American Taboo

American Taboo

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by Philip Weiss

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In 1975, a new group of Peace Corps volunteers landed on the island nation of Tonga. Among them was Deborah Gardner -- a beautiful twenty-three-year-old who, in the following year, would be stabbed twenty-two times and left for dead inside her hut.

Another volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police, and many of the other Americans were sure he had


In 1975, a new group of Peace Corps volunteers landed on the island nation of Tonga. Among them was Deborah Gardner -- a beautiful twenty-three-year-old who, in the following year, would be stabbed twenty-two times and left for dead inside her hut.

Another volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police, and many of the other Americans were sure he had committed the crime. But with the aid of the State Department, he returned home a free man. Although the story was kept quiet in the United States, Deb Gardner's death and the outlandish aftermath took on legendary proportions in Tonga.

Now journalist Philip Weiss "shines daylight on the facts of this ugly case with the fervor of an avenging angel" (Chicago Tribune), exposing a gripping tale of love, violence, and clashing ideals. With bravura reporting and vivid, novelistic prose, Weiss transforms a Polynesian legend into a singular artifact of American history and a profoundly moving human story.

Editorial Reviews

Peter Godwin
American Taboo is the story of how he got away with murder and walks free in New York to this day. To tell it, Philip Weiss has conducted a remarkably tenacious investigation, and has tracked down most of Deb Gardner's colleagues, mining their letters home, their diaries, their unpublished novels and poems. What he reconstructs is a fascinating diorama of life in the Peace Corps in the 1970's, on the edge of the world, four flights and 7,000 miles from home.
The New York Times
Richard Lipez
This meticulously deconstructed tale of a Peace Corps volunteer murdering another in Tonga and basically getting away with it has to be one of the most exotic true-crime books of recent years, and one of the saddest.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this compelling and disturbing expos , veteran journalist Weiss details a decades-old travesty of justice stemming from the brutal murder of a young Peace Corps volunteer. Moving seamlessly between the events of the 1970s and his recent inquiries, Weiss brings back to life Deborah Gardner, an idealistic Northwesterner who traveled to the obscure South Pacific kingdom of Tonga to serve as a science teacher. Gardner rapidly acquired a slew of suitors, both welcome and unwelcome; one of the latter in particular, Dennis Priven, couldn't get the message that his attentions were unwanted. Despite numerous warning signs that Priven was a ticking time bomb, the local Peace Corps director ignored the problem, and one night Priven surprised Gardner in her home and brutally stabbed her more than 20 times. Though the murderer was identified by eyewitnesses and made numerous incriminating remarks, the Peace Corps chose to intervene with the local authorities and vigorously support his defense at trial (in which Priven was found not guilty be reasoning of insanity). Its outcome and aftermath, by this account, only compounded the Peace Corps' monumental failures of judgment. Readers of works on the Bonnie Garland case will find the relegation of the victim to the background and the protective shield thrown up by a supposedly moral community around an unrepentant killer familiar, but even novice true crime readers will find this a gripping and deeply sad story that will do little to bolster faith in the U.S. government's ethical priorities. Agent, Joy Harris. 3-city author tour. (June 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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American Taboo

A Murder in the Peace Corps
By Weiss, Philip

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0060096861

Chapter One

A Legend of the South Seas

No one forgets his first foreign country. The light, the architecture, the way they do their eggs. Red money. The dreamy disorientation. The smell of aviation fuel.

I didn't choose Samoa, John did. We were both 22 and starting out on a long backpacking trip, and he bought tickets in Los Angeles with six stops down through the Pacific. Samoa was after Hawaii. We got there in January 1978. We stayed at a Mormon family's house in the capital, Apia, climbed through jungle to Robert Louis Stevenson's grave, then set out for the bigger western island. The Peace Corps volunteer was on the ferry, a redheaded guy with half a Samoan marriage tattoo on his back. Of course it turned out Bruce and John had grown up a few miles away from one another in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, so he had us back to his seaside village. We met his Samoan wife Ruta and stayed two or three nights.

It rains harder in Samoa than anywhere. The rain against the metal roof made a throaty song that rose and fell, and under a kerosene lantern, as we dined on one of his chickens, Bruce told us about the murder.

A year or so back in the neighboring country of Tonga, a male Peace Corps volunteer had brutally killed a female volunteer by repeatedly stabbing her. There had been some kind of triangle, a Tongan man was involved. Then the American man was gotten off the island. The case had caused all kinds of tension between the Peace Corps and island governments.

Bruce didn't know more than that, didn't know names or dates. The story had passed from one island to another as stories always did in Polynesia, by word of mouth. The only difference between this story and others was that it involved Americans.

And already then, when I heard the legend in my first foreign country, there was a sense that something was wrong. That the original wrong had been compounded.

Ten years went by. I started working as a journalist in New York, and one night at a bar I met another writer, who said that he had been in the Peace Corps. "Where?" "Tonga. I was in Tonga, the first group of volunteers to the Kingdom."

I asked whether he had heard Bruce's story.

"Oh, yes," Fred said. "Later volunteers told me something. Elsa Mae Swenson, that name comes back. That was the victim."

Her name was Deborah Ann Gardner. The next day in the New York Public Library I found the one article about the case that appeared in the New York Times, an inch or two at the bottom of page 7 in January 1977. The wire story was based on an account from the Chronicle, the government newspaper of Tonga, and said that the male volunteer was from New York and a Tongan jury had found him to be insane when he killed her.

Of course I looked him up in the New York phone book, and there he was. He had been listed from a couple of years after the murder.

I called the Peace Corps. Privacy law would be an important factor in any disclosure. "His rights are basically uppermost at this time," a lawyer explained. So I made a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act, and a few months later a package of old records arrived at my apartment with a lot of the pages blacked out.

Deborah Gardner was 23 and a teacher. She lived in a one-room hut in a village at the edge of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. She had been there nearly ten and a half months when she died in October 1976. The older volunteer charged with her murder faced possible hanging. The American government went to considerable lengths to defend him. A lawyer came from New Zealand and a psychiatrist from Hawaii. It was the longest trial in Tongan memory.

After the insanity verdict, the two governments went back and forth. Then the King of Tonga and his cabinet released the man on written assurance from the Americans that he was to be hospitalized back in the United States.

He refused to enter a hospital. The Peace Corps had lacked the power to make him do so, or the will. The case quietly disappeared.

The key was Deborah Gardner's family. Why had they never come forward? Their names and addresses were blacked out of the file on privacy grounds, and though she was from the Tacoma area, there were hundreds of Gardners listed in the local phone books. I made a few calls and sent a few letters, but before long I got on to something else and, telling myself I would return to this story someday, I put the file away in its big rough brown envelope, put the envelope in a box, and put the box in the attic.

Someday turned out to be 1997. I was hiking with a writer friend when he said that Travel and Leisure magazine was sending him to, of all places, the Kingdom of Tonga because it would be the first country in the world to see sunrise on the millennium and had announced a giant celebration.

"That's funny, I have a Tonga story," I said, and told him about the murder.

Michael stopped in the path. "Why are you working on anything else?"

I dug out the old file and searched for any clues to the identity of Deborah Gardner's family. A fellow volunteer had accompanied her body home. Though the name of the "boy escort" was blacked out on privacy grounds, some of the blackouts were sloppy and it was possible to piece his identity together. Emile Hons of California.

An Emile Hons was listed in San Bruno. I called a few times and left messages, finally got him.

Yes, he'd been in Peace Corps/Tonga. Now he ran the big shopping mall in San Bruno. He was guarded, and questioned my information ...


Excerpted from American Taboo by Weiss, Philip Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Philip Weiss has been a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor to Esquire, Harper's Magazine, and the New York Observer. He lives in upstate New York.

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American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pink-book-lover More than 1 year ago
I couldn't get through the book. I couldn't get past the author's writing style.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I want to join the Corps after I finish school so my parents encourage me to read anything and everything about it. I picked up the book and was completely shocked that something like this could happen in a enviroment that supposed to be all about survival and family. It made me turly question if this something I really want to do.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this book as I had read about it in a review in People magazine. The book begins with letting the reader understand what it was like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in 1976. We get to know the victim as a real person, rather than just the subject of this book. We also get to know her friends and her murderer. After the heinous murder, the pace of this book increases rapidly. I was disgusted with the cover-up by Peace Corps officials and the fact that Deb Gardner's murderer has roamed freely arund NYC since 1977. I recommend this book because it is well researched and also brought to life a girl murdered many years ago. A girl who just wanted to help by joining the Peace Corps, and ended up a victim by not only another volunteer, but the Peace Corps itself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book read like a fiction thriller and tells a story that longs to be told. The murder of a beautiful Peace Corps volunteer (by another volunteer) is a tragedy in itself, but the failure of justice in this case is just as great a tragedy. The whole story is compelling--delving into what it takes to survive this type of work--and then into the legal issues faced by everyone involved in the murder. Weiss does an excellent job of delivering a story of heartbreak, murder, and the lengths the Peace Corps went to in order to keep its reputation. Highly recommended!