The Dark Side of Gerald Ford's Legacy: the Peace Corps Murder

SCAN03.JPGDeborah Gardner

Let’s add one thing to Gerald Ford’s legacy: the greatest scandal in Peace Corps history, the freeing of a murderer to save the image of the agency, and to try to preserve Pres. Ford’s reelection hopes in ’76.

Ford never learned of the scandal, that’s what his office told me when I was writing a book about it a few years back. Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, also said in 2002 that he had no memory of the case. But Ford’s midlevel political appointees handled the matter, suppressing it and botching any idea of justice.

The murder took place three weeks before the presidential election—on Oct. 14, 1976 on a Martha’s Vineyard-sized island in the South Pacific, Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga. A Peace Corps volunteer named Dennis Priven, then 24, from Brooklyn, murdered a fellow volunteer, Deborah Gardner, 23, of Tacoma, WA., by stabbing her repeatedly in her hut that night. An introverted high school chemistry teacher, Priven had been stalking Gardner, a biology teacher, for weeks. She had rejected his advances. On October 16, her body left the island. Two days after that her funeral took place in Tacoma—with no media attention.

Ford’s appointees at Peace Corps and State had bottled the case up. The director of the Peace Corps, a former Ford crony in the House, moderate Oregon Republican John Dellenback, went campaigning for Ford right after the murder happened, and made sure that no one heard about it. Dellenback had led prayer breakfasts on the Hill to help the government heal after Watergate, but he did nothing for Deborah Gardner. Peace Corps violated its own rules on publicity, making sure not to release news of the murder for 19 days, till November 2—the afternoon of the general election. The story was buried in the newspapers.

Peace Corps and State then threw the American gov’t behind Priven, discouraging the Gardner family from taking any role in the case. “Once out, all out,” political appointees warned Deb Gardner’s mother—a not so subtle suggestion that if the case was aired, her daughter’s privacy would be thoroughly compromised. The U.S. paid for Priven’s defense, and paid for a psychiatrist to come out from Hawaii to examine and then testify for the disturbed young man, all in an effort to spare him the outcome that any Tongan would have experienced: the gallows.

The Tongan government and prosecutors were pursuing Gardner’s interests, but those officials felt totally manipulated by Ford appointees who converged on the island. It was a tiny country of 100,000 people and no traffic lights, and it turned to New Zealand for what limited assistance it got in the case. Priven was found not guilty by reason of insanity in December 1976, and Ford’s appointees, including the Ambassador to New Zealand and Tonga, Armistead Selden, another former congressional buddy, and the charge d’affaires, Robert Flanegin, then went to work to get Priven released.

The Americans promised to put Priven away back here. But these promises meant nothing. Priven came back to Washington in January 1977, days before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, and though Peace Corps mounted a flimsy effort to keep him in Sibley Hospital, Priven declined the offer and within days returned to Brooklyn—a free man just three months after he had stabbed a fellow volunteer 22 times. Not a word in the press. A few years later, he was working for Social Security as a computer dude.

Yes, Gerald Ford was a moderate Republican steward who helped heal the nation after Watergate—fair enough. But he was also a nincompoop on foreign relations who issued vaguely-spiritual bromides while watching out keenly for his own political ambitions. Those presidential attributes, reflected in his appointees, allowed the Peace Corps murderer to slip between the cracks…

[Photo by Frank W. Bevacqua]