Investigating the murder of Deborah Gardner took me four years, 2000-2004. For those years it was the most important thing in my life, as it had to be if I were going to dig out the facts in the case. I was willing to go anywhere to talk to anyone who had information about what had happened in Tonga in 1976. I visited Tonga ten times, New Zealand half a dozen times,Australia three times, in addition to half the States. The book that came out of that reporting ended an oral legend that had eaten at people in the South Pacific and the United States by documenting a shady and shameful episode of politicized murder, in which the Peace Corps and State Department worked to free a disturbed young American Peace Corps volunteer who had stalked and then killed another volunteer on a remote island.
It was a great story. And I'm embarrassed to say that it took me a long time to get around to it.
The Peace Corps volunteer who told me about the murder, so long ago, in 1978, didn't know Deborah's name, nor the name of her killer, Dennis Priven, but he conveyed an awareness of a distant drama and justice that I could never get out of my head. Over the years I made halfhearted efforts to learn more. I found out that the government had suppressed the case and that the killer had been freed in the United States not four months after the murder. I found out that Deb Gardner was a spirited and generous person. Poe said that the death of a beautiful young woman was the most poetical topic in the world and I was not about to disagree. In April 2000, I finally saw her photograph, and I stopped wondering about what had happened and committed myself to investigating the case.
That project caused pain to a number of people, even Deb's family, whom the Peace Corps had lied to about the case. But it was worth it. A burden was lifted from people who were close to the matter and had always needed to say something, including a number of Tongans who had fought for Deb.
It appears now that there will be some official action in the case. Norm Dicks, the congressman from Deb Gardner's home district in Washington State, has called for an investigation. The U.S. Attorney's office in Seattle is looking into the matter, though he has indicated that it may be too late for an indictment, to which Deb's father, Wayne, at last fully engaged by the case, has responded, "So-I have to stomp my own snakes?" The Peace Corps has continued to circle the wagons. It meets all inquiries about the Gardner matter with bromides about how much it "mourns" Deborah Gardner. It has made no real effort to look at the facts and recommend changes in policy, or maybe even offer an apology to the Gardner family.
Dennis Priven continues to live in Brooklyn, New York. He has made no statement about the case.