Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder in the Peace Corps

The Victim

Deborah Gardner was beautiful without really trying.

She wasn't fussy about her looks. Most photos from her time in Tonga show her wearing sensible clothingsturdy denim and khaki. She wore makeup for formal occasions such as her Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony, but she often went around naturally.

Gardner had a face that, in photos, bears a resemblance to that of the actress Liv Tyler, with full lips, raven hair, a full figure and a buff, earthy skin tone that hinted at the native American ancestry in her family.

Actress Liv Tyler
Actress Liv Tyler

Gardner, born in the Midwest, grew up on the Puget Sound.

She lived with her parents, Wayne and Alice, and a younger brother, Craig, in Steilacoom, southwest of Tacoma. She attended Lakes High School, where she was a member of the drill squad.

Wayne Gardner was an avid outdoorsman, and his frequent hunting trips to Alaska and other remote places eventually ruined his marriage. 

Wayne and Alice divorced when Deborah was about 16, and the teenager became estranged from her father.

Despite that heartbreak, Deborah came of age in the early 1970s believingas the pop song put itthat she could make the world a better place.

Washington State University Sign
Washington State University Sign

The seed for public service was planted while she was in high school. She volunteered at a Tacoma hospital, and she found the work fulfilling.

After college at Washington State, she was accepted into the Peace Corps, President Kennedy's program to promote international understanding through service to developing nations.

President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy

She was assigned to Tonga, which got its first Peace Corps contingent in 1967, just six years after the program began in the West African nation of Ghana.

Like many developing nations, Tonga had more farmers than farmable land. It also had a chronic shortage of science and math teachers to prepare young Tongans for technical jobs.

This was the Peace Corps' mission there: to prepare young men and women to break away from farming.

Gardner and nearly three dozen other volunteers arrived in their new home in December 1975.

 

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