Deborah Gardner, the young teacher and Peace Corps volunteer who was stabbed to death by a jealous suitor on the island of Tonga 40 years ago, will be the next story to be documented on Passport To Murder on ID. Passport To Murder has done an excellent job of taking Investigation Discovery viewers across the globe to the most exotic locations, where American tourists end up murdered in paradise. Deborah Gardner’s story will air on the episode titled, “The Devil In Paradise.” The murder, which has been covered on CBS’ 48 Hours, will trace the steps of a beloved volunteer worker who was found stabbed dozens of times by another volunteer.
A Find A Grave entry for Deborah Gardner describes her as a young teacher who volunteered her time in Tonga for less than a year before she was killed.
“Deborah Gardner was a beautiful, young American Peace Corps volunteer from Tacoma, Wash., who was murdered while on assignment in the South Pacific island nation of Tonga. 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. “
According to a New York Times report, it was October 1976, when a person heard screams coming from a hut in Tonga in the dead of night. Just after the screams, he saw someone attempting to drag a body out of the hut before running away after seeing the witness.
The body belonged to Deborah Gardner, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who had been there less than a year. She was taken to a hospital in Tonga, where she died from her wounds. An autopsy report stated that Deborah Gardner had been hit in the head with a pipe and then stabbed more than 20 times.
Before her murder, Deborah Gardner enjoyed her time in Tonga, where she lived her life long dream of helping those in need. When she wasn’t working, she enjoyed relaxing and taking in the sun. Many of the male Peace Corps volunteers gawked over her as she went about her daily activities. She was seeing a couple of them, not something particularly uncommon for a beautiful single woman. But authorities say that one of those volunteers, Dennis Priven, wanted Deborah all to himself.
To make her notice him, Dennis Priven tried everything. He asked her out and even tried to impress her on many occasions. The truth was — Deborah didn’t want to be with him and didn’t like him very much. In fact, she tried to get away from him, going as far as requesting a transfer off of the island of Tonga to get away. Dennis Priven had began acting strangely — following her around and acting upset when she didn’t give him the attention he wanted.
And, it got worse. Just before Dennis Priven was set to leave the island of Tonga, he attended a party, where many of the volunteers were drinking and having fun. Deborah, who was also there, left the party with Emile Horns, an Art student from San Francisco who was also friends with Dennis Priven. When Dennis witnessed this and found out that they had spent the night together, he was hurt to the core and grew violently enraged. The next week, he slipped into Deborah Gardner’s hut and stabbed her to death, The Nation reported. The young Peace Corps woman’s death was especially vicious and shocked everyone on the Tongan Islands.
Police knew whoever had done it had acted with tremendous passion and rage, and just about everyone speculated that it was Dennis Priven, the chemistry teacher from Brooklyn, New York, who had grown completely obsessed over the striking beauty.
Dennis Priven was held in Tonga and later found not guilty by reason of insanity at trial. Had he been convicted, he could have faced the death penalty. Eventually, Priven was sent back to the United States, where he was expected to be placed in a mental institution. Instead, he was freed and allowed to live the rest of his life in peace.
According to the book American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps by Philip Weiss, the Peace Corps came under intense scrutiny and criticism for protecting Dennis Priven. In the years after Deborah’s death, Dennis worked comfortably in his government job until he retired.
Perhaps, in Investigation Discovery’s episode based on the case, they will provide an update on what Dennis Priven is doing at present. Tune into Passport To Murder tonight at 10/9 p.m. Central on Investigation Discovery. In last week’s episode, viewers learned about the heinous murder of Linda and Gary Haas.
[Image via Denisov Dmitry/ ShutterStock]