl’s family and ask their forgiveness. I reminded him of the scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya the prostitute and says, What should I do? and Sonya says, Go to the crossroads and kiss the ground in four directions and say I have sinned, and God will give you life again.

It was my own form of bluff. The Gardners didn’t want to talk to Dennis. If Dennis went to Deborah’s mother in Idaho on bended knee, Wayne would know what to do with him and it wasn’t listen. Wayne wanted Dennis imprisoned, or hanged back in Tonga. He wanted justice.

I didn’t tell Dennis that. What was his idea of justice, anyway? I’d learned that he was too interior a person to believe in justice, his imagination too crazy and elaborate. He lacked any superego. This was just some misunderstanding that had happened between a couple of people. “She deserved it,” he had said in Tonga, and maybe he still believed that, and in that sense he seemed to me evil. He had treated the murder and his release as a form of accomplishment, not something to be regretted.

He’d maintained a poker face for three months in Tonga. He had almost killed himself with hunger strikes two or three times so as to be kept in the jail in downtown Nuku’alofa, near his friends, rather than at the isolated prison farm. And while Emile had refused to play the double-jeopardy game, other friends had helped him. He’d made a kind of confession to Barbara Williams, in order to gain admission back into the human family, but Barbara’s loving expectation that he would be incarcerated in a mental hospital meant nothing to him. Another friend had given him a Bible that he had read thoroughly in jail, and he had then told Dr. Stojanovich that he was Deb’s Jesus Christ and savior and she was possessed by the devil—or he had allowed Stojanovich to say as much on the stand. Then, in the States, Dennis had told Dr. Lebensohn that Deb had led him on and crushed him. Two different stories, each the key to its respective legal doorway.

Believing it pointless to cite a larger social good, I appealed to Dennis’s grandiosity. I said that what he had pulled off was actually a stunning addition to the annals of crime. There was a brilliance to it, a negative brilliance, for sure, but most surprisingly, the story was unsung. I was going to change that; didn’t he want to help?

“Okay, if I’m as smart as you say I am, then how come it’s not me with the big house by the lake in Seattle?”

“You’re as smart as Bill Gates, you just care about different things,” I said.

I’d pictured this encounter for years, and always with explosive scenes. He did get angry a couple of times, and I had the underlying sense that he was deeply dissociated, but all in all it was a civilized meeting. He was a free man in Soho. We were two middle-aged cerebral New Yorkers, lost in conversation, tied together by intense feelings about a beautiful loner of a woman whom he had prevented from ever growing old, and whose crystalline girlhood had trapped me, too, in seventies amber.

We went back to Dean & DeLuca. I got a bottle of juice and he got a lemonade, and we walked south. “I want to show you my pictures,” I said.

We sat on a rusted iron stoop on Grand Street and I showed him 100 or so of the images I’d collected. He flipped impassively through the pictures of Deb, broke down when he saw a picture of his old friend Paul Boucher, lost it for a few minutes, had to walk off down the street. The narcissistic monster, only thinking about his own bloody life.

Then he carefully drew something from his knapsack he’d brought along, a stiff card with a blue edge, his membership in the Royal Nuku’alofa Martini Club, a group founded by expatriates in 1975. It was an artifact from before Deborah, before his life had fallen apart.

In the months that followed our meeting, Dennis was to quit his job at Social Security and change his phone number again. Having gotten away with murder 28 years ago, he was condemned to preserve that terrible achievement. He was still on his bicycle, rushing into the dark forever. He could put the thing away in a box, but the box never went away. For the time being, though, Dennis put away his card, and I put away my pictures of Deb. We got our knapsacks on, had a moment’s small talk, then he headed toward Broadway, I headed toward Lafayette. He didn’t look back, I’m sure of that, but then neither did I.

Adapted from American Taboo, by Philip Weiss, forthcoming in June from HarperCollins.


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