Times of Oman
Oct 14, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 03:00 AM GMT
Was justice deined?
May 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM

She was a 23-year-old American college girl, smart, beautiful, funny and free-spirited and when she joined America's Peace Corps volunteers in the tiny kingdom of Tonga in 1976, Deborah Gardner had no shortage of admirers anxious to take her on dates.. Her reputation as the most beautiful girl in the Peace Corps had preceded her but Deb Gardner didn't want serious romance. She would happily go on dates, insisting on paying her way, but she was happy to stay single and fancy-free and most of the 70 male Peace Corps members in Tonga sadly accepted it, even though they thought it was a shame.

One man who didn't was Dennis Priven an introverted 24-year-old American who taught chemistry and maths at the country's leading Methodist high school. He had convinced himself he was madly in love with Deb Gardner and couldn't understand why she didn't feel the same.

Debbie, from a sophisticated Seattle background, had taken with gusto to the primitive Tonga life. She taught science and home economics at the posh Tonga High School but insisted on living in the country in a one-roomed hut.

She rode a bicycle, washed her clothes by stamping on them in a basin, never wore make-up, learned the local language and enjoyed native food. "My life," she liked to say, "is a wide-open adventure."

How could she have guessed that it was also tragically near its end?

Deb was always friendly to Dennis Priven — she was friendly to everyone — but he read far more into it than she had intended.

No one quite understood why Priven had joined the Peace Corps — he seemed to have little interest in the human race — never looked anyone in the eye and carried wicked-looking diving knife with him at all times.

He was also the best poker-player on the island and had won large sums from anyone unwise enough to play him. "He's absolutely ruthless at cards," said one victim.

A woman teacher who worked with Priven later explained: "The students are scared of him, not knowing that beneath that gruff exterior lies a tender heart of the sort that rescues damsels in distress.

"I keep wanting to match him up with some fluffy little wisp of a girl with a will of iron. They'd live happily ever after."

But the only girl Dennis Priven was interested in was Deb Gardner. One night he plucked up the courage to invite her to his house for dinner and she accepted. A friend helped him put the meal together but the dinner was a disaster.

Priven had bought his date an expensive gift which she felt unable to accept and the evening ended in unpleasantness and misunderstanding. Deb ran out of the house, got on her bicycle and rode home.

Later she told a friend: "He must have spent $100 on the dinner. Doesn't he know I don't want to go out with him?"

But he didn't and over the months Dennis Priven's infatuation with Deb Gardner became increasingly obsessive. She found it impossible to escape him: he visited her school every day on his bike, even after the vice-principal had told him that he was no longer welcome.

In part to escape him, Deb applied for a transfer to another island but before this could take place she attended a Peace Corps dance for a new group of volunteers. When Priven asked for a dance he was refused. This, it seemed was the final humiliation.

The following night he cycled cross the island to Deb's hut carrying a rucksack containing his knife, a syringe, a metal pipe and two jars of cyanide.

Later his friends would learn that he intended to knock his victim unconscious and then kill her with the cyanide but Deb was strong and fit and put up the fight of her life.

Stabbing at her with his knife, Priven gradually overpowered her, inflicting 22 vicious wounds before cycling off into the night leaving Deb bleeding and unconscious. Neighbours, woken by the noise, took Deb to hospital in an old truck but the damage to her aorta and carotid artery was so severe that she died shortly after admission. P

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