Parents of Slain Volunteer Say Peace Corps Error Led to Murder
Whistleblower's name revealed to suspect accused of sexually abusing children.
Jan. 14, 2011 — -- The family of a 24-year old Peace Corps volunteer from Atlanta, Kate Puzey, says agency personnel set her up to be murdered by revealing her role in the dismissal of an employee she accused of sexually abusing children at a school in the African country of Benin.
The young woman was found with her throat slit shortly after the employee, Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.
"It just seems very obvious that that was the cause," said Puzey's brother David. "Kate was trying to protect these young girls who were being sexually abused."
The suspect has been in custody since the murder in March 2009 while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America.
Interviewed for a report on 20/20 tonight, Puzey's parents say the Peace Corps attempted to keep the case and the mistakes quiet, and keep them in the dark about what happened.
"It hurts us very deeply," said Kate's father, Harry Puzey.
"We wouldn't be sitting here, I think, if they had been more transparent with us, more honest with us," added Kate's mother, Lois.
The vivacious Kate had nothing but admirers in the village of Badjoude, Benin, where she was posted in 2007.
As a teacher in the local school, she formed a girls' club to help empower the young women.
"It's hard to be a girl in that part of the world," said Kate's cousin Emilie Jacobs, who visited her in the village. "The girls started really speaking about some of the issues they were face, their concerns as seventh graders."
Before long, Jacobs says, Kate began to hear reports of sexual abuse involving Bio and some of the seventh graders.
"She had started hearing that he had been sleeping with some of his students," Jacobs said. "Some of the girls actually ended up having children by him and weren't going to school anymore. And then she heard that he had raped some girls."
At the request of several teachers, Jacobs said, Kate sent an e-mail to the Peace Corps office in Benin's capital city of Cotonou, recommending Bio be fired.
"Please believe me, I'm not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me," reads the e-mail she sent, obtained by ABC News.
"This man is not someone I want representing Peace Corps to the Beninese community," she said.
Bio's brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office and she asked her role be kept secret.
"For obvious reasons, it's important to me that I remain anonymous in this situation," Kate wrote.
The Peace Corps director for Benin, Sheryl Cowan, promised Kate's role would be kept confidential.
But authorities say Bio became aware of Kate's role in accusing him.
"This is a violent person, has no respect for women" said Lois Puzey. "So what's going to happen when he loses his prestige? He's gonna lose his job?"
Bio's brother, Jacques, was also taken into custody in connection with the murder, although no formal charges have yet been filed against either man as is typical of investigations under the judicial system in Benin.
The Peace Corps has done its best to keep word of the case and its apparent mistakes quiet.
The only public reference is a 2009 report by the Peace Corps Inspector General which says an investigation found "there was a direct link between the leaked information and a local criminal investigation." There is no specific reference to Benin or to Kate Puzey.
To date, the Peace Corps has made no public acknowledgement of the breach of confidentiality nor apologized to the Puzey family.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps deputy director, refused to say whether the agency bore any responsibility for Kate Puzey's death, citing the ongoing criminal investigation in Benin.
"I cannot say because the investigation is not complete," she told ABC News.
In a written statement, the Peace Corps said its reluctance to comment was based on the risk of "compromising the investigation or any prosecution of the case."
Hessler-Radelet also cited the ongoing criminal investigation in declining to comment on the Peace Corps Inspector General's investigation, which is complete.
The Puzey family says the Peace Corps was "insensitive" in its treatment of them until officials learned ABC News had begun to look into the case.
Before that, the Puzeys say there was "radio silence" from Peace Corps officials, who arranged for their daughter's belongings to be delivered unceremoniously in a cardboard box left in the driveway.
"She was a hero," said Kate's father Harry. "And I thought maybe a representative would come or at least a letter in the box. Just a delivery man showed up with a box and that was it."
The Peace Corps says it is has now changed its procedures for dealing with the families of volunteers killed overseas.
Still, the Puzeys say much more could be done, including legislation that would give volunteers the same whistleblower protections afforded employees of the federal government.
"We want the Peace Corps to improve, to be what Kate Puzey wanted the Peace Corps to be and thought the Peace Corps could be and that's our mission," said Kate's father, Harry.
Angela M. Hill, Hanna Siegel and Chris James contributed to this report.