Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sad Tonga Memories -- the Debbie Gardner Murder

Isn't that a gorgeous photo? I'm not sure whom to credit for it -- I found it on Google, and I imagine the photographer is somebody I know. So if you're out there, let me know. This beautiful young woman, Debbie Gardner, was murdered by another American in the Kingdom of Tonga on October 14, 1976 -- Oct. 14, by a cruel irony, is the birthdate of the Peace Corps.

And her tragic story is deeply significant in my life, although I barely knew her, not to mention the dozens of others affected by her brutal death and its aftermath. Again tonight "48 Hours" ran the 2005 show about the murder. She was killed by Dennis Priven, a spurned suitor and, obviously, murderously mentally ill young man.

This is the story my novel Night Blind is based on. It was wrenching this cold and snowy January night to see old friend Emile Hons emotionally recall the events of that terrible night and the weeks that followed. It was good once again to see New York journalist Phil Weiss on the scene in Tonga retelling the story in his quest to get a measure of justice for Debbie. It was good to see Rick Nathanson, my fellow volunteer whose job was to be a reporter at the Tonga Chronicle, retell his story, and to see the old photos of him -- a curly-haired and feisty kid who kept stubbornly reporting the story even though Peace Corps wanted him to shut up. The story of how PC Country Director Mary George twisted the facts and unaccountably repeatedly tried to protect Priven doesn't get any more palatable with the years -- how she and Peace Corps Washington responded is still a craven miscarriage of justice, a dark embarrassment. My heart went out to Mike Basile, our assistant country director, as he remembered that awful autumn -- he was put in a terrible position and one feels as if he's never quite come to terms with it.

All through these decades I've contended the Peace Corps is one of the best American programs ever, but delving once again into this story, the doubts come back. The Peace Corps bureaucrats should have been ashamed. As volunteers, we were all so young, so clueless -- we wanted to believe, after Vietnam, after Kent State, after the Detroit riots, after the assassinations, that just one thing from our U.S. of A. could be full of grace. Instead, we got a tragedy and its grievously mishandled aftermath that has stayed with us, demolishing our trust and exacerbating our cynicism. Those of us who lived to tell about it have gone on with our lives. I finally wrote my book, which took me thirty years. And I feel better for it. But it's not how it should have been. Debbie Gardner shouldn't have died. It's a dirty shame.

But, thinking about the show over night, I come back to this blog entry to add further reflections. It would be grossly unfair to let one homicidal volunteer and one bad country director define the whole Peace Corps, which over its 47 years has placed thousands of volunteers into dozens of countries. The Peace Corps' history isn't perfect, but as I noted in my NYC podcast (, it is an international program with a brain AND a heart, and has had an immensely transformative effect on several generations of young Americans.


Lopeti said...

Si'i Sanisi,
Frank Bevacqua took that b/w photo of Deb. It was among the photos Susan Spencer was looking at when she kind of confronted Frank with, "these are boyfriend-girlfriend pictures, aren't they?" ...or some question to that effect. I'm going by my memory of watching that episode on TV a couple of years ago. Would have watched it again last Sat. night, but didn't get a Google News Alert on it til Sun. morn! Emile told me it was coming-- I just couldn't remember when. But reading your blog about it was about as good as seeing it again, so malo aupito for that.
'Ofa atu,
Lopeti Forbes

amy257 said...

I recently read American Taboo and I just felt the need to do something. I have created a myspace page in her memory. The address is If there is no justice to be found, we can at least not forget what happened to her.

Anonymous said...

Mary George is my mother. A genuine nutcase. Everything written about the miscarriage of justice is true.

Jan Worth-Nelson said...

Dear Anonymous: I was awestruck by your surprise comment. Did you ever talk to Phil Weiss? This must be a hard thing to have had your mother involved in this tragedy. Of course I'd like to know more but I understand this probably is touchy territory, and it was so long ago. Good luck.

jazzit said...

I was in awe to the injustice done in the murder of Debbie Gardner after watching the ID channel Taboo program. I think Mary George was the sole person responsible for not bring the murderer to justice. This is what happens when someone who is incompetent and self centered gains a position of power and covers up the truth to save their own a--.

Ann Hart said...

That was such a sad incident. It is far from the first time though that mental illness is not taken seriously. What I really wanted to address though was the one comment supposedly from one of Marys' children. I have found it to be wise not to give any time to something said by anyone referring to themselves as "ANOYMOUS". Excuse me if there are misspellings.