Murdered Peace Corps Volunteer Remembered in Capitol Hill Vigil

PHOTO A candlelight vigil was held March 11, 2011 on the Capitol steps for Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, who was murdered in Africa.PlayABC News
WATCH Why Would Anyone Kill Kate?

More than 100 mourners gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Friday night to remember slain Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old from Atlanta murdered while serving in Africa in 2009.

Activists, returned Peace Corps volunteers and family members held electronic candles to commemorate Puzey and the two-dozen other volunteers who've been murdered while serving in the Peace Corps since its founding in 1961.

"Kate was someone who brought sunshine in the room with her," said Kate's mother Lois Puzey, standing at a podium beside a poster-sized photo of her late daughter. "She was someone who was a caregiver and gave comfort to other people."

But Puzey said she and her husband Harry and son David organized the event on the second anniversary of Kate's death with a bigger agenda in mind than just honoring Kate and other fallen volunteers. Puzey hopes the Peace Corps will mark its own 50th anniversary by offering greater protection to volunteers, especially whistleblowers, and more support to victims of violence and their families.

"We want to make sure that when people go out and are going to give their lives and serve that they're going to be safe," said Puzey. "And that if something goes wrong they're going to be supported."

As detailed in a January "20/20" report, while serving in Benin, West Africa in early 2009, Kate Puzey wrote an email to the Peace Corps' Benin headquarters reporting that she had heard a fellow Peace Corps employee, a local man who taught in the same village as she did, had raped some of her seventh-grade students.


Kate's parents told ABC News that they believe the Peace Corps failed to protect their daughter, and that they suspect her email was shown to the brother of the man she reported, who worked at Benin headquarters. Kate was found with her throat slit two weeks after she sent the email. The man she reported, Constant Bio, is the prime suspect. Both he and his brother are being held by local authorities as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. Bio has maintained his innocence.

The Peace Corps says that the agency will not comment on Kate Puzey's case until Bio's investigation and prosecution, overseen by the Benin government, is complete.

But two weeks after Kate's death, the Peace Corps drafted a policy designed to protect the confidentiality of volunteers reporting sensitive information.


Lois Puzey said she felt the policy was "too little too late." She said that although she is happy the policy is in place, it is tragic that it was not there to protect her daughter.

"However, things have improved within the last year with new Peace Corps leadership who seem really committed to finally solving these problems," she added.


Peace Corps Volunteer Murdered In Philippines

Friday's vigil also honored other volunteers and their families who have experienced sexual assault, violence or death while serving abroad in the Peace Corps.

Linda Campbell's daughter Julia was murdered in 2007 while serving the Peace Corps in the Philippines.

"I felt like my heart had been ripped out," said Campbell. "I knew what Lois and Harry were going through."

She told the returned Peace Corps volunteers in attendance, "Never forget Kate and all your fellow volunteers who have gone through so much."

Jessica Smochek, who was raped in 2005 while serving in Bangledesh, never met Kate. But said she knows her strength and courage through the Puzey family.

"I may not have met Kate, but her courage to stand up for those without a voice inspires me," said Smochek. "Volunteers who are survivors share a common bond."

As part of the "20/20" report, ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross also interviewed six former Peace Corps volunteers, including Smochek, who were raped or sexually assaulted while serving as volunteers. Five of the six were extremely unhappy with how Peace Corps treated them, saying they even felt blamed by the organization for "bringing on" the attacks.

CLICK HERE to watch an interview with Peace Corps volunteers who were sexually assaulted.

In the wake of the ABC News report, the House Foreign Affairs Committee scheduled hearings on the issue of how Peace Corps handles victims of sexual assault and rape.

The hearings are scheduled for March 30 and 31. David Puzey, Kate's brother, said he and his parents and a group they've formed called Kate's Voice are working with the Peace Corps and members of Congress to address the problem of sexual assault against volunteers.

"We're looking at proposals for legislation that would protect volunteers who are whistleblowers," said David. "We're also looking at proposals for how volunteers are supported should they become victims of violence but survive."

Puzey said Kate's Voice is also exploring legislation that will support grieving families after their loved ones have been killed during their Peace Corp service.

Prior to the vigil the Puzeys met with Sen. Jonny Isakson, R-Georgia, and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, to discuss proposed legislation and the upcoming congressional hearings.

"We hope and expect that the Peace Corps will continue to work with us," said Lois Puzey, "to see that legislation is passed to protect future volunteers and support victims of violence."

"The Peace Corps has already begun to implement changes," said Puzey, "and I applaud their first steps."

Dick Day, Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa, appeared at the vigil and spoke of Kate's contributions to the Peace Corps, Benin and the world.

"Kate was a beloved volunteer who gave so much of herself to her village in Benin. She was devoted to the young women in her community. Kate was a catalyst for change. She was a hero, she was a bright light."

"Kate's legacy will be to always do the right thing even if it's difficult," said her brother David. "Standing up for the right thing can be hard and can put you inarm's way but that's how you make the world a better place."

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