Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder in the Peace Corps

The Killer

Dennis Priven
Dennis Priven

Dennis Priven, 24 years old in 1976, stood out from the other Peace Corps volunteers in Tonga, often for the wrong reasons.

He went around with a bush knife on his belt, which seemed absurdly antagonistic, even reckless.

He was stout, of medium height, blond and prematurely balding. In the manly Peace Corps tradition, he let his beard grow out in Tonga.

He spoke with a marbles-in-the-mouth Brooklyn accent. He was from Sheepshead Bay, an ethnic neighborhood where Brooklyn meets the ocean.

Priven would be described by his Peace Corps peers with a wide array of adjectives: brilliant, volatile, nerdy, helpful and weird.

He was smarter than most and liked everyone to acknowledge that fact.

Although he was from New York City, he had a parochial background.

He had attended public high school in his neighborhood, then went on to Brooklyn College, just a few miles from home.

He had precious little experience with romance.

For reasons unknown, he was estranged from his familyparents Sidney and Mimi and brother Jayby the time he arrived in Tonga.

He was assigned to teach math at Tupou, a Christian high school in Nuku'alofa that was considered the country's best.

In most countries with Peace Corps programs, volunteers arrive annually for two-year stints. An overlap between groups is built into the system, with the newbies learning the ropes from the veterans.

Priven had arrived in Tonga a year before Deborah Gardner and was scheduled to leave a year before her.

The two likely met for the first time at a Peace Corps reception when Gardner's group arrived in Tonga in the first week of December 1975.

Her allure prompted Priven to change his plans. 

He appealed to Peace Corps administrators to extend his stay in Tonga.


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