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 Airan 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.
Unlike many former Special Forces members, he seemed uninterested in pursuing contract work overseas, according to his family and friends.
Sometime in 2017, Denman visited his old Special Forces buddy White during a cross-country motorcycle trip. “When he was here, he was still Luke but it just seemed he was searching for something,” White said. “I thought he had found it with the welding stuff, but looking back on it, I think he just missed the camaraderie and having that sense of purpose.”
In late 2019, Denman was living with his girlfriend, Tatianna Saito, in Oregon. The pair had met in Austin and had been dating for five years. Saito said they had recently begun talking about starting a family together.
Like Berry, Denman left in January and said little about what he was doing or where he was going.
“I didn’t know the nature of the job or where it was,” Saito said. “I just knew that he seemed to think it was a great opportunity.”
Over the next few months, Denman stayed in sporadic touch. A text message here. A phone call there. He remained circumspect about his job.
“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.
In March, the Justice Department charged Maduro and several other current and former Venezuelan officials with carrying out a “narco-terrorism” scheme to flood the U.S. with cocaine. The Trump administration offered a $15 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Saito said she last heard from Denman in mid-April.
The botched raid took place a couple of weeks later, in early May. Soon after Denman’s arrest, an interrogation video was played on Venezuelan state TV.
Speaking to an unseen questioner, Denman says he was expecting to be paid between $50,000 and $100,000 for his role in the operation. He said his job was to seize control of the airport in Caracas and bring in a plane to be used to fly Maduro to the U.S.
“I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” Denman says.
It’s unclear if Denman was pressured to make certain admissions, but one of the things that stood out to his former fellow ex-Green Beret Drew White was Denman’s payday.
“Fifty to $100,000? That’s nothing in the contracting world,” Denman said. “If he was looking for money, he could have gone to a lot of other places and made a lot more than that.”
Looking back on it now, White said he understood how Denman could have gone along with a plan pitched by Goudreau despite having reservations about overseas contract work.
“We went to combat together. We saw action down range together,” said White, who himself briefly partnered with Goudreau at Silvercorp. “We share a bond.”
“When a friend like that comes along and says, ‘I have this thing going on and it’s the real deal,’ most guys wouldn’t question it.”
Berry’s wife said she doesn’t spend much time thinking about who may have been involved in the operation or how it went so wrong. “All that matters is to get them home,” she said. “They love their families. They love their country. They’re good men.”
Luke Denman’s parents have been in touch with officials at the U.S. embassy in Colombia and the video of their son gave them hope that he was being treated humanely.
But Frank Denman said it’s been difficult to read some of the news accounts depicting his son as a money-motivated mercenary. “What he believed about this operation had to be very different than what the facts on the ground were,” he said.
In an interview late Thursday, the elder Denman described the final time he heard his son’s voice in January. But later in the interview, he said there was another phone call with Luke that was even clearer in his memory.
It was around 2006, and Frank, who did high-rise work cleaning windows and putting up banners, was on the 27th story of the University of Texas clock tower.
Luke called to tell him he was planning to join the Army.
Not long before, Luke’s brother, who had served in the Army, wrote the family a long and eloquent email describing how moved he was by the sight of Iraqis raising their purple fingers in the air after voting for the first time in free elections.
“Luke was inspired by it,” said Frank Denman, who himself had served in the Army in the years after the Vietnam War.
The phone call lasted well over 30 minutes. “We talked about the risks and all that, but he was quite certain about it,” the elder Denman said of Luke’s desire to enlist.
“He just felt like it was the right thing to do.”