MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) — The family of a Knoxville, Tennessee man held in a Venezuelan prison on charges of terrorism is speaking out for the first time. Matthew Heath was arrested almost two months ago at a roadblock in Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro accused Heath of being a terrorist, claiming he was sent as a spy by President Donald Trump. Authorities in the country said the former U.S. Marine was transporting a grenade launcher and bag of dollars.
His family has denied any wrongdoing and believes he was traversing Venezuela to find passage to the Caribbean island of Aruba, where the boat he sailed to South America months earlier in the company of two other U.S. vets was waiting.
Heath's family says he kept a boat in Key West, Florida 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.
But Heath’s family is at a loss to explain many of his movements.
U.S. officials have denied sending Heath to the country. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann (R - Chattanooga) released a statement Saturday, saying Heath had been wrongfully taken into custody.
"On September 10th, 2020 Matthew Heath was taken into custody under false charges by the Maduro regime. We remain concerned about the conditions in which Mr. Heath is being unjustly held and his ability to receive due process," he said. "My office has been in continued contact with the Heath family, as well as the Department of State, and the United States Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. We will continue to do all we can to secure the release of Matthew Heath so that he can safely return home and be reunited with his family here in East Tennessee.”
This comes after a failed attack earlier in May 2020 organized by a Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA that was aimed at overthrowing Maduro.
A Venezuelan court sentenced two former U.S. Green Beret soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in the attack.