Mystery surrounds former Marine’s imprisonment in Venezuela

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In this undated photo courtesy of the Heath family, Matthew Heath is seen at his mother’s home in Knoxville, Tennessee. The former U.S. Marine corporal was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela on Sept. 10, 2020, and accused by President Nicolás Maduro of being a terrorist and spying for Donald Trump, but the American’s plight has largely gone unnoticed. (Heath family via AP)

MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) — “Don’t WORRY!,” reads the cryptic note scribbled on a scrap of perforated paper smuggled out of a dank, basement cellblock. “Han Solo always wins!”

The weeks-old message is all the family of Matthew Heath has to pin its hopes on since the former U.S. Marine corporal was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela almost two months ago and accused by President Nicolás Maduro of being a terrorist and spying for Donald Trump.

But other than the brief mention by Maduro, the American’s plight has largely gone unnoticed. Nobody in the family or Trump administration has spoken to Heath. Nor has the Maduro government — never shy about taking a swipe at the U.S. — shared a video of the former intelligence contractor as it did when it nabbed two former Green Berets tied to a failed beach raid in May to overthrow him.

Now, for the first time, Heath’s family in Knoxville, Tennessee is breaking its silence. In an interview with The Associated Press, they denied Heath went to South America with the aim of plotting against Maduro and insist he always kept on the straight and narrow.

But they are at a loss to explain some of his movements, including an earlier arrest on weapons charges in neighboring Colombia, where he arrived in March on a fishing boat with two other U.S. vets. Their theory: he was desperately traversing the tip of South America during a near-total coronavirus lockdown in search of passage to Aruba, where his newly-purchased boat lied waiting.

“My guess is he was an American in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Everett Rutherford, who is married to Heath’s aunt. “It was a bonehead idea and it didn’t help once they could figure out his history.”

Heath, 39, was arrested Sept 10 traveling along the Caribbean coast accused of scheming with three Venezuelans to sabotage oil refineries and other infrastructure to stir unrest. Authorities said they found images of targets on Heath’s cellphone and they displayed pictures taken indoors of a grenade launcher, plastic explosives, and a bag of U.S. dollars they said was being transported by the “terrorist cell.”

But many suspect the evidence was planted. None of the items were displayed in the first outdoor photos taken at the roadblock where they were arrested. Nor was there anywhere to be seen a National Guard sergeant arrested with the group.

U.S. officials immediately denied sending Heath to Venezuela and advocated for his humane treatment. Coming on the heels of the foiled incursion in May organized by Florida-based security firm Silvercorp, which flopped mightily with the death of six Venezuelan fighters and two Green Berets thrown in jail, any additional American freebooting would’ve been a stretch.

But Heath’s reputation for discretion, background in signals intelligence for the Marines and past work as a U.S. government contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed straight out of a Tom Clancy novel.

Even his family has asked whether he was on some sort of secret mission — although there’s no evidence linking him to the Silvercorp fiasco or other possible mercenary activity that Maduro says was prompted by the U.S.’ $15 million bounty on his head.

“What did Colombia do after May 3 attack called Operation Gideon?” the socialist leader said in a press conference Wednesday, referring to the Silvercorp raid. “It provided mercenaries with more support, more money, and more weapons.”

Sean McFate, who teaches at Georgetown University, said adrenaline-seeking vets returning home from the crucible of war and who don’t want to be security guards at the shopping mall are a growing challenge for U.S. foreign policy.

“A soldier like Heath, whether or not he’s guilty, is very attractive to authoritarian leaders like Maduro seeking leverage with the U.S.,” said McFate, who was himself a private security contractor after retiring from the U.S. Army.

U.S. officials say they are worried Heath is being mistreated. Unlike the ex-Green Berets in the botched Silvercorp raid, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who looked upbeat and well treated in a recent video call with family members, he’s being held in a prison perversely called “the House of Dreams” by Venezuela’s military intelligence.

A recent United Nations report described the facility as overcrowded, without natural light or ventilation. Former detainees recounted to the UN sleeping on the cold floor, with little food and being forced to defecate in a plastic bag changed once a week.

The only contact Heath had with the outside world is through smuggled handwritten notes, one of which mentions Han Solo — his son’s hero from Star Wars — and another his time on the personal security detail of Ambassador William Taylor when he headed the American reconstruction effort in Iraq.

“I send these letters in the blind, I hope you are getting them,” he scribbled in one distressing missive addressed to his family dated Oct. 7. “They asked hard, I haven’t said shit.”

Ironically, Heath himself spoke critically of the U.S.’ own treatment of foreign prisoners, specifically Iraqis held in Abu Ghraib prison, where inmates said they suffered abuse and torture.

“I am very angry they were disrespected like they were,” he told his local newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, in 2004 a year after he retired from the U.S. military and was studying at the University of Tennessee. “We’re confirming their worst fears.”

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican from East Tennessee, said his office is in close contact with the State Department and U.S. Embassy in Bogota — the U.S. Embassy in Caracas was forced to shutter last year — doing all it can to secure Heath’s release.

“We remain concerned about the condition in which he is being unjustly held and his ability to receive due process,” Fleischmann said in a statement to the AP.

The socialist government’s chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, wouldn’t comment.

Heath joined the military following in the footsteps of his father and several uncles. Trudy Rutherford, who helped raise Heath after his mother left her young family, considers him a son. She described him as hard-working and affectionate with family even if a little quiet, especially when it comes to discussing his work.

The improbable chain of events that ended with Heath being held incommunicado in a Venezuelan jail began at the start of the year when Heath purchased a ragged 53-foot trawler — called Purple Dream — in Houston, according to the family.

Heath in recent years had taught himself to sail. His family says he kept a boat in Key West, Florida — the Cinnabar — with the hope it would be his ticket to a new career on the water and free of the toils of private security work he had been doing for more than a decade in the Middle East, most recently with Virginia-based MVM.

The Purple Dream, with its rusting steel cabin and a fraying American flag, set sail sometime before March, according to Heath’s family. There are conflicting accounts of its itinerary — whether it hewed to Central American coastline or ventured east into the Caribbean.

But on March 9 it had to be assisted at sea by Nicaragua’s navy near the port of El Bluff, according to a Nicaraguan army press release. On March 20 it sailed into the historic harbor of Cartagena, according to Colombian maritime authorities.

In addition to Heath, the ship’s captain, two others were on board: Jason Phalin, a recently-retired Navy SEAL who is a weapons instructor for State Department-funded contractors, and Rickey Neil Gary II, a former Marine reservist who like Heath partook in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and later transitioned to private security work.

Neither men returned phone calls and emails seeking comment, nor was the Heath family even aware of their names until the AP located them on the maritime records.

Both Heath and Gary had traveled to Colombia at least once before. According to Colombian migration records, the two left together, on a Mexico-bound boat, from the Caribbean island of Providencia in August 2019.

The Purple Dream arrived to Cartagena unannounced reporting mechanical problems and the men never legally entered the country, which was starting to shut down due to the coronavirus. On March 23, it departed with all three crew members on board, listing its destination as Corpus Christi, Texas, according to port records provided to the AP.

Two days later, Heath was arrested some 12 hours inland by road. It’s not clear how he sneaked ashore or why he was so intent on entering Colombia. He told his family he had gone to visit a girlfriend about whom they knew next to nothing.

But at a roadblock entering the city of Bucaramanga, police discovered three cartridges and 49 rounds of ammo for a 9 mm Glock pistol in his bag — probably for a firearm kept on board the ship, his family says.

Colombian prosecutors in an Oct. 23 hearing filed weapons charges against Heath, which carries penalties of 9 to 12 years in jail. They said at the time of his arrest he was traveling in a beat-up Toyota pickup with five others.

Luis Leal, the vehicle’s driver but not its registered owner, told the AP he had picked up Heath, two Venezuelan men, and a woman at the crossroads of Bosconia as he was driving south from Cartagena. Leal said he was a licensed security guard and as such exempted from a ban on driving that went into place that same day as part of a strict lockdown. To earn extra cash, he offered to give the hitchhikers a lift to Bucaramanga for about $80 each.

He said the American was accompanied by a translator who he identified from a mugshot as Marco Antonio Garcés, one of the Venezuelans arrested six months later with Heath in Venezuela. The other man, Carlos Eduardo Estrada, was convicted a decade earlier of extortion, Venezuelan court records show.

Estrada told the AP that the group had been traveling around Colombia and joined up with Heath in Tolu, a sleepy beach town a few hours southwest of Cartagena. He said he believes Garcés, a distant relative, knew Heath from his time living in the U.S. but didn’t know what the American was doing in Colombia. Like Heath’s family, he believes the American innocently entered Venezuela in the hopes of catching up with his boat.

Silgessio Garcés, a retired air force officer, told the AP that his son perfected his English working 8 months as a cook in Atlanta while seeking asylum. But he decided to return home in 2018 when his mother became ill.

He said that in February the 24-year-old traveled to Colombia to try and renew his U.S. visa and got stuck there when a quarantine was declared. He doesn’t know how his son managed to support himself in Colombia, nor had he mentioned any relationship with an American. All he knows is that in late August or early September his son sneaked across the border and on Sept. 9 called from the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo to arrange a pick-up in in a city halfway to Caracas.

“He called and said he was crossing the lake’s bridge and that in the afternoon he should be arriving,” Garces told the AP. A few hours later, a second call came in which a desperate-sounding Garces blurted out “mama” several times before the line went dead.

Heath’s family doesn’t know what led him to cross into Venezuela. The State Department last year advised Americans not to travel to the country, warning of civil unrest, crumbling hospitals and the risk of arbitrary arrest or kidnapping.

Contact after he was released from the Colombian prison after a few days was less frequent even as he continued to hit up friends and family members for cash. In total, the family has accounted for $27,000 sent to him in Colombia.

Spooked by his experience in jail, his family believes he was misled, or possibly extorted, by people preying on his desperation to return home. In April, he told his family he traveled to Puerto Bolivar, on the peninsula of La Guajira in Colombia, believing he was going to catch a boat to Aruba. But it never showed up. In June, his grandmother died and he missed his son’s 11th birthday.

“Wherever he was in the world he always flew home for his birthday,” said Rutherford, who was himself detained abroad, blocked for leaving a month from Turkmenistan, during a long petroleum career in dangerous, authoritarian environs. “Even when he was deployed in Iraq, he once flew home for a three-day visit.”

The Purple Dream was next spotted in Aruba, showing up unannounced around midnight July 21 to Oranjestad harbor with two people aboard. Port authorities, over the radio, told the ship that the borders were closed due to coronavirus.

“The captain informed me that they have been on the water for 20 days and are very tired,” according to a port official’s report about the incident.

Eventually, the ship and its crew, which said they had sailed from Key West, were escorted into the harbor. The ship remains on the island, pending sale by the prosecutor. It’s not clear what happened to its two crew members, who Aruban authorities refused to identify, or why the boat even docked there.

It’s just one of many mysteries about Heath’s time in South America adding to his family’s sense of hopelessness. Still, while Trudy Rutherford said that she wishes she knew more about her nephew’s endeavors, she’s certain he did no wrong.

“Every day I wake up feeling sick and want to throw up,” said Rutherford, her voice rising in anger for fear Heath is being treated. “I just want him back.”

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AP reporter Fabiola Sanchez and Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela, Stephan Kogelman in Bonaire and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APjoshgoodman

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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