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‘They’ve covered it up’: Backlash swells over Peace Corps worker’s involvement in death in Africa

  • January 18, 2022
Peter Mgongo, for USA TODAY

The family was not given a copy of the document and later received just shy of 26 million Tanzanian shillings, the equivalent of roughly $11,200 dollars, he said. (He previously told USA TODAY the family received 20 million Tanzanian shillings but said he since found a piece of paper where he had written the full amount.) 

He said Spahn offering condolences two years after his mother’s death rung hollow. 

“I don’t believe Peace Corps is saddened by the killing of my mother,” he said. “They did not give us any moral support during the burial of our mother. If they wanted to cooperate with the family, they wouldn’t dare to help the suspect escape.” 

Hasty departure followed deadly crash 

The inspector general’s summary, along with USA TODAY’s reporting, shows the chaotic scene unfolded just before dawn on Aug. 24, 2019 in Dar es Salaam after Peterson, then the director of management and operations for the Peace Corps in Tanzania, drove a sex worker from his government-leased home back to the area where he had picked her up. Peterson crashed into one woman and injured her, then fled the scene of the accident. At a sharp turn, he fatally struck Rabia Issa as she set up a roadside food stand. 

Peterson kept driving, slammed into a pole and was taken to a police station. He refused a breathalyzer and was released to receive medical attention. Staff from the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps arranged for Peterson to leave the country, so quickly that Tanzanian authorities were not able to charge him first, according to the inspector general. The watchdog said the U.S. government deemed it a medically necessary evacuation.

The neighborhood in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where Rabia Issa’s relatives live.
Peter Mgongo, for USA TODAY

The fact that such a tragedy was kept under wraps for so long has riled members of the Peace Corps community who already believed the agency suffered from a lack of transparency. 

Mathew Crichton, a member of the executive board of the Peace Corps Employees Union, said the response among staff who have reached out to the union has been “one of shock, disappointment, and real moral injury.” In an email to members, he wrote that the Peace Corps “sacrificed a significant piece of our Agency’s soul for an ill-defined short-term gain when they simply swept this under the rug 2 years ago” 

“We must not let them do it again by enforcing a culture of silence now,” Crichton wrote. 

Glenn Blumhorst, the president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, which represents former volunteers, said he has spoken with agency officials since USA TODAY first published its investigation but that they have shared very little with him. He called it “an appalling situation” that shows the “imperative for a culture shift” within the agency.  

“Peace Corps going forward must be more transparent,” he said.  

A spokeswoman for the Peace Corps told USA TODAY that shortly after the incident, the agency placed Peterson on administrative leave and suspended his security clearance, pending an investigation. He continued to collect a paycheck, payroll records show. The spokeswoman said federal law does not allow foreign service workers to be unpaid while their security clearance is suspended.

Agency officials have not explained why their investigation into Peterson took more than a year. 

Harry Dunn’s mother: ‘They deserve to get the justice that they need’ 

The outrage in response to Issa’s death has been particularly strong among the active community of former Peace Corps volunteers spread around the globe. 

One woman started a fundraiser to benefit the Issa family that has received more than $14,000 in donations. Another former volunteer collected signatures on an open letter that calls on the agency to undertake a full investigation into Peterson and others involved in responding to the incident. A group of about two dozen former volunteers has met several times in recent weeks to discuss ways to push for systemic change at the agency and to support Issa’s relatives, whether that be offering financial resources or something else.  

Allison Eriksen, president of Friends of Tanzania, a nonprofit that funds development projects in the nation and counts many returned Peace Corps volunteers among its members, wrote in a letter to Spahn on behalf of her group that the fact that volunteers serving in Tanzania at the time were not told about the incident could have put them at risk by leaving “them unprepared had they encountered hostility from Tanzania citizens who learned of the tragic events and circumstances under which the Peace Corps staff member was removed.” 

She proposed several reforms, including requiring that volunteers are given sufficient information when a Peace Corps staff member causes death or severe injury to a local citizen. She said the Peace Corps should also propose and support statutory changes that would allow agency staff to be prosecuted in the United States for crimes committed abroad. 

“We urge the Peace Corps to take steps to ensure justice in this particular case, and to turn this tragedy into a catalyst for needed change,” Eriksen wrote. 

Christopher Langguth said he is working to reconcile the events reported by USA TODAY with his own time as a volunteer in Tanzania’s southern highlands from 2015 to 2017. He said he is proud of the work he did there, projects that included helping rebuild a school and promoting female entrepreneurship by providing 100 women with piglets they could use as breeding stock. 

“I miss it a lot,” he said of the country. “And yet it is painful to think about now in this frame, in this context of what’s happened.” 

He said any trust he had in the agency has eroded. 

“I don’t know how they fix this,” he said. “A complete overhaul. More accountability. Bringing justice to the Issa family is the first thing that needs to happen. Outside of that, we need more than just the lip service of ‘We’re sorry,’ and ‘This isn’t what represents the institution.’ Because it clearly is, after they’ve covered it up for two years and tried to bury it.”

Others say there is no way to fix the Peace Corps and that the incident is more evidence of their longstanding belief that the agency does more to benefit volunteers who use the experience to launch their careers than the communities they work in. 

Rwothomio Gabriel Kabandole, a member of No White Saviors, an advocacy movement based in Uganda that aims to challenge white supremacy in mission and development work, said officials’ years-long silence surrounding the events is evidence that the agency’s priority is protecting its image. 

“A public service organization that can’t even be open to the public until they are caught red handed,” he said. “You can’t reform that.” 

The grieving British mother Charlotte Charles has added a high-profile voice to the growing chorus of those demanding more accountability from U.S. officials. 

She told USA TODAY that she and her husband haven’t slept well since her son’s death, so she was already awake last month when she heard him gasp in the middle of the night as he read on his phone about Peterson’s deadly spree. She said as he told her about Issa’s family, who had been left after her death with grief and unanswered questions, she could “feel their hurt.”

Harry Dunn was on his motorcycle when he was fatally struck by an American woman driving on the wrong side of the road. He is pictured, top, on his 16th birthday when he passed his motorcycle test and, bottom, riding his motorcycle.
Harry Dunn was on his motorcycle when he was fatally struck by an American woman driving on the wrong side of the road. He is pictured, top, on his 16th birthday when he passed his motorcycle test and, bottom, riding his motorcycle.
Harry Dunn was on his motorcycle when he was fatally struck by an American woman driving on the wrong side of the road. He is pictured, at left, on his 16th birthday when he passed his motorcycle test and, at right, riding his motorcycle.
Provided by CHARLOTTE CHARLES

“Next month’s going to be two and a half years since they lost their family member and since we lost Harry,” she said. “But actually, every minute of every day is still painful.” 

In that time, Dunn’s relatives undertook an international campaign calling for Sacoolas, whose lawyer has said she was working for a U.S. intelligence agency at the time of the incident, to be held accountable. They visited the White House at the invitation of President Donald Trump, filed and settled a federal civil lawsuit against Sacoolas in Virginia and pushed for Sacoolas to face the U.K. justice system. U.K. court officials had planned try Sacoolas on criminal charges beginning today, but last week they announced the hearing would be postponed while discussions between the court and Sacoolas’s legal team to continued.

Charles said Issa’s family should have access to whatever recourse would bring them comfort. 

“They deserve to get the justice that they need,” she said. “We’re never going to be able to move on with our lives, but we are absolutely determined to be able to move forward. And without justice, that is extremely difficult to do.” 

Tricia L. Nadolny, Donovan Slack and Nick Penzenstadler are reporters for USA TODAY. Tricia can be reached at tnadolny@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @TriciaNadolny. Donovan can be reached at dslack@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @DonovanSlack. Nick can be reached at npenz@usatoday.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.

Kizito Makoye is a freelance reporter based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Kizito can be reached at kizmakoye@gmail.com; on Twitter at @kizmakoye; and on phone or WhatsApp at +255-713-664-894.

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