Luke Denman and Airan Berry, former members of U.S. special forces, were sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Venezuelan court for taking part in a failed coup to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro in May, CBS News reported.
Venezuela’s attorney general Tarek William Saab tweeted on August 7 that the two former Green Berets, who were accused of trying to topple the Venezuela leader, had admitted “to having committed the crimes of conspiracy, association, illicit trafficking of weapons of war and terrorism,” according to the Washington Post.
Denman, 34, and Berry, 42, were arrested on May 4 near La Guaira, a port city in northern Venezuela, after a beach attack aimed at Venezuelan president Maduro failed, AP reported. They were among the 60 people who sailed from Colombia to Venezuela in two boats on May 3 to carry out what they called Operation Gideon, according to the New York Times. Eight were killed by Venezuelan security officials.
Jordan Goudreau, another former Green Beret who operated a private security firm called Silvercorp USA in Florida, claimed responsibility for the failed attack quickly after the arrest. He told AP that he had reached an agreement with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó and launched this mission from Colombia to “detain Maduro and liberate Venezuela.” But Guaidó denied his involvement.
President Maduro accused the U.S. and Colombia of backing up this operation, AP reported. “The United States government is fully and completely involved in this defeated raid,” Maduro said. However, both the U.S. and Colombia said they had nothing to do with the raid, and Goudreau, who was not on the mission, said he didn’t receive any assistance from the governments or Guaidó, according to AP.
Since their arrest, the two American citizens have become Venezuela’s “trophy prisoners,” the Washington Post said. Venezuelan officials view them as proof of U.S. interference in the country’s politics and its attempt to overthrow Maduro, CBS News reported.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May that the U.S. government “would use every tool to secure the Americans’ return,” Reuters reported.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Family & Friends Said Denman & Berry Were Convinced That The Operation Was Backed by The U.S. Government
After the arrest, Venezuela’s state television aired an edited video of Denman confessing. In the video, the 34-year-old said in English that he signed a contract with Silvercorp USA to train people in the company’s Colombian camps and carry out the mission, expecting $50,000 to $100,000.
“I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” he said in the video. He also suggested that President Trump was backing the operation. But Ephraim Mattos, a former Navy SEAL who provided training to people in the Colombian camps, said Denman was forced to lie.
He told the Los Angeles Times that the “odd eye movement” after he talked about President Trump’s involvement was “a clear sign from Luke that he is being forced.” “Special operation soldiers are trained to find creative ways to discredit any propaganda videos they are forced to make if captured by the enemy,” he said.
However, NBC News reported that “a half dozen family members and friends” believed the two were convinced that the operation was backed by the U.S. government, otherwise they wouldn’t have participated in it.
Melanie Berry, Berry’s wife, told NBC that she felt “strongly” that her husband was “led to believe the U.S. backed the plan.” “He’s not the type of person who would do something that hasn’t gone through the proper channels,” she said.
Daniel Dochen, a longtime friend of Denman, said Denman was deceived by Goudreau. “The only conclusion I can draw is he was intentionally deceived. And Goudreau sent his former comrade-in-arms on a suicide mission in service of his ego.”
2. Denman & Berry Crossed Paths When They Served Together in Germany
Berry, who turned 42 shortly after the failed mission, served 17 years as an engineer sergeant in the U.S. Army special forces, according to Texas Monthly. He was active from 1996 to 2013 and was deployed to Iraq three times, the Military Times reported. He received a series of honors including two Bronze Star medals.
Denman served in the Army special forces from 2006 to 2011 as a communications sergeant before he joined the Army Reserve, where he served until September 2014, according to the Military Times. He was deployed to Iraq for six months in 2010 and received an Army Commendation Medal.
NBC News said the two crossed paths when they served together in “one of the Army’s most elite units” in Stuttgart, Germany. A former member told NBC that “the unit specialized in pursuing high-value targets in Iraq and Afghanistan” and was also “called into action to conduct hostage-rescue operations.”
3. Denman Took On Several Jobs After Leaving The Army & Went to College But Never Graduated
Denman is a native of Austin, Texas, where his family still lives. He went to Westlake High School in West Austin and joined the Army two years after graduation, according to KVUE.
Denman was inspired by his brother who had served in the army before and decided to enlist himself too, according to NBC News. Denman’s father had also served in the army.
After Denman left the Army in 2011, he “seemed to be unable to find excitement and meaning in post-military life,” according to Texas Monthly. He first worked in a tree nursery in Austin, and then in hotel security. After that he was trained in underwater welding, and landed on a job as a commercial driver on offshore oil rigs in Louisiana, NBC News reported.
He also went back to school and studied aircraft pilot training at Texas State Technical College. He was in college from 2012 to 2014, but a school spokesperson told KVUE that he never graduated.
In 2005, Denman survived a motor vehicle accident, which KVUE described as a “near-death” experience. A “foot-long piece” of rebar was thrown into the air and embedded into his helmet while he was driving. But Denman was not injured.
4. Denman Has a Girlfriend of 5 Years & The Couple Had Begun Talking About Starting a Family Before The Incident
Denman met Tatiana Saito, his girlfriend of five years, in Austin. The couple was living in Oregon in late 2019, according to NBC News. They had started the conversation about starting a family together before Denman left in January, giving Saito little information about what he would be doing.
“I didn’t know the nature of the job or where it was,” Saito told NBC. “I just knew that he seemed to think it was a great opportunity.” Denman stayed in touch with Saito only infrequently.
“I’d ask, ‘Is everything okay?’ And he’d say, ‘I feel like this is my calling. I feel like this is something very meaningful,’” Saito recalled.
Denman’s mother Kay Denman is a former special education teacher’s assistant at Valley View Elementary School in Austin, and she told Texas Monthly that her family “was familiar with the political chaos and collapsing economy of Venezuela,” and that her son’s capture was “traumatic.”
She told the AP that she had never heard her son discuss Venezuela and only learned about his arrest after his friends called to tell her about reports on social media.
In a phone call last January, Denman told his father that he was working on something “confidential” and said it was “the most meaningful thing” he had ever done in his life, according to NBC News.
5. Berry Has Been Married For 19 Years & Has Two Kids With His German-American Wife
Airan Berry, who’s from Fort Worth, Texas, has been married to Melanie Berry for 19 years. Melanie has dual German and American citizenship, and so do her two teenage children, according to German news website t-online.
After Airan left the U.S. army in 2013, the family settled down in Schweinfurt, a town in central Germany. Airan worked as a craftsman and was “fond of” doing tattoos for his friends, t-online reported. He also took language classes to improve his German, according to Melanie.
Melanie has previously called for the U.S. government to help free her husband and Denman. “They’re good men, who are worthy of being protected, supported and provided with the kind of help they have so often given to others,” she told t-online.