Luke Denman would have never knowingly participated in a rogue operation to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, his relatives say.
Frank Denman was at his home in Austin last January when he received a call from his son, Luke.
A former Green Beret, Luke had been searching for his calling after leaving the service. On the phone that day, he suggested to his father that he had found it.
“He said I had something come up in Florida,” Frank recalled. “He said it was a confidential kind of thing.”
The elder Denman still remembers exactly what Luke said next: “But I can tell you it’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Luke had been working as a commercial diver on offshore oil rigs in Louisiana. His father thought that he may have been talking about a salvage operation involving a historic ship.
But it was just a hunch. Frank didn’t pry, and Luke didn’t divulge any details. From Luke’s days in the Special Forces, that’s how their conversations often went.
It wouldn’t be until several months later, in early May, when Frank found out what his son had actually been talking about.
Luke Denman, 34, was one of two ex-Green Berets arrested in a foiled plot to oust Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. He’s now locked up in a Venezuelan jail, his fate in the hands of a leader the U.S. government considers a dictator responsible for tens of millions of his people going hungry.
“I get it now,” Frank said, referring to his son’s cryptic words about his new, meaningful opportunity. “Everyone knows about the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
“And the motto of the Green Berets,” he added, “is free the oppressed.”
Two weeks on, much remains unknown about the ill-fated operation. According to the Venezuelan government, eight “mercenary terrorists” were killed and several captured, including Denman and fellow Army veteran Aidan Berry, during an attempt to seize Maduro and topple his government.
A third ex-Green Beret, Jordan Goudreau, claimed responsibility for the plot. A decorated former U.S. commando, Goudreau operated a Florida-based private security company called Silvercorp USA.
Before he went into hiding, Goudreau had said in multiple interviews the plan was initially coordinated with representatives of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized as the country’s interim president by the U.S. and much of the international community. But the relationship soured and Goudreau moved forward with the operation anyway, according to accounts in the Associated Press and Washington Post.
Guaido has denied having anything to do with the effort to oust Maduro, but two of his U.S.-based advisers resigned this week after they acknowledged signing an agreement with Goudreau for a mission to arrest Maduro.
In interviews with NBC News, a half dozen family members and close friends of Denman and Berry said they believe the former Special Operations soldiers would have only participated in such an operation had the two men been convinced it was supported by the U.S. government.
Some of the friends and relatives said they now believe the men fell under the sway of Goudreau, who led them in overseas deployments, and were ultimately misled.
“The only conclusion I can draw is he was intentionally deceived,” said Daniel Dochen, a longtime friend of Denman. “And Goudreau sent his former comrade-in-arms on a suicide mission in service of his ego.”
Dochen said Denman had told him sometime prior to the botched operation that he was involved in an effort “sanctioned by the U.S. government.” “That’s really all I know about it,” Dochen said.
Berry’s wife, Melanie, told NBC News that she, too, feels strongly that he 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.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the U.S. had no “direct involvement” in the operation. President Donald Trump has also insisted the government had no part in the botched plot. “This was a rogue group that went in there,” Trump said last Friday.
Goudreau, 43, did not respond to calls or text messages to his cell phone.
The two captured Americans both grew up in Texas. Denman in Austin; Berry in Fort Worth.
Their lives intersected in Stuttgart, Germany, the home base of one of the Army’s most elite units, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.
According to a former member, the unit specialized in pursuing high-value targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was also called into action to conduct hostage-rescue operations, the former member said.
Berry, an engineer sergeant, served from 1996 to 2013. Denman, a communications sergeant, spent five years in the Army until 2011.
Drew White, a former Green Beret in the same unit, said Goudreau was a highly skilled team leader who earned his fellow soldiers’ respect.
“He was a force to be reckoned with,” White said. “An incredible soldier who never got rattled. All of us looked up to him.”
Berry met his now-wife Melanie, who is German, in Stuttgart in 1999. “We were both shy,” she said. “I could tell he was kind, and I felt so at ease around him.”
They married the next year and went on to have two kids, who are now teenagers. After leaving the service, Berry remodeled homes and focused on his family.
But this past January, he left Germany after telling his wife he accepted a job with Goudreau’s company. “He trusted Jordan,” Melanie Berry said. “He believed in Jordan.”
She said her husband wouldn’t give details about his job or how long he expected to be gone. “He said he couldn’t share anything with me but that it’s for a good cause,” Melanie Berry recalled.
After Denman left the service, he bounced around the country and worked a handful of jobs – first at a tree nursery in Austin, then in hotel security in Florida and finally as an underwater welder in Louisiana.