Knoxville Marine being held in Venezuela attempts suicide, family asks for help

The family of a former Knoxville Marine said he has been wrongfully detained in Venezuela since Sept. 9, 2020.
In June, Heath tried to commit suicide while in his prison cell in Caracas, Venezuela.
Published: Sep. 22, 2022 at 6:20 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2022 at 6:28 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Matthew John Heath is a former Marine from Knoxville who has been detained in Venezuela since September of 2020, under Nicolás Maduro’s regime, according to his uncle, Everett Rutherford.

In June, Heath tried to commit suicide while in his prison cell in Caracas, Venezuela.

“He remains in the psychiatric ward of a Venezuelan military prison in Caracas. He’s under constant observation, he’s heavily sedated much of the time,” Rutherford said. “Certainly if he doesn’t attempt suicide again, he will continue to have violent outbursts. He wants to come home.”

The negotiations to get him released were not an easy task either. The political situation complicates the details of Heath’s release.

The U.S. recognizes Juan Guaidó as the rightful interim president of Venezuela, not Maduro.

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a non-profit organization led by former Gov. Bill Richardson, works as the middle man for families of detained Americans and the governments that are detaining them.

The organization can go around the political tape and engage directly with the captors. When there is a lack of official engagement, that helps them communicate with the foreign government.

“They have a whole slew of bilateral issues that they are trying to work through,” Richardson Center for Global Engagement’s Vice President Mickey Bergman said. “In Venezuela, it’s about energy contracts now, especially with the crisis in Ukraine.”

The center doesn’t need to worry about the political issues because they’re speaking on behalf of the detainee’s family, not the U.S. government.

In July Heath’s family attended a mural unveiling to raise more awareness about his case in Washington D.C.

Bergman told WVLT News that the group traveled to Venezuela before Heath was captured to discuss the release of the Citgo 6.

The Citgo 6 are a group of six former executives of Venezuela’s US-based oil refining company CITGO who are convicted of corruption and have been held in Venezuela since 2017.

“There needs to be a negotiated mechanism between Venezuela and the United States that anytime somebody ends up in a Venezuelan jail whether they crossed illegally from Colombia or whatever the reason is, that there is a working group that can work this out. Because we can’t afford making a deal now, everyone comes back home and then four months from now, oh there’s two more Americans and we’re starting from scratch.”

Richardson Center for Global Engagement’s Vice President Mickey Bergman

One member of Maduro’s inner circle said the arrest of the Citgo 6 was a direct order from Maduro, according to a report from CNN.

Bergman said the talks to bring the six home broke down in October, a month after Heath was arrested. Now, Bergman said the big prize is the U.S. government and since the state department stepped in, the center must take a step back.

“There’s a lot of issues and the prisoners are one of those. These are competing objectives for the government,” Bergman said.

Heath’s family now works with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens to try and get information on the negotiations.

“I think the U.S. can work with Maduro perfectly well in terms of getting hostages home,” Rutherford said. “The rest of the political situation, who knows. I’m certainly not well enough versed in the details of what’s going on and honestly, I don’t think they’re interested in telling me. I do think there are any number of things that can be done today to bring people home from Venezuela.”

The Richardson Center tried to bring Heath back home by an emergency medical evacuation but that has not yet been approved.

According to a report from the AP, Heath was charged in connection with a terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical services to stir unrest, Venezuela’s former Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said on state television.

Heath was accused of having ties to the CIA and receiving help from three Venezuelan conspirators who were arrested with him near a pair of oil refineries on the Caribbean coast, according to Saab.

The case is still ongoing in Venezuela and Heath’s family continues to fight for his release.

“It’s very simple. These are our relatives, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbors, they’re fellow Tennesseans. Spread the word. If you have an opportunity to talk to your local politicians about Matthew, do it. If you have an opportunity to talk to any of our senators or any of our representatives to advocate for engaging the administration to secure Matthew’s release, do it.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn can be reached at:Sen. Bill Hagerty can be reached at:
D.C. Office: 202-224-3344D.C. Office: 202-224-4944
Knoxville Office: 865-540-3781Knoxville Office: 865-545-4253
Memphis Office: 901-527-9199Memphis Office: 901-544-4224
Jackson Office: 731-660-3971Jackson Office: 731-234-9358
Nashville Office: 629-800-6600Nashville Office: 615-736-5129
Chattanooga Office: 423-541-2939Chattanooga Office: 423-752-5337
Tri-Cities Office: 423-753-4009Tri-Cities Office: 423-325-6240

Heath was kidnapped in Colombia in 2020 and held for ransom. The family paid the captors more than $25,000 to bring him home but once the money stopped, his family believes he was sold to the Venezuelans, according to Rutherford.

The details of the kidnapping and arrest are still unclear but Rutherford said the more government activity there is discussing his release, the more calls they get from him and vice versa. He said anyone can help by calling their local and state officials to urge them to push for a release.

“Again, the voice of one is weak,” Rutherford said. “The voice of many is with our group here, it is considerably stronger. The voice of the collective community of Tennesseans would make an impact. Help us, educate yourself.”

UPDATE: Heath was one of seven men who were released from Venezuela’s custody on Oct. 1.