Film claims US Peace Corps helped accused go free after 1976 Tongan killing

Kiliki heni ki he ongoongo lea faka-Tonga

A new film will claim that US authorities helped a man charged with murder to go free after he killed  a female Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga 37 years ago.

Debra Gardner, 23, was murdered in the village of Ngele’ia in Tongatapu on October 14, 1976 by Dennis Priven, a US Peace Corps volunteer.

Emile Hons, has partnered with Brian Runt, a Los Angeles film producer, to begin working on the production.  Hons was in Tonga as a volunteer when the incident occurred and was one of the first witnesses to arrive at the murder scene.  

The film will be based on Philip Weiss’s book American Taboo, which looks at Gardner’s murder.

A team of US experts led by Runt will be in Tonga shortly.

“The goal of our visit to the Kingdom is to assess the level of support that the project might receive from the Tongan leaders, local businesses, and the community, as well as scouting for potential filming locations,” the film makers’ spokesman, Sione Tupouniua, told Kaniva News.

“Our mission is to tell Debra Gardner’s story. We believe that the production of the film in Tonga would be very beneficial to the authenticity of the film as well as the people of Tonga.”


In line with American Taboo, the film will claim that the tragedy might have been avoided had the Peace Corps granted Gardner’s request to be moved off the main island of Tongatapu to get away from Priven.

The film will allege that the Peace Corps and US authorities helped Priven with legal aid and  duped the Tongan government into letting them move him to America where he was eventually released.

The US government sent a psychiatrist from Hawai’i to assist Priven in court, but the Tongan government could not afford to hire one.

The film makers allege interpreter in the Tongan court struggled to translate the psychiatrics’ technical terms to the jury of seven Tongan peasant farmers.  It took them all of 26 minutes to find Priven not guilty by reason of insanity.

Priven was taken back to the United States, but Gardner’s parent only discovered in 2003 that he had been released shortly after arrival in US.


Hons told CBS television’s 48 Hours  that Priven had a crush on Gardner to the point other former Peace Corps volunteers made the following comments about him:

“He started hanging around the Peace Corps office at about the time Gardner picked up her mail,” Hons said.

“He would follow her occasionally. And he'd even show up, uninvited, at Tonga High School, where she worked.”

Priven was also described as stalking Gardner and lashing out at Hons after following them to Gardner’s house after the pair left a Peace Corps party to Gardner’s house, on October 9, 1976. Gardner was drunk.

The pair walked the bikes home and it was believed that Priven followed them.

"I don't know if that was a turning point, but he was angry about it. I was with her, I guess, and he wasn't," Hons said.  

The tragedy

Denis allegedly arrived at Gardner’s house around 9.45pm and assaulted her by hitting with a metal pipe.

“Gardner fought for her life and screamed while Priven stabbed her 22 times," according to a CBS television report.

To’a Pasa of Ngele’ia who was 15 at the time, has been quoted  by 48 Hours as saying: "I heard a scream. I know there's something happening in there."

"I was very scared. I was thinking to myself,  there is someone there inside trying to rape her."

Pasa said it was Priven who opened the front door of Gardner’s house and dragged her into the doorway.

"He saw me. I know he saw me. But I just stand there and watch," he said.Debra Gardner

According to the CBS report, when Priven realised he had been seen he dropped Gardner face down in her doorway and rode off across the  rugby field and into the night but left behind several items, including a knife, a pipe, syringe and cyanide”.

Gardner was rushed to hospital, but died shortly after arrival.


The United States government hired Tongan lawyer Clive Edwards to represent Priven in a trial said to be the longest and the first of its kind in Tongan history.

Edwards submitted to court that Priven was not guilty by reason of insanity.

According to the CBS report, telegrams from the then head of Tongan Peace Corps, Mary George, showed the organisation supported Priven.


It was alleged that George was trying to cover up what actually happened from the US authority. She knew Priven was responsible, but instead she sent vague telegrams including one that implies the neighbours were responsible:

"Circumstances of death are being investigated by police. Neighbours were witness. Police taking names and nature of their involvements"

During the trial George telegrams to US included two that say:

"Difficult day for Dennis," began one.

"Another damaging day for Dennis," said another.

The support for Priven by the US Peace Corps office in Tonga was summed up by the Tongan prosecutor on Gardner’s trial, lawyer Tevita Tupou as follows:

"From the time the murder was committed until the end of the case I found a strong Peace Corps effort, in particular by Mary George, in defence of Priven. It appeared to me that all the pity was with Priven and none was shown to the dead girl. The Peace Corps effort may have been made to try and save the name of the movement from the embarrassment of one of their members being convicted of murder. I find this very strange justice if this was the case, as it was another of their members who was the victim."

American promises

The US authorities assured the Tongan government that if they allowed Priven to be handed over he would face confinement in the US.

The move was opposed by Tonga’s then Prime Minister, but Priven’s removal was later approved after a letter from US authorities promised that Priven would be admitted to Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington for treatment.

The letter said Priven could be held involuntarily and “that his mental commitment would be terminated only upon findings that (the) patient is no longer a threat to society or himself."

Priven was flown under escort to Washington, but instead of being committed to psychiatric care he returned to his family home in Brooklyn and took a government job as a computer supervisor with the Social Security Administration.

Deborah Gardner's father assumed her killer had spent decades in an institution. He learned from Weiss, not the Peace Corps or the government, that he had never been confined.

"I still haven't heard from the Peace Corps," Wayne Gardner told the Tacoma News Tribune in 2004. "I don't tolerate liars. I detest them. But that's what the Peace Corps did. It was one big lie."

In 2005, a Washington state congressman tried to have an investigation launched into whether the case could be re-opened after 30 years.

“I would tie the hangman's knot," Wayne Gardner told the Tacoma News Tribune. "I would help him up the steps of the scaffold."

Legal authorities decided that no US jurisdiction could pursue the case. No further action has ever been taken against Priven.

The main points

  • A new film to be produced by a Los Angeles based producer will claim that US authorities helped a man charged with murder to go free after he killed a female Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga 37 years ago.
  • Debra Gardner, 22, was killed in the village of Ngele’ia in Tongatapu on October 14, 1976.
  • The person accused of her murder, Dennis Priven, a US Peace Corps volunteer, was declared not guilty on the grounds of insanity in a controversial trial.
  • American authorities promised Priven would be taken back to the United Sates and committed to psychiatric care, but instead he was released almost immediately and given a government job.
  • The film will be based on Philip Weiss’s book American Taboo, which looks at Gardner’s murder.

For more information

‘American taboo’

‘A cold case’

‘A true story of death and deception in the South Pacific’

Review of American Taboo

Sometimes when a business is growing, it needs a little help.

Right now Kaniva News provides a free, politically independent, bilingual news service for readers around the world that is absolutely unique. We are the largest New Zealand-based Tongan news service, and our stories reach Tongans  wherever they are round the world. But as we grow, there are increased demands on Kaniva News for translation into Tongan on our social media accounts and for the costs associated with expansion. We believe it is important for Tongans to have their own voice and for Tongans to preserve their language, customs and heritage. That is something to which we are strongly committed. That’s why we are asking you to consider sponsoring our work and helping to preserve a uniquely Tongan point of view for our readers and listeners.

Latest news

Related news