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

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/18/2022 Tricia L. Nadolny, Donovan Slack and Nick Penzenstadler, USA TODAY; Kizito Makoye
Family members of the late Rabia Issa pictured at their home premises at Msasani neighbourhood on 9th December, 2021 in Dar es Salaam Tanzania. © Peter Mgongo, for USA TODAY Family members of the late Rabia Issa pictured at their home premises at Msasani neighbourhood on 9th December, 2021 in Dar es Salaam Tanzania.

The mother of a man killed in a 2019 car crash involving an American woman who left the United Kingdom and avoided prosecution said she was stunned to learn a similar incident occurred just days before in Africa. In that case, U.S. officials whisked from Tanzania a Peace Corps employee who killed a mother of three in a car crash after drinking at a bar and bringing a sex worker back to his home. 

Charlotte Charles — whose 19-year-old son Harry Dunn died when the wife of a U.S. State Department employee driving on the wrong side of the road struck him with her car — called U.S. officials “barbaric” for helping Peace Corps employee John M. Peterson avoid prosecution in Tanzania after he fatally struck Rabia Issa. The U.S. Department of Justice has also declined to pursue charges against Peterson, citing a lack of jurisdiction. 

“My heart really hurts for that family,” Charles told USA TODAY. “I know what it's like to feel completely abandoned by the U.S. government. I know what it's like to have my child or, in their circumstances, a family member, just swept under the carpet. Like their life didn't matter. Like we mean absolutely nothing in comparison to the U.S. government.” 

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Although Dunn’s case drew international attention and caused diplomatic tensions between the United States and British governments, Issa’s August 2019 death three days prior remained almost completely hidden. The only public accounting of the incident was tucked in a routine Peace Corps Office of the Inspector General report to Congress last year that didn’t name Peterson, Issa or even the country where the incident occurred.  

Last month, USA TODAY for the first time revealed Peterson’s role in Issa’s death and the fact that officials with the Peace Corps and the U.S. State Department arranged for him to leave the country before he could be charged by Tanzanian authorities. Peterson remained on staff at the agency for another 18 months before resigning in February. The details have sparked anger around the globe and renewed calls to reform or abolish the Peace Corps, a federal agency that sends thousands of volunteers each year to often remote locations with the mission of promoting “world peace and friendship.” 

In online forums and on social media, hundreds of people expressed outrage over Peterson’s actions and how agency officials responded. Former Peace Corps volunteers posted that they felt compelled to raise money or find other ways to help Issa’s family, and some said they felt ashamed to have once served the agency. A union official representing Peace Corps rank and file employees sent an email calling for the senior leaders involved in assisting Peterson to be “be named, shamed and then fired.” In Tanzania, where the incident was on the front page of a major English newspaper earlier this month, the nation’s top police official said he was previously unaware of the events and has directed his team to open an investigation.

The Citizen, the largest English newspaper in Tanzania, on Jan. 8 published an article about the death of Rabia Issa. © The Citizen The Citizen, the largest English newspaper in Tanzania, on Jan. 8 published an article about the death of Rabia Issa.

“The interest for us was to get the family or the person who was actually the victim of the incident so we can get the whereabouts, what happened, who was responsible,” Tanzania Inspector General of Police Simon Sirro told USA TODAY.

Peace Corps officials are now trying to tamp down the outrage over Peterson’s actions and the U.S. government’s role in helping him escape accountability. 

In a statement last month, Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn said Issa’s death “broke my heart and horrified me” and offered condolences to her family. But Spahn declined to be interviewed and did not provide details of how the matter was handled, including the amount of taxpayer dollars spent in the aftermath, sparking calls for more transparency and accountability. The statement also referred to the circumstances surrounding Issa’s death as a “traffic incident,” prompting a flood of criticism on social media from members of the Peace Corps community who said officials were minimizing the events.  

Spahn, who did not lead the agency at the time of the incident, issued another statement last week that offered additional insight into the financial compensation she says the agency provided Issa’s family. Spahn said Peace Corps officials worked with a lawyer in Tanzania and in 2019 deposited a “mutually agreed upon sum to support her sons” into a bank account opened by her oldest son. Spahn gave no further details about the transaction. 

Spahn also said she would not release any more information about the agency’s investigation into Peterson’s actions due to legal and privacy concerns.

Relatives of Rabia Issa have kept this photocopy of John Peterson's drivers license they said police gave them after her death. © Peter Mgongo, For USA TODAY Relatives of Rabia Issa have kept this photocopy of John Peterson's drivers license they said police gave them after her death.

Peterson, 67, has not responded to numerous requests for comment. 

State Department spokesman Daniel Binder declined to answer questions about the agency’s role in helping Peterson flee Tanzania and referred reporters to the Peace Corps. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki referred questions to the State Department. 

Benja Issa, Rabia Issa’s 23-year-old son, in an interview called it “pure evil” that U.S. officials helped Peterson leave the country and said that if officials were truly remorseful about Peterson’s actions they would have supported the family as they buried his mother. Instead, he said, the family had to pay to release Rabia Issa’s body from the morgue as they waited for any sort of compensation. 

Issa said he and his family thought the money they received came from the company that insured Peterson’s vehicle and that they did not know Peterson worked for the Peace Corps. He said a local woman they believed to be a lawyer contacted them and told them to pick an administrator of the estate and to open a bank account. He said they did not discuss the amount the family would receive.

“She had asked us to sign on the document confirming that we had received the money even though we did not yet receive the money,” Issa said. “She said to us signing beforehand would save her time. So we signed the document without knowing why we were signing and without having received the money.”

Benja Isssa, the oldest of Rabia Issa's three sons, said he had the solemn task of identifying his mother's body at the morgue. The family buried her the next day in a Muslim cemetery near their home. © Peter Mgongo, for USA TODAY Benja Isssa, the oldest of Rabia Issa's three sons, said he had the solemn task of identifying his mother's body at the morgue. The family buried her the next day in a Muslim cemetery near their home.

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.” 

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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 neighborhood in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where Rabia Issa's relatives live.

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, at left, on his 16th birthday when he passed his motorcycle test and, at right, riding his motorcycle. © Courtesy of Charlotte Charles 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. Harry Dunn riding his motorcycle. © Courtesy of Charlotte Charles Harry Dunn riding his motorcycle.

“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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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘They’ve covered it up’: Backlash swells over Peace Corps worker’s involvement in death in Africa

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