KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The United States Department of State on Friday urged the Venezuelan government to release Union County native and U.S. Marine veteran Matthew Heath, who has been imprisoned for 500 days on allegations of espionage and terrorism.
Heath, who also previously worked as a U.S. government contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, was arrested in September 2020 along the Caribbean coast, accused of scheming with three Venezuelans to sabotage oil refineries and other infrastructure to stir unrest, according to reports by the Associated Press. His trial began on Nov. 9, 2021 and remains ongoing for charges that U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (TN-03) called ‘fabricated’ in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year.
“Today marks 500 days since the Maduro regime wrongfully detained U.S. citizen and Marine veteran Matthew Heath. Matthew was arrested in September 2020 on specious charges, and his trial is still ongoing. We continue to seek his unconditional return and the release of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained overseas, and Secretary Blinken is relentlessly pursuing Matthew’s release. To the Maduro regime officials who have imprisoned him, we call for him to be allowed to return to the United States so that he can reunite with his family.”Ned Price, U.S. Department of State Spokesperson
Venezuelan authorities claimed to have found images of targets on Heath’s cellphone along with images taken indoors of a grenade launcher, plastic explosives, and a bag of U.S. dollars. The AP wrote that many believe the evidence was planted based on none of the items seen in the photos was taken at the roadblock when they were arrested.
Trudy Rutherford, Heath’s aunt, said that in late March her nephew bought a boat in Corpus Christi, TX, and headed down to Colombia to see his girlfriend and get some more boating experience under his belt.
“He was trying to build a business with tourists with his sailboat and then he thought he’d get a troller. And so he was traveling that area to get his license,” Rutherford told WATE 6.
According to a Nicaraguan army press release, the boat had to be assisted at sea by Nicaragua’s navy near the port of El Bluff on March 9. On March 20 it sailed into the historic harbor of Cartagena, according to Colombian maritime authorities.
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. Heath was arrested two days later in Bucaramanga, Colombia, roughly 12 hours inland after he was allegedly found in possession of three cartridges and 49 rounds of ammo for a 9 mm Glock pistol. It is unclear how or why Heath came ashore.
Following his release in Colombia, he was arrested in Venezuela after what his family believes was an effort to reunite with his boat and return home. His family told the AP in April that that Matthew Heath traveled to Puerto Bolivar, on the peninsula of La Guajira in Colombia, believing he was going to catch a boat to Aruba.
“So he had thought he secured his way– a guide to his boat to Aruba. And evidently, they took him and left him in Venezuela. I feel like he got dumped there. Or he was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Rutherford said.
Despite Heath being in contact with his father via Satellite phone, Rutherford said they have no idea what Heath was up to between June and September. On Sept. 9th, Rutherford said Heath called his father and said he had finally found a way home.
Heath’s family said they have had limited contact with him since his imprisonment and claimed he had been tortured. “He’s been tortured, they put plastic bags over his head, electrical shock, he’s been beaten numerous times… this went on for eight days,” said Connie Haynes, Heath’s mother.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)