Families of Americans detained by Venezuela in failed raid plead for help

Posted on: May 15th, 2020 by ABC News No Comments

omersukrugoksu/iStockBy MARTHA RADDATZ and CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Many of the details surrounding a botched mission to capture Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are still murky and unknown.

But for the families of two Americans who are among the “mercenaries” detained by Venezuelan security forces and accused of executing the operation, the shock, fear and concern for their safety is very real.

Now, nearly two weeks after they were taken into custody and paraded around on state television, their families are searching for help from the U.S. government and answers for how the two U.S. veterans ended up involved in the bizarre saga.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was in total shock. And it’s just, you know, your heart stops, and it’s like the world stands still, and you don’t know what’s going on. It was just really terrifying,” said Melanie Berry, whose husband Airan Berry has been detained along with Luke Denman. She added she had no idea her husband of 19 years and father of their two children was anywhere near Venezuela.

Both Berry and Denman are former U.S. Special Operations soldiers working for a private security firm based in Florida and run by former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, the man at the center of what was dubbed “Operation Gideon.”

As Berry and Denman joined approximately 60 other recruits, mostly Venezuelan military defectors, Goudreau was in neighboring Colombia, safe from Venezuelan forces that intercepted Berry, Denman and the others at sea. At least 52 people were captured, according to Maduro’s state media, with six killed by his military — although the numbers, like many other details, are unclear. What ABC News has learned comes from Pentagon records, the families, Goudreau and state media.

President Donald Trump and senior U.S. officials have denied any role in the operation, despite Maduro or even, it seems, Goudreau’s claims. Trump’s administration has tried to push the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian Maduro from power for nearly a year and a half now, but has been unable to break Maduro’s grip on the military or support from Russia despite a deepening humanitarian crisis. While the U.S. has used diplomatic and economic pressure, Trump has said “all options” are on the table.

“This was not a good attack. … If we ever did anything with Venezuela, it wouldn’t be that way. It’d be slightly different. It’d be called an invasion,” Trump told Fox News last Friday.

But according to their families, that’s exactly the kind of mission that Berry and Denman probably thought they were signing up for.

“I believe Luke was doing something that he believed in, and he wanted to help people,” Kay Denman, Luke Denman’s mother, told ABC News.

“He thought he was helping the Venezuelan people because that’s what he does. When he was a Green Beret, he was a hostage rescue person,” his father Frank added.

In scripted and heavily edited interrogation videos released by Maduro’s state television, both Berry and Denman, seemingly under duress, say Trump commanded the whole operation, giving orders to Goudreau. In recent days, Maduro has gone further and said Trump, Goudreau and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó planned the operation during Guaidó’s visit to the White House in February. The president of Venezuela’s legislature, Guaidó is considered by the U.S. and nearly 60 other countries to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

Guaidó has denied any involvement in the plot, but two of his senior advisers resigned earlier this week after confirming they had met with Goudreau and signed an initial agreement for his services to overthrow Maduro’s government. A copy of a contract bearing Guaidó’s name, which has been shown on Venezuelan state television, is said to be a fake by Guaidó’s camp.

Goudreau told a Venezuelan news outlet on May 3 that he had been training and planning for the “invasion” for a year. The morning Berry and Denman left for Venezuela’s coast, Goudreau announced the “daring amphibious raid was launched from the border of Colombia, deep into the heart of Caracas.”

“Our men are continuing to fight right now,” he said in a video released on Twitter.

But in such murky waters, it seems Berry and Denman’s biggest mistake was trusting Goudreau, who served in the U.S. Army with them. In addition to the possibly fake contract, Goudreau touted his private security firm Silvercorp USA, which said it had ties to Trump after providing security for some of the president’s rallies. In videos on the business’s website, Goudreau himself is seen at a Trump rally, apparently a member of the security team.

It was that tangential connection to the president that gave Goudreau legitimacy in the eyes of many recruits.

The U.S. government is now working to get Berry and Denman freed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 6 the administration will “use every tool that we have available to try and get them back.” A State Department spokesperson told ABC News Thursday they had no further comment on any possible efforts “due to privacy considerations.”

Berry and Denman’s families said they have not yet heard from any U.S. officials, but they’re desperate for action right away — even amid their anger and confusion at what their loved ones did.

“I don’t know, I just want to hug him and just hold him, is kind of where I’m at,” Tatiana Sumiko, Denman’s girlfriend, told ABC News. “I just want to see him and hold him and never let him go.”

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