Peace Corps volunteer's murder haunts Georgia's Isakson

McClatchy NewspapersJune 19, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The senator looks at the murdered girl's face every day.

He's drawn in by her eyes, bright and wide and full of sweetness and hope, as she cradles a little brown skinned girl on her lap.

She could have been his daughter or even one of his nine grandchildren. That's what Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson thinks when he looks at the ghost in the frame. So he's kept the photo of the murdered Peace Corps worker closest to him at his desk — even closer than the photos of his own children scattered on the marble mantle in his office on Capitol Hill.

Tonight, his own children and grandchildren will sleep soundly with the promise of bright futures ahead of them. Just over two years ago, Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey, the president and valedictorian of her high school class who had a passion for empowering young women living in poverty, was found dead. Her throat was slit as she slept on the front porch of her hut in the small West African village of Badjoude, Benin, shortly after she reported a colleague for allegedly molesting some of the young girls they helped teach.

Puzey's murder, which is under investigation, is just one of a series of violent attacks on hundreds of female Peace Corps workers in recent years that have rocked the government-run volunteer organization, which for 50 years was an embodiment of President John F. Kennedy's dream of talented young men and women sowing the seeds of progress and peace in developing countries. Intensified scrutiny from the media and Congress has led the Peace Corps to change its practices in dealing with volunteers' complaints of rape and physical assaults.

Isakson has doggedly pursued whistleblower protection legislation for Peace Corps workers, named for Puzey. But Isakson, a quiet Republican lawmaker who shuns the spotlight, won't even allow himself to visit Kate's gravesite until the legislation passes and her killer is brought to justice.

Ever since he met the Puzeys at Kate's funeral, Isakson has worked behind the scenes to convince the government of Benin and the U.S. State Department to investigate Kate's death. And though his Senate office considers hundreds of constituent services requests a year, there was just something about the Puzey family's plaintive pleas on behalf of their daughter that really resonated with the senator.

He sees it as providence that he happened to read an article about her death in the local paper and decided to sit quietly and anonymously in the back of the church at her funeral. Providence that somehow, six months later, the family remembered his suggestion that they call him if they ever needed help.

Providence that when they did make that call asking for help in finding out what really happened to Kate, Isakson was serving as the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee's subcommittee on African affairs.

"One day I want to make that call and tell them in the dead of the night that it's a done deal," Isakson said of the legislation named for Kate Puzey.

Last month, he hand delivered a sealed letter from the Puzeys to Benin President Thomas Yayi Boni and sat patiently for more than two hours with the man pressing the need for the two governments to cooperate in an investigation into Kate's death. Yayi read the family's words, looked carefully at the enclosed snapshots and wept.

Then Yayi picked up the phone to call his country's minister of justice.

This month, Isakson drove to Puzeys' suburban home in Cumming, Ga. The senator was 15 minutes early and excited as he came up the same driveway where just a few short years ago the Peace Corps had Kate's belongings from Benin delivered in a cardboard box.

He carried with him a letter from a government a continent away. He paused before heading inside the house.

Kate's father, Harry Puzey, knows that he's dying. Coming to terms with his stage four lung cancer has meant acceptance.

So he's accepted that the powerful combination of chemotherapy medication sometimes gives him what he calls "chemo brain," and he can't always remember details or he forgets questions asked. Blood transfusions are so routine that he sometimes conducts business on a cellphone while the plasma is pumped into his body, and apologizes for the beeping noises when the machines alert the nurses that it's time to check the tubing.

As his days run short, he finds himself thinking most keenly of Kate, his little "Sugar." He remembers how she smelled of milky sweetness as a baby. He remembers how she slipped her tiny hand in his as they went walking in the fairytale-inspiring German forests when he was stationed there as Department of Defense special education teacher. He remembers how, when she told her parents she was going to Africa, he tried to talk her out of it. She'd responded: "Daddy, I'm doing exactly what I always wanted to do."

"I taught her to ride a bicycle for the first time," Harry Puzey said, his voice a hoarse whisper, his chest heaving with the effort. "She had confidence when we practiced because I had my hand on the seat. And then there was that day she discovered I didn't have my hand on the seat and she didn't have training wheels. She was so happy."

He has the hardest time accepting that "half my heart was ripped away" when someone killed his little "Sugar."

"I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can't get it out of my head the way she died," he said.

When the Peace Corps called to tell him about his daughter's death, he was in the hospital hooked up to an IV. The news took a toll on his already very fragile health.

He's grateful that his wife, Lois, and son, David, have taken up the charge to help pursue justice for Kate — testifying on Capitol Hill on the abuse of Peace Corps workers and pressing the need for reform.

But even after he got sick four years ago, he'd always seen himself as his children's champion.

"The bottom line is I couldn't protect Kate," he said between sobs. "I would give anything if it just could have been me."

On days when he can muster enough energy, he goes to Kate's grave to talk to her.

"I talk to her about how much we miss her. And how much we loved her. And how we're trying to make her proud and move on," he said. "But we can't move on until we get this legislation passed and we have a trial for some kind of justice."

The senator is on a mission to deliver a letter on behalf of the Benin government to the murdered girl's dying father and his family.

Harry Puzey welcomed Isakson warmly into the air-conditioned cool of their home and offered him a seat. Then the two men talked, away from prying eyes and ears, news cameras and even other family members.

The two men spoke as fathers of what it's like to see your children leave you.

Harry Puzey would later wish he had somehow better conveyed his deep gratitude to Isakson for taking up the mantle of father-champion-protector on Kate's behalf when his own flesh failed him. She would have been 27 on Father's Day.

Isakson would later wish that when Puzey said, "I need to know when this is going to happen," the senator had a firm answer for him.

"He's hanging on to see justice in Kate's case," Isakson said later in his office, his voice cracking just a bit and his eyes tearing just slightly. Then he cleared his throat. "That gives me satisfaction as a father and as a member of the Senate."

But in that moment, still unmarred by second guesses and regrets over things unsaid, the two fathers sat facing each other.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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