The mother of Stephanie Chance, a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa who died mysteriously, says she still doesn't know what killed her daughter, and the Peace Corps' decision to evacuate the country of Niger last weekend may mean she'll never be entirely sure.
But after Kathy Chance Bogner contacted ABC News, and ABC News contacted the Peace Corps, the organization did provide Bogner with answers to several outstanding questions about the status of investigations into Chance's death.
Chance, 26, was found dead in her bed on Oct. 7, 2010 of "natural causes" just two weeks after arriving at her post in Zinder, Niger, according to the Peace Corps. Results of an autopsy and of an internal Peace Corps investigation into the death are not yet complete, and on Jan. 17, the Peace Corps announced that it had removed all its personnel from Niger "due to ongoing concerns about volunteer safety." Two French citizens were killed in an Al Qaeda kidnapping on Jan. 8.
Bogner emphasized that she has no reason to believe her daughter did not die of natural causes. "[The Peace Corps] told me there were no signs of foul play, and as a mother you appreciate that," said Bogner. "But at the same time you wonder how a healthy 26-year-old girl goes to bed and doesn't wake up."
Bogner contacted ABC News after seeing the Jan. 14, 20/20 report about the 2009 murder of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, and the Peace Corps' silence when the Puzeys tried to learn more about their daughter's death.
The 20/20 report exposed a breach of confidentiality in the Benin, Africa Peace Corps office that Kate Puzey's family said could have led to her murder. Peace Corps Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said she could not discuss the case -- or the breach of confidentiality -- for fear of jeopardizing the trial of the main suspect, another Peace Corps employee.
Investigation Into Stephanie Chance's Death
Bogner's experience with the Peace Corps has been different than that described by members of the Puzey family. She said she is gratified that a Peace Corps representative has been calling to check in almost weekly since her daughter's death. Most recently, her Peace Corps liaison gave her the latest update on the status of her daughter's belongings, which are still in Niger despite the Peace Corps' evacuation. A cargo plane has been found to transport them, but the Peace Corps could not tell Bogner when they would be shipped.
Bogner has also been in touch with the doctor who is conducting her daughter's autopsy. When Chance died, Bogner was given the option of having the autopsy conducted in Niger or in the U.S. She opted for the U.S., and a doctor at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Dover, Delaware, where remains of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are shipped, took over the case.
American authorities instructed medical staff in Niger on which fluids to extract from Chance's body before it was embalmed. The African doctors then shipped the embalmed body and the fluids to Dover for an autopsy. To date, the autopsy and the fluids have shown no foul play and no poison and have not revealed a specific cause of death. Two tests, one for infectious disease and one for genetic heart disease, have yet to be completed. Bogner says the Peace Corps is financing the tests.
In talking to the doctor at Dover, however, Bogner learned for the first time that the Peace Corps' Inspector General had launched an investigation into her daughter's death. The Inspector General's office confirmed the existence of the investigation to Bogner on the phone earlier this month, three months after her daughter was found dead.
Soon after Chance's death, Bogner was also told by a Peace Corps representative that Nigerien officials had conducted their own investigation, and that Chance's belongings could not be returned until the investigation was completed.
Via the Peace Corps, she received translated notes from the Nigerien inquiry, which state that there was no evidence of assault and that Chance had been dead for more than 12 hours when they found her at 11:30 a.m. She said she was not told whether that investigation is complete.
On Jan. 7, Bogner sent an email to a Peace Corps investigator to ask who had requested the internal Peace Corps inquiry into her daughter's death. The investigator replied by email that "as a matter of course," he could not supply that information.
The same day, Bogner sent a separate email to Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams and Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller to ask about the Inspector General's investigation and the Nigerien investigation. As of Wednesday morning, she had not yet received an answer.
Peace Corps Answers Bogner
ABC News contacted a Peace Corps representative on Tuesday and on Wednesday for an update on the inquiry into Chance's death. On Wednesday afternoon, Bogner finally received an email reply to her original January 7 email from Inspector General Buller, cc'ed to Director Williams. The response did not address the status of the Nigerien investigation, but Buller did explain who had asked for the IG investigation and begin to address what it concerns.
"The Medical Examiner," said Buller's email, apparently referring to the doctor conducting the autopsy in Dover, "requested that we gather information regarding the physical circumstances surrounding your daughter's death to assist him in determining the cause. An OIG Special Agent is planning to travel to Niger, however, security concerns have been increasing over the past few weeks and he is waiting for U.S. Embassy approval to make the trip."
Bogner says she finds the timing of the response "interesting," given the recent inquiries by ABC News. "I guess I have no choice but to be satisfied [with the email response]."
The Peace Corps elected to remove its volunteers from Niger after two 25-year-old French citizens were abducted at gunpoint from a restaurant in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, on Jan. 7. The men died during a gun battle between police and the kidnappers the next day.
Last week, a spokesman for Al Qaeda's North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), took responsibility for the abduction.
The State Department issued a travel advisory for Niger on Jan. 12, and has suspended all travel by U.S. government employees outside Niamey "until further notice," citing the Jan. 7 kidnapping and the abduction of six other French citizens and two non-Nigerien Africans by AQIM in 2010. Seven hostages are still being held, while AQIM says it has killed an eighth.
The Peace Corps announced its evacuation on Monday, Jan. 17, after all 98 volunteers had been safely moved to Morocco. The volunteers will be given an opportunity to leave the Peace Corps or request reassignment. The Peace Corps had operated in Niger without interruption since 1962, one year after the organization's founding, and about 3,000 volunteers have served there over the years. The Peace Corps announced it would review safety and security in the country before restarting work there.