Murder among the martini set

By Angela Gregory

It was Tonga's longest trial and a farce that enabled a murderer to go free, as Pacific Issues reporter ANGELA GREGORY finds.

With a clink of their chilled martini glasses in the fading rays of a hot Friday afternoon, six young foreigners would breathe in the frangipani and let the gin ease any irritations from another week living the Tongan way.

Brought together by youthful idealism, tropical romanticism or simply a desire to escape life back home, they had come to Tonga in the 1970s as volunteer workers.

The pale-faced Westerners naturally sought each other out, usually at the Tonga Club in Nuku'alofa, the Tongan capital on the main island, Tongatapu.

A few decided to do something different, and formed their own exclusive Nuku'alofa Martini Club with formal rules and a strict membership of six, plus one guest visitor a week. The group was set up in 1975 by young New Zealand teacher Philip English, now a senior journalist at the New Zealand Herald.

He had one of the best houses for volunteers on the island, colonial-styled with deep decks, and that was where the all-male club members would gather every Friday. English, known as Lampshade Phil because he liked dancing when he got drunk, admits an attraction lay also in the danger of not knowing where the weekly release would take them.

"It could get pretty messy," he confesses with eyes that suddenly look distant.

Aged in their 20s, the group was mostly Americans - members of the Peace Corps including a teacher, a medical doctor, an economist and an agriculturalist. The following year one member of the Nuku'alofa Martini Club would turn out to be a murderer. His name was Dennis Priven.

English remembers, with a vague warmth, the New York science teacher who once arrived back from Hawaii with the gift of an Aloha shirt. "He was a big guy, like those big men who compensate for their size by being very friendly."

After two years teaching at St Andrews Anglican School in Nuku'alofa, English returned to New Zealand in late 1975 to study journalism.

Nearly a year later, on October 14, 1976, the calm of the friendly islands would be shattered. An attractive new Peace Corps volunteer, 23-year-old American Deborah Gardner, died after being stabbed 22 times at her hut at Ngele'ia village at the east end of Nuku'alofa. She survived long enough to whisper her murderer's name, "Dennis", before slipping away at Vaiola Hospital.

Priven, who was seen fleeing her hut, had been obsessed with Gardner but she was not interested. He felt she had cruelly led him on and felt betrayed by her popularity with some of the other male volunteers.

Her murder was huge news in Tonga. It was apparently the first in seven years, but never resonated much further than the isolated island group in the middle of the Pacific. It was an election year in the United States, the newspapers soon brimming with Jimmy Carter's victory, and the embarrassed Peace Corps in Tonga managed to dampen down the horrifying story.

Priven was charged with murder but the jury of Tongan farmers found him not insanely jealous but criminally insane and, therefore, not culpable for his actions.

The Tongan authorities, not without resistance, agreed to release Priven to the United States where he was to be admitted for long-term treatment in a psychiatric hospital. The deal was a farce.

Priven, whose sanity returned as quickly as it was said to have fled, could not be committed. The charade was never reported in American newspapers, but back in the islands the story never went away.

Philip Weiss first heard about the murder as a 22-year-old backpacker in Samoa. A decade later, by then a New York journalist, he began a painstaking investigation.

His book American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps was published this year by HarperCollins. Weiss sets out in the book the considerable lengths the US Government went to to defend Priven in what was then the longest trial in Tongan memory.

"What a few self-important American officials did in the Priven case was indefensible. They manipulated the Tongan justice system to get the verdict they wanted.

"They lied to the King and Privy Council to free a vicious murderer ... they had covered the case up."

All this, says Weiss, was to to preserve the American presence in the South Pacific and the churchly image of the Peace Corps.

"In doing so they also served the interests of a murderous criminal."

He paints Priven as a clever man who stayed too long in Tonga, lost control and then "manipulated those around him with coldness and creativity".

Weiss interviewed former Peace Corps workers - who were not all happy to hear from him - Tongans involved in the case and others, like English, whom he spoke to three times.

English is described in the book as "not the best influence" on the volunteers.

Deb Gardner arrived in Tonga in December 1975 with a group called Tonga 16, the sixteenth group of American Peace Corps volunteers. From Washington state, she would teach biology at Tonga High School and instruct girls in cooking. Tall, dark-haired with strong cheekbones, she made an immediate impact on Tongatapu where men outnumbered the women volunteers.

Weiss refers to her casual relationships which in Tonga earned her a few putdowns typical of the sexual double standards of the time. And her popularity did not pass by Priven, who had made clumsy and fruitless moves to impress her.

Priven taught maths and science at Tupou High. Described by colleagues as intelligent and sarcastic, many wondered why he always carried a knife in a sheath at his side. Some thought he was obsessed with Gardner.

She had been afraid of Priven and had asked for a transfer, her mother told Weiss. She used to hide when he swung by her school every morning.

Most of the new volunteers avoided Priven because he seemed too intense. He became focused on her, depressed and withdrawn. According to Weiss, Priven threatened to hurt Gardner but people failed to take it seriously.

The night a Tongan boy heard screams from her hut he saw a bleeding man drop her in the doorway and take off on a bicycle. She was face down, with cuts around her face and all over her body. At the hospital a doctor concluded the intention had been to bleed her life away slowly from pressure points.

Priven turned himself in and said he had tried to kill himself, but the cuts to his wrists were not deep.

He had dropped in the doorway of Deb's hut a syringe and a jar of substance later identified as cyanide by the Auckland Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Asked why he had killed her, Priven said he was insane and demanded to see a psychiatrist.

In jail he was unco-operative and denied even knowing Gardner. Tongan Peace Corps director Mary George unsuccessfully asked for the charges to be withdrawn.

The Tongan Chronicle published news of the murder on its front page a week after Gardner's death and Tongans, who felt the murder brought shame on the country, demanded justice.

Priven's uncle, a retired judge, wanted to know if the Peace Corps was doing enough for the accused.

Under the shadow of the noose, Priven was sent to the prison camp at Hu'atolitoli, 19km out of town. He protested, went on hunger strikes and was transferred back to the more comfortable jail at Nuku'alofa.

The Tongan Minister of Police, 'Akau'ola, wanted to see Priven swing. But Auckland lawyer Clive Edwards, described by Weiss as cunning, arrived to represent Priven.

Edwards was to brag how at the preliminary hearing he sidetracked the Crown into wasting time thinking he was preparing a not guilty defence on the facts when he knew the insanity defence was the only option. When the case went to trial he mounted the first insanity defence in Tonga.

"Clive wanted to show that Dennis was fakasesele, the Tongan word for crazy," wrote Weiss.

A Tongan neighbour told how Priven had drawn a skull on the door of his hut which he had also cut in two to keep the devil outside. Priven had also left out plates of papaya and taro so the devil would not bother him.

Prosecutor Tevita Tupou could see Edwards was instilling a Tongan folk understanding of mental illness to soften the jury for the Western psychiatric evidence.

A Hawaiian psychiatrist used by the Peace Corps told the jury Priven had latent schizophrenia which under stress had manifested into a state of acute paranoid schizophrenia. He said Priven was concerned about his future, depressed and deluded, and afraid of women.

He thought Gardner was possessed by the devil. Only he could save her.

But Tupou knew Priven had never before talked of such things. He emphasised how Priven had taught every day up to the murder, was coherent, and no one in class had noticed anything amiss.

The jury took 26 minutes, a long time by Tongan standards, to reach the insanity verdict.

The Peace Corps appealed to the Tongans to send Priven back to America even though there was a prison for the insane on the island. The Americans said he would be detained in a Washington hospital until he was no longer a threat.

The Tongan Government wanted more assurances and under new terms relented. On January 13, 1977 Priven was sent back to the US, accompanied by a doctor, a security officer and two Peace Corps workers.

At Washington he refused to go into the hospital. Eventually he agreed to be examined by a psychiatrist who found him shy and withdrawn. He had had a situational psychosis and was not to be feared now.

Promises to the Tongans that he would be committed in one of three states were not pursued.

Priven left Washington within a fortnight, back to his parents in New York. The Peace Corps gave him a clean record.

Two years ago Weiss found Priven living in Brooklyn where for 14 years he had worked as the area systems co-ordinator for Social Security. He agreed to meet Weiss but only if the conversation was off the record.

Weiss found Priven intellectually charming and felt some pity until the killer impassively flicked though photos of Gardner taken in Tonga.

"Then he carefully drew something from his knapsack that he'd brought along, a stiff card with a blue edge, his membership in the Royal Nuku'alofa Martini Club, the group founded by Lampshade Phil in 1975, signed by John Sheehan.

"So there had been good parts of Dennis' Peace Corps experience he'd never been able to claim."

Six months later Priven changed his telephone number and retired just before his 51st birthday.

Philip English reminisces on his time spent in an isolated, sometimes maddening country

Tonga was not the first country I visited but thanks largely to the kindness of its people it was my first real home away from home - unforgettable.

Avocado trees full of fruit, daily trips to the market, fitting life around the weather, avoiding territorial dogs and biting insects especially scorpions and giant centipedes, balmy nights with the scent of frangipani on the air, the funny Tongans and my friendly but mischievous St Andrews School students.

But if life took some getting used to for a new arrival it was because Tonga was peculiar. The pace was slow, Sundays were for church, eating and doing nothing. Simple things like buying a bottle of wine were complicated by the need for a liquor permit. International calls were out and not just because of the cost. Not everybody had a telephone. And even a ride in a car was a rare event.

In such circumstances in an isolated, sometimes maddening country that seemed behind the times, friends were important and in Nuku'alofa it was common for different nationalities to mix and share experiences. If that meant convivial end-of-week meetings over nine-to-one martinis so much the better - even if the meetings occasionally went on longer than planned.

New Zealanders seemed accepting of the lifestyle. Peace Corps volunteers were apt to suffer from culture shock. Fair enough: they were further away from their comfortable homes and America was grappling with the end of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The Americans took the business of volunteering seriously.

I got to know Dennis Priven after he was introduced to the martini club. He was a decent, funny, outgoing sort of person. At one point he went to Hawaii and came back with an undiagnosed bug. Nobody knew what was wrong with him and from time to time he was in incredible pain.

When I heard about the stabbing I wondered whether his illness might have affected his mind.

Is it a blow to learn that I was regarded as a bad influence as suggested in the book? I always had an inkling that I was but after nearly 30 years, being accused of being a bad influence puts it quite well.

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