‘We definitely knew something was wrong,’ says family of Knoxville man imprisoned in Venezuela

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CORRYTON, Tenn. (WATE)– The family of Matthew Heath hasn’t heard from him since he was arrested by Venezuelan authorities in September.

Heath’s family was shocked he was being accused by President Nicolás Maduro of being a terrorist and spying for Donald Trump.

They truly don’t know what led up to his arrest, but they believe he was an American citizen in the wrong place at the wrong time and was taken advantage of.

Trudy Rutherford, Heath’s aunt, said that in late March, her nephew bought a troller boat out of Corpus Christi, TX, and headed down to Colombia for two reasons: to see his girlfriend and get some more boating 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 said.

Before working toward his new dream, Rutherford said Heath was a U.S. Marine and then a private contractor. She said he loved life on the boat. He had two sailboats before he purchased the troller and he had been working for a few years to get a tourist boating business up and running.

Rutherford said Heath made it to Colombia around March 23.

“He went to see his girlfriend and it all went downhill from there,” Rutherford said.

Of course, right around the same time, the coronavirus pandemic struck the world and made travel nearly impossible. However, at the time, Rutherford said her family only knew of that one problem.

She said they didn’t find out until recently, when the Associated Press contacted her family, that Heath had been arrested just days after his arrival.

“He was arrested at a checkpoint. They say he had three clips of ammo in his backpack, which is very uncharacteristic of Matthew. I’m sure everyone has a weapon on their boat, and I think it would be very careless of him if he had anything on him,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford said Heath contacted his father often while he was on this trip. She said he called, if not every week, then every few weeks.

“Something was going on in Colombia. There was a lot of money sent over there. He was always saying for the boat, for the boat to get home, but it just never happened,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford said Heath told her family he would be home in June. His grandmother was on hospice and his son was turning 11 years old. However, he never made it.

“When he didn’t come home for those two things, we definitely knew something was wrong,” 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.

“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.

A few days later, Rutherford said her family received a call from the Botoga Embassy saying Heath had been arrested in Venezuela for terrorism and spying.

The struggles continued for the family though. No one from the Embassy had been able to see Heath in person since his arrest, according to Rutherford.

No one in her family has been able to speak with him since Sept. 9, even though she was told some other men who were captured with Heath had been able to make phone calls. She said that whatever the Venezuelan news outlets are saying were completely false.

“I thought they’d just kill him because of his background. He’s a decorated Marine. He’s a U.S. citizen,” Rutherford said.

On top of having no idea what is happening to Heath, Rutherford said because he hasn’t been able to work, many things he has is being repossessed.

“We want them to know that Matthew has a family and he is very loved and we need him home. He has done nothing wrong. He wasn’t spying on anyone. He’s not a terrorist,” Rutherford said.

His sailboat, his truck and his car are all gone, but his troller boat is still in Aruba, Rutherford said.

He hasn’t been able to pay child support. Rutherford and her family were told they need to hire a lawyer.

She said they do have several people helping to figure out how to get Heath back home, including the embassies, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischman, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and The Richardson Center for Global Engagement.

Rutherford hopes her nephew’s story reaches all the way to President Trump. To help with covering Heath’s bills at home and whatever bills they might need to pay to get him home, Rutherford said she created a fundraiser on GoFundMe.

However, the family hit more bumps in the road with that.

According to Rutherford, the fundraiser had gained some traction in just a few days with a lot of donations, but the website ended up deactivating her fundraiser and refunding all of her donors because of it.

She said she never received any clarification from the company as to why is what deactivated. Rutherford said she had to start over on a new fundraising website called GiveSendGo.

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