Officials at the Peace Corps have for months been managing the fallout from revelations that an agency employee killed a woman in Africa in 2019 during a reckless driving spree that started after he went to a bar and picked up a sex worker.
The federal agency’s top executive pledged to explore reforms and acknowledged the “pain, anger, and sadness” the incident had caused. Former Peace Corps volunteers rallied to support the deceased woman’s children, many saying they felt ashamed of their service. And the agency’s internal watchdog began quietly examining the former employee for a second time, looking into whether he has a history of hiring sex workers overseas.
Meanwhile, another federal agency involved in what some have called the most shameful part of the incident – arranging for the man a medical evacuation that took place before Tanzanian authorities could charge him – has avoided nearly all scrutiny.
Officials from the U.S. Department of State have declined to release any information about the fatal incident caused by John M. Peterson, who at the time was a high-ranking Peace Corps employee in Tanzania. The agency, in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request, recently said it did not have a single record showing internal communications about the case.
Yet USA TODAY found agency staff have been closely involved, including helping arrange for Peterson’s departure from the country and investigating the incident alongside the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General. Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn, speaking in January about the process of ordering a medical evacuation for an overseas Peace Corps employee, said the State Department makes that call.
“Peace Corps Direct Hire employees working overseas fall under the Department of State for their medical care. As such, medical evacuation decisions are made by the State Department,” Spahn said, according to prepared remarks released by the agency.
When pressed for specifics about the incident and the department’s response, a State Department spokesman wrote, “Due to privacy considerations, we do not have additional details to share at this time.”
Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state in President Donald Trump’s administration at the time of the incident, declined through a spokesman to answer any questions, including whether he was briefed about the matter.
A Peace Corps spokeswoman, when asked about the State Department’s involvement in the case, wrote, “We have no further comment.”
Peterson sparked a chaotic scene that unfolded on the streets of the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam after he had been drinking at a bar and brought a sex worker back to his residence, according to agency records and interviews with sources familiar with the crash and its aftermath. While driving the sex worker back to the area where he had picked her up, Peterson struck and injured a bystander. According to the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General, onlookers pelted Peterson’s car with rocks, and he drove off. On a sharp turn, he slammed into and killed Rabia Issa, a mother of three who was setting up a roadside food stand.
Peterson was taken to a police station and then released to receive medical attention, according to the office. He was on a plane out of the country that same day, records show. The Office of Inspector General, in a brief summary of the events sent to Congress last year, said the medical evacuation was arranged by the Peace Corps and the U.S. Embassy but provided no further detail on the decision.
Peterson’s attorney, Mark Zaid, told USA TODAY that the decision to evacuate Peterson from Tanzania was standard procedure, but he declined to describe his client's specific injuries or say why those injuries had to be treated in the United States.
“Mr. Peterson suffered significant injuries as a result of being physically attacked by the crowd following the accident,” Zaid said in an email. “Even after many months of physical therapy, he has not been able to rehabilitate the damage.”
A former director of the medical bureau at the State Department said evacuations are based on medical information, but that a variety of factors could impact a decision. In general, medical staff is given wide latitude to evacuate U.S. workers if “proper care isn’t available,” he said.
“My philosophy was really to take no chances with medical evacuations,” said Charles Rosenfarb, the medical director for the State Department from 2015 to 2018.
The United States had been without an ambassador to Tanzania for nearly three years at the time of the crash. Inmi Patterson, who as the chargé d'affaires was the highest ranking official at the U.S. Embassy, declined to comment when contacted by USA TODAY. She abruptly left the job in 2020 after drawing criticism from the Tanzanian government because the embassy issued a travel warning about the spread of COVID-19.
"At the time of the incident you are interested in, I was acting in an official capacity as an employee of the Department of State," Patterson said in an email. "I suggest you address any questions you might have to its representatives."
The Peace Corps placed Peterson on administrative leave after his medical evacuation to the United States, where he continued to collect a paycheck while under investigation. Records show he resigned in February 2021, a year and a half after killing Issa.
The Peace Corps Office of Inspector General, and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service Office of Special Investigations jointly investigated the incident. Yaneth Pena, a spokeswoman for the Peace Corps watchdog, said in an email that the two offices have “overlapping jurisdiction” because Peace Corps employees working abroad fall under the authority of the chief of mission, the top diplomat at each U.S. Embassy.
“There was no lead established for this case we all worked collaboratively,” Pena said of the investigation into Peterson, adding that the agencies presented the findings to the Department of Justice together.
The Department of Justice declined to prosecute, citing a lack of jurisdiction.
USA TODAY last month reported that an investigator from the Peace Corps Inspector General’s Office has recently been again looking into Peterson, including sending an investigator to Dar es Salaam to interview his former colleagues. A member of the U.S. Embassy security staff was present for at least one of those conversations, according to a former Peace Corps employee who was interviewed, indicating the State Department remains involved in the case.
Despite the State Department’s undisputed role in responding to Peterson’s actions, an agency public records officer last month told USA TODAY that staff had “conducted a search and located no records” related to the incident. USA TODAY filed a formal appeal, and the agency agreed to conduct another search. It has yet to provide any records.
The case is not the only one in which the State Department has drawn criticism for not releasing details about a U.S. citizen's actions abroad. Three days after Peterson killed Issa, the wife of a State Department employee who was driving on the wrong side of the road in the United Kingdom struck and killed 19-year-old motorcyclist Harry Dunn. The woman, Anne Sacoolas, left the country, and the U.S. government declined to extradite her to face charges, saying she was protected from prosecution under an agreement known as diplomatic immunity.
Radd Seiger, a spokesman for Dunn’s family, said he has reached out to State Department officials numerous times but never heard back.
“The playbook that I’ve seen is, over and over and over again, just stonewall,” Seiger said. “I think the calculation they make is that these families are not going to be able to do anything about it. And it’ll be yesterday’s news tomorrow.”
More in this series
Tricia L. Nadolny and Nick Penzenstadler are reporters for USA TODAY. Tricia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TriciaNadolny. Nick can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter at @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at 720-507-5273.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: State Department quiet on Tanzania Peace Corps worker who killed woman