On October 4, 1976, a brutal murder shocked the tiny island nation of Tonga. A young Peace Corps volunteer had been stabbed 22 times; another volunteer was identified at the scene, but despite the damning evidence against him, Dennis Priven was never convicted of any crime. A beautiful, free-spirited young victim; a brooding villain who carried a dive knife sheathed by his side; an exotic, Gauginesque setting: with material this sensational, it's surprising that the most compelling passages in American Taboo
concern the inner workings of a government bureaucracy. But the Peace Corps was an integral part of Deborah Gardner's tragedy. According to Philip Weiss, their officials did everything in their power to hush up her murder, then funded the aggressive defense that helped Priven go free. Weiss's account captures an intriguing historical moment, when the Corps' initial spirit of idealism found itself besieged by political and financial pressures. But the book ! is marred by his breathless, run-on style, and the figure at the center of this story remains a cipher. Was Dennis Priven an evil genius who planned the murderand his defenseto ensure he would escape punishment? Or was he, as a psychiatrist hired by the Peace Corps contended, a budding schizophrenic? Weiss' answer is regrettably perfunctory: "He was a brilliant madman allowed to stay too long in the wrong spot who had lost control and then manipulated everyone around him with coldness and creativity." Oh. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
In this compelling and disturbing exposé, 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.
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