Lost In Paradise

Who Murdered A Beautiful Peace Corps Volunteer In Tonga?

This story originally aired Oct. 23, 2004. It was updated Jan. 24, 2008.

The isolated South Pacific island nation of Tonga is a kingdom unto itself. It's 6,000 miles from the California coast, 2,000 miles east of Australia. It's a sleepy, peaceful place with a unique culture.

Tonga prides itself in being the only South Pacific island group never colonized by a western power. There are a lot of western influences though, chief among them, the Peace Corps, which has operated in Tonga for decades.

In late 1975, a young Peace Corps volunteer named Deb Gardner arrived in Tonga, and so began a story of adventure and love and ultimately, of murder.

Correspondent Susan Spencer talked to many people who still remembered the night of Oct. 14, 1976, when Gardner was stabbed to death in her hut. Those who weren't around then have heard the stories told and retold.

But the truth about what really happened to her, and to her killer, has taken a long time to emerge.

"At some level, I don't believe she's gone. To me, it's like this person is still, it just happened," says writer Phil Weiss, who first heard rumors of the murder in the late '70s, while backpacking in Samoa. It haunted him, until finally, in 2001 he began researching his book, "American Taboo."

"It became everything to me. I decided that I was gonna drop everything and find out what happened to Debbie Gardner," says Weiss. "At some point, I went through the looking glass on this thing."

Weiss quickly discovered that he wasn't the first man to have had that reaction to Gardner. Fellow Peace Corps worker Emile Hons remembers the very moment in December of 1975 when he first laid eyes on her at a welcoming ceremony for her group of new volunteers.

"When she smiled, you had to smile," says Hons. "You didn't necessarily know why she smiled, but you were forced to smile."

Frank Bevacqua, a fellow Peace Corps worker, also dated Gardner for a time. "There was just something about her that wanted you to be around her," says Bevacqua. "She just made you feel like the world was a better place to be in because of her."

Weiss says that every guy in the Peace Corps wanted to go out with her. "But I think she had to turn a lot more away," he says. "It was the 1970s, too, and there was a lot of sexual pressure on the young women."

Gardner was outgoing and friendly, but as a science major from Washington State University, Weiss says, she also had a serious side. To get closer to the culture, she chose to live in a Tongan neighborhood outside of town, in a simple one-room house.

"She enjoyed more of the village life," says Weiss. "She had a good relationship with the Tongan families across the way. She liked decorating her house with Tapa cloth and woven mats from the market."

She also loved her Peace Corps job, teaching science at Tonga High School with fellow teacher Telehiva Fine. "You're like sisters, sort of, and then, I think, seeing that she accepted us, we accepted her. She was just one of us," says Fine.

But after roughly six months on Tonga, Gardner was beginning to have problems - among them, another Peace Corps volunteer, Dennis Priven.

"Dennis was very shy, very intelligent," says Weiss, of the 24-year-old Brooklynite. "But a lot of people found Dennis to be weird, introverted, bizarre."

"He was really intense. He was a combination of a kind of New York aggressive, and quite shy," says Barbara Wilson, who went through training with Priven. "He sometimes offended people, not from any desire to offend people, but because he really didn't care what they thought."

He also had one trademark quirk: a 6-inch diving knife, usually strapped to his belt. And it was soon clear that Priven had a crush on Gardner.