By Lauren Lewis For Dailymail.Com and Ap
Published: 08:48 EDT, 9 February 2022 | Updated: 11:31 EDT, 9 February 2022
A Marine was stripped and strapped to wire mesh connected to a car battery then shocked twice and threatened with rape when he was stopped and tortured by Venezuela's counter-intelligence, a court has heard.
Matthew Heath, 40, was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela on September 10, 2020, and charged in an alleged terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical service in order to stir unrest in the socialist country.
He told a court on Monday that within hours of his arrest he was forced to strip naked and locked inside a dark room before being subject to electric shocks and blows throughout the night.
The court heard Heath was later transferred to a clandestine torture center in the Venezuelan capital Caracas where his fellow inmate was ordered to rape him, but refused, and that he was threatened with rape by the officer's safety baton.
Heath detailed the alleged torture on the stand after identifying one of the alleged perpetrators, named as Reynaldo Hernández, an agent of the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), while in court on Monday.
His lawyer Guillermo Heredia has argued Venezuelan security services have fabricated the case against his client, citing discrepancies in the initial arrest documents and those presented in court.
Heath is currently on trial in Venezuela on charges of espionage and terrorism and it is thought he is being held in Fuerte Tiuna in Caracas - a prison perversely dubbed 'the House of Dreams' that is being investigated by the United Nations.
The former marine's family have claimed he was arrested mistakenly while visiting friends in Aruba, a Caribbean island 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela.
Former US marine Matthew Heath, 40, (pictured) was stripped and strapped to wire mesh connected to a car battery then shocked twice and threatened with rape when he was stopped and tortured by Venezuela's counter intelligence, a court has heard
Soldiers guard a blockade outside Fuerte Tiuna military complex in Caracas, Venezuela. It is believed that Heath is being held in the prison, perversely called 'the House of Dreams' by Venezuela's military intelligence, that is being investigated by the United Nations
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's (pictured) government have accused Heath of being involved in the coup, of being a spy and of terrorism, citing disputed claims the former marine was arrested with weapons and explosives
Heath, speaking in a court hearing that lasted until after 3am on Tuesday, said he was taken to a DGCIM prison in Falcon state in northern Venezuela within hours of his arrest in September 2020.
He was forced to strip naked and thrown into a dark room at the installation before he was 'taken outside and was tied to a car and while completely naked, a member of his legal team Tamara Suju told the Miami Herald.
'He was doused with cold water and strapped to a wire mesh connected with cables to a car battery. He was interrogated with electric shocks and blows all throughout that night,' she added, recalling Heath's testimony.
Heath was flown to Caracas the next day and interned in a 'clandestine torture center ran by the DGCIM,' Suju said.
The officers removed his clothes and ordered another inmate to rape him, but the prisoner refused, the court heard.
'When that did not happen because the prisoner wouldn't, a member of the DGCIM approached him and threatened him to rape him with the safety baton that they carry', Suju said.
Heath then gave officers the codes to his satellite phone and they downloaded the content from the devices. Suju said agents did not find incriminating evidence on the phone.
The explosive testimony forced the court's magistrate to extend the hearing by two days - an unusual step for such cases.
Suju said it was 'a good day for the defense' and Heredia wrote that 'it was a victory given that [the alleged perpetrator] was identified, and is now subject to an investigation, [the alleged perpetrator] who planted the weapons and explosives as evidence and who tortured Matthew'.
The alleged perpetrator was identified after Heath became agitated and shouted 'That's him... That's the one that hurt me!' when Hernández entered the courtroom.
Heath told the court that Hernández's supervisor Major Marlon Salas Rivas, who also attended court, was present during the torture.
Heath was arrested four months after a botched coup attempt in May 2020 organized by a Florida company called Silvercorp USA, though it was not immediately clear if he was thought to have been involved.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government have accused Heath of being involved in the coup, of being a spy and of terrorism, citing disputed claims the former marine was arrested with weapons and explosives.
Two former Green Berets were also thrown in jail and sentenced in September 2020 to 20 years for their role in the botched raid, bringing US-Venezuelan relations to a new low.
When Heath was arrested in September along with three Venezuelans, authorities claimed they found images of targets on his cellphone.
They released pictures taken indoors of a grenade launcher, plastic explosives, and a bag of US dollars they said was being transported by the 'terrorist cell'. But many, including Heath's lawyer, suspect the evidence was planted.
None of the items were displayed in the first outdoor photos taken at the roadblock where they were arrested.
'All they are doing here is to compile a criminal file based on false evidence and fake procedures to accuse an American citizen,' Suju said. 'That is all they are doing.'
Venezuelan authorities claim they seized a grenade launcher, a sub-machine gun, ammunition, and other equipment from four men - American Matthew Heath and three Venezuelan co-conspirators - who were allegedly trying to blow up an oil refinery
Heath, who Venezuelan officials claims has CIA ties, had help from three Venezuelan conspirators, who were arrested with him last week near a pair of oil refineries on the country's north Caribbean coast, Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab claimed
The above image shows a cell phone picture of one of the refineries that Venezuelan officials claimed was evidence found on Heath's phone that he was plotting an attack
Venezuelan authorities said they seized communications equipment, cell phones, and other documents but U.S. officials and Heath's family fear is was all planted evidence
Heath's family claim he was arrested mistakenly while trying to find passage to Aruba, where he was visiting some friends.
In an interview with Associated Press in October 2020, Heath's family in Knoxville, Tennessee denied he went to South America with the aim of plotting against Maduro and insist he always kept on the straight and narrow.
They believe he was desperately traversing the tip of South America during a near-total coronavirus lockdown in search of passage to Aruba, where his newly-purchased boat lay waiting.
'My guess is he was an American in the wrong place at the wrong time,' said Everett Rutherford, who is married to Heath's aunt. 'It was a bonehead idea and it didn't help once they could figure out his history.'
Yet given Heath's background in signals intelligence for the Marines and past work as a US government contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, even they question if he could have been on some kind of secret mission.
The improbable chain of events that ended with Heath being held incommunicado in a Venezuelan jail began at the start of 2020 when Heath purchased a ragged 53-foot trawler - called Purple Dream - in Houston, according to the family.
Heath in recent years had taught himself to sail. His family says he kept a boat in Key West, Florida - the Cinnabar - 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 in the Middle East, most recently with Virginia-based MVM.
The Purple Dream, with its rusting steel cabin and a fraying American flag, set sail sometime before March, according to Heath's family.
There are conflicting accounts of its itinerary - whether it hewed to Central American coastline or ventured east into the Caribbean.
But on March 9, 2020, it had to be assisted at sea by Nicaragua's navy near the port of El Bluff, according to a Nicaraguan army press release. On March 20 it sailed into the historic harbor of Cartagena, according to Colombian maritime authorities.
In addition to Heath, the ship's captain, two others were on board: Jason Phalin, a recently-retired Navy SEAL who is a weapons instructor for State Department-funded contractors, and Rickey Neil Gary II, a former Marine reservist who like Heath partook in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and later transitioned to private security work.
Both Heath and Gary had traveled to Colombia at least once before. According to Colombian migration records, the two left together, on a Mexico-bound boat, from the Caribbean island of Providencia in August 2019.
The Purple Dream arrived to Cartagena unannounced reporting mechanical problems and the men never legally entered the country, which was starting to shut down due to the coronavirus.
On March 23, 2020, it departed with all three crew members on board, listing its destination as Corpus Christi, Texas, according to port records provided to the AP.
Two days later, Heath was arrested some 12 hours inland by road. It was not clear how he sneaked ashore or why he was so intent on entering Colombia. He told his family he had gone to visit a girlfriend about whom they knew next to nothing.
But at a roadblock entering the city of Bucaramanga, police discovered three cartridges and 49 rounds of ammo for a 9 mm Glock pistol in his bag - probably for a firearm kept on board the ship, his family says.
Colombian prosecutors in an October 23, 2020, hearing filed weapons charges against Heath, which carries penalties of 9 to 12 years in jail. They said at the time of his arrest he was traveling in a beat-up Toyota pickup with five others.
In this undated photo courtesy of the Heath family, Matthew Heath navigates a boat near the Florida Keys. His family said he hoped it would be his ticket to a new career
This photo released by Nicaragua's Navy shows Heath's boat, Purple Dream, anchored in Bluff Port, Nicaragua, on March 9. Nicaragua's military says they assisted the vessel at sea
Luis Leal, the vehicle's driver but not its registered owner, told the AP he had picked up Heath, two Venezuelan men, and a woman at the crossroads of Bosconia as he was driving south from Cartagena.
Leal said he was a licensed security guard and as such exempted from a ban on driving that went into place that same day as part of a strict lockdown. To earn extra cash, he offered to give the hitchhikers a lift to Bucaramanga for about $80 each.
He said the American was accompanied by a translator who he identified from a mugshot as Marco Antonio Garcés, one of the Venezuelans arrested six months later with Heath in Venezuela.
The other man, Carlos Eduardo Estrada, was convicted a decade earlier of extortion, Venezuelan court records show.
Estrada told the AP that the group had been traveling around Colombia and joined up with Heath in Tolu, a sleepy beach town a few hours southwest of Cartagena. He said he believes Garcés, a distant relative, knew Heath from his time living in the US but didn't know what the American was doing in Colombia.
His father Silgessio Garcés told AP that his son had perfected his English working 8 months as a cook in Atlanta while seeking asylum and had decided to return home in 2018 when his mother became ill.
The 24-year-old returned to Colombia in February 2020 to try to renew his US visa and got stuck there when a quarantine was declared. His father said he never mentioned any relationship with an American nor revealed how he supported himself in Colombia.
But he said his son sneaked across the border in late August or early September and on September 9 called from the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo to arrange a pick-up in in a city halfway to Caracas.
'He called and said he was crossing the lake's bridge and that in the afternoon he should be arriving,' Garces told the AP.
A few hours later, a second call came in which a desperate-sounding Garces blurted out 'mama' several times before the line went dead.
Heath's family said they did not know what led him to cross into Venezuela. The State Department last year advised Americans not to travel to the country, warning of civil unrest, crumbling hospitals and the risk of arbitrary arrest or kidnapping.
But Heath repeatedly asked friends and family members for cash in the days after his arrest. In total, the family has accounted for $27,000 sent to him.
Spooked by his experience in jail, his family believes he was misled, or possibly extorted, by people preying on his desperation to return home.
In April 2020, Heath told his family he traveled to Puerto Bolivar, on the peninsula of La Guajira in Colombia, believing he was going to catch a boat to Aruba. But it never showed up.
The Purple Dream was next spotted in Aruba, showing up unannounced around midnight July 21 to Oranjestad harbor with two people aboard, according to the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard.
Port authorities, over the radio, told the ship that the borders were closed due to Covid-19.
'The captain informed me that they have been on the water for 20 days and are very tired,' according to a port official's report about the incident.
Eventually, the ship and its crew, which said they had sailed from Key West, were escorted into the harbor. It was not clear what happened to its two crew members, who Aruban authorities refused to identify.
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