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Sunday, 1 November 2020

'They asked hard, I haven't said sh*t:' Former Marine jailed in dreaded 'House of Dreams' prison in Venezuela sneaks message to family as it's revealed he was arrested on gun charges in Colombia

 The family of a former U.S. Marine corporal imprisoned in Venezuela and accused of being a terrorist is calling for help in securing his release as they become increasingly worried he is being mistreated. 

Matthew Heath, 39, was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela on September 10 and charged in an alleged terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical service in order to stir unrest in the socialist country.

Neither his family or the Trump administration have been in contact with him since his arrest, apart from the cryptic notes he has managed to smuggle out from the prison Fuerte Tiuna, perversely called 'the House of Dreams' by Venezuela's military intelligence. 

In the notes, the father-of-one mentions his eleven-year-old son, his time serving in Iraq and tells his family 'they asked hard, I haven't said sh**'.  

It has led to major concerns from his family about the man's treatment while imprisoned, as they protest his innocence in any attempts to cause unrest in Venezuela. 

However, they remain unable to explain why he was traveling in Venezuela, as it emerges that Heath was also arrested on weapons charges earlier this year in Colombia, where he arrived in March on a fishing boat with two other U.S. veterans.   

Matthew Heath, 39, was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela on September 10 and charged in an alleged terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical service in order to stir unrest in the socialist country. His family or the Trump administration has not yet spoken to him

Matthew Heath, 39, was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela on September 10 and charged in an alleged terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical service in order to stir unrest in the socialist country. His family or the Trump administration has not yet spoken to him

Soldiers guard a blockade outside Fuerte Tiuna military complex in Caracas, Venezuela. It is believed that Heath is being held in the prison, perversely called 'the House of Dreams' by Venezuela's military intelligence, that is being investigated by the United Nations

Soldiers guard a blockade outside Fuerte Tiuna military complex in Caracas, Venezuela. It is believed that Heath is being held in the prison, perversely called 'the House of Dreams' by Venezuela's military intelligence, that is being investigated by the United Nations

Heath's arrest came on the heels of a foiled incursion in May organized by Florida-based security firm Silvercorp, which flopped mightily with the death of six Venezuelan fighters. 

Two former Green Berets were also thrown in jail and sentenced last month to 20 years for their role in the botched raid, bringing US-Venezuelan relations to a new low. 

In an interview with Associated Press, Heath's family in Knoxville, Tennessee, denied he went to South America with the aim of plotting against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and insist he always kept on the straight and narrow.

They believe 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.'

Yet given Heath's background in signals intelligence for the Marines and past work as a U.S. government contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, even they question if he could have been on some kind of secret mission.  

There is currently no evidence linking him to the Silvercorp fiasco or other possible mercenary activity that Maduro says was prompted by the U.S. government placing $15 million bounty on his head.

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.

When Heath was arrested in September along with three Venezuelans, authorities claimed they found images of targets on his cellphone. 

They released 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. 

This photo released by Nicaragua's Navy shows Heath's boat, Purple Dream, anchored in Bluff Port, Nicaragua, on March 9. Nicaragua's military says they assisted the vessel at sea

This photo released by Nicaragua's Navy shows Heath's boat, Purple Dream, anchored in Bluff Port, Nicaragua, on March 9. Nicaragua's military says they assisted the vessel at sea

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has only briefly mentioned Heath's arrest

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has only briefly mentioned Heath's arrest

None of the items were displayed in the first outdoor photos taken at the roadblock where they were arrested.

U.S. officials immediately denied sending Heath to Venezuela and advocated for his humane treatment. 

They have since said 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, 'the House of Dreams' where Heath is located is a more dangerous facility.

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 has 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 October 7. 'They asked hard, I haven't said sh**.'

'Don't WORRY!' another reads. 'Han Solo always wins!'

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.

Venezuelan authorities claim they seized a grenade launcher, a sub-machine gun, ammunition, and other equipment from four men - American Matthew Heath and three Venezuelan co-conspirators - who were allegedly trying to blow up an oil refinery

Venezuelan authorities claim they seized a grenade launcher, a sub-machine gun, ammunition, and other equipment from four men - American Matthew Heath and three Venezuelan co-conspirators - who were allegedly trying to blow up an oil refinery

Heath, who Venezuelan officials claims has CIA ties, had help from three Venezuelan conspirators, who were arrested with him last week near a pair of oil refineries on the country's north Caribbean coast, Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab claimed

Heath, who Venezuelan officials claims has CIA ties, had help from three Venezuelan conspirators, who were arrested with him last week near a pair of oil refineries on the country's north Caribbean coast, Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab claimed

The above image shows a cell phone picture of one of the refineries that Venezuelan officials claimed was evidence found on Heath's phone that he was plotting an attack

The above image shows a cell phone picture of one of the refineries that Venezuelan officials claimed was evidence found on Heath's phone that he was plotting an attack

Venezuelan authorities said they seized communications equipment, cell phones, and other documents but U.S. officials and Heath's family fear is was all planted evidence

Venezuelan authorities said they seized communications equipment, cell phones, and other documents but U.S. officials and Heath's family fear is was all planted evidence

Compared the the multiple press briefings given following the arrest of Berry and Denman in May, the Venezuelan government has also remained relatively tightlipped about Heath.  

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

President Maduro has also only briefly mentioned the new U.S. prisoner and no videos of the captured Heath have been released as they were in the arrest of the former Green Berets. 

Heath joined the military following in the footsteps of his father and several uncles. 

His aunt 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.

In this undated photo courtesy of the Heath family, Matthew Heath navigates a boat near the Florida Keys. His family said he hoped it would be his ticket to a new career

In this undated photo courtesy of the Heath family, Matthew Heath navigates a boat near the Florida Keys. His family said he hoped it would be his ticket to a new career

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.

Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela, where it is believed Heath is imprisoned

Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela, where it is believed Heath is imprisoned

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 October 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 September 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.

Americans Luke Denman and Airan Berry (right and left) were arrested in Venezuela in May and sentenced to 20 years in prison for an alleged botched attempt to kidnap President Maduro

Americans Luke Denman and Airan Berry (right and left) were arrested in Venezuela in May and sentenced to 20 years in prison for an alleged botched attempt to kidnap President Maduro

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 jailed abroad, for a month in 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, according to the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard. 

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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