American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061969928
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/17/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 71,120
File size: 704 KB

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

American Taboo
A Murder in the Peace Corps

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 ...

American Taboo
A Murder in the Peace Corps
. Copyright © by Philip Weiss. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

1A Legend of the South Seas1
2Tonga 168
3Swearing In16
4The Tonga Club29
6The Perfect Volunteer48
8The Dance at the Dateline72
9Prayers in the Bedford Truck81
10The Search92
12"Help Me Tell the Untold Story of the Murder of Deborah Gardner"110
13Next of Kin113
14The Sendoff126
15A Vision in the Cathedral137
17The Jail163
19"A Flick of the Tip"189
20Once Out, All Out200
21Wayne's Appeal209
22At Sea215
23Tonga in the Dock232
25The Verdict257
26Privy Council273
27Never-Never Land285
28The Earthquake299
29American Taboo308
30Condolence Calls316
31The End of the Legend322
32Behind the Bricks330
33Getting Away with It340
A Note on Sources349

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American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read half, could not continue.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Watching the peace corp protect itself and her friends say nothing made for a difficult read.
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!