— By Domani Spero
On December 16, 1998, a Peace Corps volunteer attended a swearing-in ceremony at a small city in Gabon, some 200 miles from the capital city of Libreville. Reports said she went with three friends to a small bar near her house to celebrate, left the bar around midnight and never made it back to her house. The next day, a young girl on her way to school found Karen Phillips body.
This December will the 15th death anniversary of Karen Phillips, the Peace Corps volunteer murdered in the African county of Gabon. She was there to help farmers to better market their produce and teach English at a local school.
On November 19, 2013, the Peace Corps announced that Thierry “Rambo” Ntoutoume Nzue was convicted for the 1998 murder of 37-year-old Peace Corps/Gabon Volunteer Karen Phillips. A Gabonese criminal court sentenced Ntoutoume Nzue to life in prison. One individual was previously charged with murder and two others, including this “Rambo” were charged in connection with the killing. Below is the full text of the announcement:
Libreville, Gabon, Nov. 19, 2013 – Thierry “Rambo” Ntoutoume Nzue was convicted Tuesday for the 1998 murder of 37-year-old Peace Corps/Gabon Volunteer Karen Phillips. A Gabonese criminal court sentenced Ntoutoume Nzue to life in prison.
Phillips served in Oyem, an agricultural city of about 40,000 in the coastal African nation of Gabon. She worked as an agro-forestry volunteer, helping local farmers market their agricultural products.
“She just loved helping people,” said Richard Phillips, Karen’s father. “That’s the type of person she was. Karen was a doer and a giver.”
Prior to joining the Peace Corps, Phillips worked in Atlanta as a fundraiser for the international development organization, CARE. A native of Delaware County, Pa., Karen received her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Villanova University in 1982, and a master’s degree in business administration from Fordham University in 1989.
“There is nothing harder for this agency than losing a volunteer, and after many years, I wholeheartedly hope the Phillips family can now find a sense of comfort and closure,” Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said. “I am extremely grateful to those who have relentlessly sought justice for Karen Phillips and her family for more than a decade.”
Phillips was found stabbed to death on December 17, 1998. Since her death, an investigative team led by the Gabonese judicial police, with the assistance of the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, and the U.S. Embassy in Libreville have worked to pursue justice for Phillips. In late 2012, the government of Gabon formally requested, through the international police organization INTERPOL, that U.S. federal law enforcement assist in the investigation of the murder. The team revisited all aspects of the crime. Subsequently, Ntoutoume Nuze was identified, brought to trial, and convicted by Gabonese authorities.
“Everyone who has worked on Karen’s case over the years has been deeply moved by both her life of commitment to service and her tragic death,” Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy A. Buller said. “I hope this verdict will bring a degree of peace to her family and friends.”
According to news reports, Karen Phillips had been a PCV for less than a year when she was killed.
“Karen and volunteers Stacy Jupiter and Lynne Kraskouskas had just been to the swearing-in party on Dec. 16 when they stopped at a small bar near Phillips’ house.
As the three sipped beer and ate Chips Ahoy! cookies, a drunken man approached the women saying he was Phillips’ neighbor. Phillips brushed off his advances, Kraskouskas and Jupiter later told police.
The volunteers left the bar and parted ways at a nearby corner about midnight. Jupiter planned to walk Kraskouskas, a new volunteer, back to a training center in town. Phillips assured the two that she would be fine going home alone.”
The initial investigation focused on a former rock star/son of a diplomat who had lived in Germany, Israel, Denmark and the U.S., his cousin, and one other individual:
“A man named Ndoutoume Nzue Thierry, nicknamed “Rambo,” told police that Ondo and his cousin, Jean ClŽment Mintsa, forced Phillips into a car. Police identified Thierry as the drunk man who approached Phillips and her friends in the bar the night she died.
But Thierry abruptly changed his story after demonstrators converged on the Oyem jail where Ondo and Mintsa were being questioned. On Dec. 24, two days after implicating Ondo in Phillips’ murder, Thierry said Phillips fell on a rock while they had consensual sex. On Dec. 30, Thierry told police he attacked and stabbed her with a nail clipper. In February 1999, Thierry accused Ondo again.”
In July 2000, the three men charged were acquitted in the Phillips murder. In 2003, Dayton Daily News did a lengthy piece on Phillips murder and her father’s pursuit for justice.
* * *