The plot reads like it was ripped from the pages of a Hollywood action-adventure script: two U.S. Army Special Forces veterans are accused of being part of an elaborate plot to invade Venezuela and kidnap its president.
Luke Denman of Austin and Airan Berry, who grew up in Fort Worth, were arrested Monday by Venezuelan authorities who say the men were involved in a plan to carry out such a mission, leaving relatives and friends baffled. “The question of what were they thinking has come up more than once,” said a friend of the two families.
The communications from Caracas have been limited since.
In a taped video statement broadcast by Venezuela state television Wednesday, Denman said he was part of a botched operation to seize Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and put him on a plane to the United States, where he is under indictment for drug trafficking and corruption. The United States has offered a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s capture or conviction.
But the purported scheme to seize and hold the Caracas airport, snatch Maduro from the Miraflores Palace, and hold off the Venezuelan army long enough to hustle him out of the country never got anywhere. Instead, Denman and Berry and a few of the Venezuelans were dragged ashore by Venezuelan troops and held face down at gunpoint. At least eight among the alleged invasion party of fifty to sixty men were reportedly killed.
For the anxious families of Denman and Berry, the news of the two men’s arrest was shocking. “I had no idea,” said Kay Denman, Luke’s mother. When a friend of Luke’s called her with the news that Luke had been arrested in Venezuela, “my heart just sank,” she said. A former special ed teacher’s assistant at Valley View Elementary School in Austin, she said the family was familiar with the political chaos and collapsing economy of Venezuela. “We knew what was going on there,” she said, so the news that her son had been captured “was traumatic. Oh my gosh!”
Since then, she said, the families have scrambled to find ways to ensure that Denman and Berry are well treated in prison and are freed as quickly as possible. Chances for an early release of the pair, though, seem remote. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who asserted that there had been “no United States government direct involvement” in the affair, promised that “we will work to get them back” using “every tool.” But relations between Washington and the Maduro regime are hostile, with the Trump administration having recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Trump has toughened U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company and central bank, calling Maduro “a Cuban puppet.” With regard to any action the United States might take against Maduro, Trump said last year that “all options are on the table.”
Denman and Berry seem an unlikely pair to be caught up in international intrigue. Denman, 34, served five years as an Army Special Forces communications sergeant with at least one combat deployment in Iraq. Denman’s family believes he was trained in hostage rescue missions. Berry, who will turn 42 on May 15, served seventeen years in Army Special Forces as an engineer sergeant. His records indicate that he served three combat deployments in Iraq and earned two Bronze Star medals for heroism. He and his wife have been married for nineteen years and have two children. Both men also earned the Combat Infantryman Badge indicating direct action in combat.
“They are good men,” Berry’s wife Melanie told Texas Monthly. Airan “means the world to me and the family,” she said. ”Our only focus now is to make sure they are treated humanely now and to get them back home safely.”
When Denman left the Army in December 2011, he seemed, like many combat veterans, to be unable to find excitement and meaning in post-military life, missing his closest buddies and the fulfilling ideal of service to country. He worked in hotel security for a time, then trained as an underwater welder and spent time working on Louisiana offshore oil rigs. He decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he moved to the Pacific Northwest last fall.
In January he flew back east, his mother said, “and I don’t know where he went.”
But in a phone call home in January, Luke told his father, Frank Denman, that he had a job offer in Florida that he couldn’t talk about. He never mentioned Venezuela. “But he did say it was the most meaningful thing he’d ever done,” Frank Denman said. In retrospect, he said he believes his son understood that he was involved in an official U.S. operation, that the mission was simply training, and that “it was a meaningful way to help relieve the widely known suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
“I get it now,” Frank Denman said. “Naturally I wish it had been better conceived.”
In the taped video statement broadcast, Denman acknowledged traveling in January to a small town in Colombia near the Venezuelan border to train and supervise the force that would seize the airport and Maduro. Looking tired but calm, Denman explained that “I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country.” He also said he expected to be paid between $15,000 and $100,000 for the operation.
But friends and family believe his primary motivation was altruistic. “He had talked about the people of Venezuela, that everybody should have a chance to live free, which is not occurring there,” said Clint Pohler of Horseshoe Bay, who said he has known Luke for about ten years. “That’s probably the driving force that caused him to do this. He said something recently about making every day count, and doing something meaningful. “The amateurishness of the way this (operation) is being portrayed, that seems a mischaracterization of his portion of it. He was very good and proficient and very aware of not doing stupid things.”
Jordan Goudreau, who served in U.S. Special Forces with Denman and Berry, is reported to have come up with the invasion and kidnapping plan in consultation with Venezuelan opposition figures. According to a Washington Post account, Goudreau said the plan was approved by U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. Guaido has denied he authorized the operation.
Meantime, Denman and Berry are in prison in Caracas and Maduro has promised they will stand trial as terrorists. In Austin, the Denman household is gripped by anxiety. “I grasp on anything positive,” Kay Denman said. “But deep down, I am scared to death.”
The first name of Venezuela’s president was misspelled in an earlier version. This story has been updated.