Given his latest venture — as a deep sea underwater welder working on offshore oil rigs — it wasn’t unusual for Army Special Forces veteran Luke Denman to go off the grid for days or weeks at a time, his family and friends say.
But it wasn’t until seeing news reports about two former Green Berets captured during a failed raid in Venezuela that the Denman family realized just how far off the grid he had gone.
“I was looking at the news, as I do Monday mornings, and saw this short article about Venezuela repelling an invasion on its shores,” Mark Denman, Luke’s older brother, told Military Times. “I thought ‘that’s weird.’”
The weirdness took on a more ominous tone, said Denman, as he continued reading more about the incident.
“I started clicking through and saw a mention of Silvercorps and saw Jordan’s name, and my radar went up,” said Denman. He was referring to Florida security firm Silvercorps USA, owned by Green Beret veteran Jordan Goudreau, at the heart of a bizarre plan to spark a revolution and capture Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
The more Denman searched, the worse he began to feel.
“I saw graphic photos of a pickup with body bags,” he said. “I got extremely concerned.”
Then he saw a picture of a man, lying on the ground, with a tattoo on his right arm of Nordic runes.
“I was with my brother when he got that tattoo,” Denman said.
For the first time, the family learned that Luke Denman was not on an oil rig, but in a Venezuelan prison.
“That was the first confirmation” that Luke was involved in the failed raid, his older brother said. “His arms were bound. It was pretty terrifying.”
The botched coup attempt, first reported by the Associated Press, led to more than 100 arrests. Among them were the two former Green Berets — connected to Goudreau — who appeared on Venezuelan television confessing to a plan to seize the presidential palace, capture Maduro and bring him back to the United States.
Denman says his days are now filled with waiting and worrying and doing everything he can to bring his brother and his fellow captured Green Beret veteran Airan Berry, home.
“The first 24 hours, we had no clue about what was going on,” said Denman, who has taken time off from studying for the Texas bar examination to lead the efforts to bring his brother home. “Every day, we learn a little bit more and by the end of the week, we learned quite a bit.
For the family, the “No. 1 priority” was making sure Luke Denman wasn’t going to be executed. Then that he wasn’t being tortured. And finally, getting him home.
From the way he has appeared on camera, it seems Luke Denman was not being tortured.
“He looked OK,” said Denman, adding that he is encouraged that the Venezuelans are prosecuting his brother in court, because that nation doesn’t have a death penalty.
“Today was the slowest day I’ve had since then,” he said. “I have been making a lot of phone calls to get in touch with folks, embassies in Bogata. The Swiss Embassy. Consular services. The State Department. I have talked to a lot of attorneys about helping out, but I have not seen a clear plan about what they can do. They explain how much their retainers are.”
But so far, Denman and his parents say they have heard nothing from the U.S. government, Venezuelans or investigators.
The whole situation is frightening, frustrating and surreal, said Denman.
“I have been told to be very careful about anything coming out of Venezuela making offers what they can do,” he said. “We are subject to some pretty big stuff happening and I don’t know how much I can affect a major situation in a country I was only vaguely familiar with before Monday.”
Love of helping others
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Luke Denman “was a pretty good kid,” said his mother Kay Denman. “He had lots of friends, and he loved art. He is an exceptional artist, and loved working with clay.”
Luke Denman liked skateboarding, loved bicycles and ultimately got into motorcycles, said his mom, a retired teacher’s assistant.
“He loved science,” she said. “We always had something growing. At one point, he had a job at a nursery that was a tree farm.”
Luke Denman did a semester of college, then went into the military, said his mother.
“He loved the idea of helping people that couldn’t help themselves and everything that goes with that,” she said. “He was passionate about hostage rescue of Special Forces. When he joined the Army, he joined wanting to be in Special Forces. He loved what they stood for.”
Luke Denman got his wish.
He served on active duty as a Special Forces communications sergeant from 2006 to 2011, later serving in the Army Reserve until September 2014. He deployed to Iraq from March 2010 to September 2010.
Denman received the Army Commendation Medal, Special Forces Tab, Combat Infantryman Badge and Parachutist Badge.
Searching for a new mission
Tati Saito said she met Luke Denman after moving to Austin from Oregon, sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.
He had just gotten out of the military. She was tending bar. They’ve been dating ever since.
“He was trying out different things,” Saito, 31, told Military Times.
Luke Denman worked at a local Four Seasons hotel, doing security work.
A promotion took him to West Palm Beach, Florida.
“We both wanted to get out of Austin,” she said. “We both like to explore and travel and needed a change, so he took the job.”
Once there, he found a new passion.
“One day, he said ‘I want to do commercial diving,’” she recalled. “It was a good step for us. He was really in search of something that made him happy and meaningful. I was very supportive.”
At the end of 2018, Luke Denman started going to school in Jacksonville to learn how to be an underwater welder, said Saito. He graduated in May 2019, she said.
Luke Denman only mentioned Jordan Goudreau in passing, said Saito.
“No details,” she said. “I didn’t know very much, other than Luke trusted him and that he had a job opportunity with him.”
Saito said her boyfriend and Goudreau talked about “something,” but it was just talk. He went back to his offshore welding work and, as far as she knew, that’s where he was for most of April and into early May.
Houston attorney Braxton Smith told Military Times that in early October 2019, his lifelong friend Luke Denman had just finished an offshore shift and returned to Texas.
Luke Denman “was looking for something with more purpose in life,” said Smith. “We rode motorcycles around Houston and had dinner and caught up.”
Luke Denman “mentioned that he had a buddy from the Army that was currently in D.C. talking to people. His understanding was that he was talking to people pretty high up to set something up either to train Venezuelans or lay the groundwork for further American involvement. He said his buddy up in Washington was talking to guys, getting approval. He was led to believe that there was full state sanction.
“Luke thought, ‘if the government was signing off on this, then we are doing the right thing,’” said Smith. “It’s not like they were expendables, trying to make a few bucks.”
Luke didn’t mention his friend’s name, said Smith, adding that he didn’t want to ask.
“But it had to be Jordan Goudreau,” he said.
“The more that comes out on Jordan, the more I am willing to believe he was telling things that Luke wanted or needed to hear in order to agree to do this,” said Smith.
Drew White, another former Green Beret and close friends with Luke Denham, told Military Times last week that Goudreau had come to Colorado last August to convince potential investors to back a $750 million plan to take control of Venezuela’s oil fields after the ouster of Maduro.
The documents he presented, said White, describe a large-scale operation that would require a multi-million dollar package of military equipment and weaponry, including an operations vessel, a heavy helicopter, a light helicopter and a light fixed-wing aircraft. In addition, the documents called for construction equipment, armored vehicles that could withstand both 7.62mm and 5.56mm ammunition, portable generators and field kitchen equipment.
Furthermore, Goudreau was seeking funding for 300 “soldiers,” 320 M4 carbines, 50,000 rounds of ammunition, medical supplies, satellite radio time, and enough food and water to last 30 days.
Goudreau, said White, intimated that the plan had the backing of President Donald Trump’s longtime body guard as well as the State Department.
Presented with sparse details, and shoddy documents, the investors took no action.
The Trump administration and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have denied U.S. involvement in the raid.
Goudreau did not return phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
Those who know him say it has been a while since they heard from Luke Denman.
“The last time I talked to Luke was in April,” said Braxton Smith. “He said he was going to go dark for a while and get back to us. I don’t know if he was going across the border or not. I just knew he was going to be out of contact. I trusted Luke and thought he was going ahead with good information.”
Kay Denman, Luke’s mother, said her last communications with her son was toward the end of April via a text message.
“He was checking in on us,” she said. “We had been staying home because of the virus and he was checking to see how we were doing. But I did not know where he was.”
Like Mark Denman and Braxton Smith, Kay Denman said it wasn’t until the news broke that she found out.
So she called Tati Saito and told her the news.
“I am still in shock,” Saito said.
Dealing with the news and seeing his brother on the video was “heart wrenching,” said Mark Denman.
And not just for his family. Denman said his efforts are also on behalf of Airan Berry, who was also captured.
“My approach from the beginning is that these guys went in together and I will do everything I can to get them out together,” Denman said.
“Airan and Luke are good men." said Berry’s wife, Melanie Berry, in a statement to Military Times. "Airan believed in what he was doing, he told me he couldn’t share the nature of the operation but it was important to him. Airan means the world to me and the family. Our only focus now is to make sure they are treated humanely and get them back home safely.”
Living by the creed
In the ensuing days, Luke Denman’s family and friends have learned about how Jordan Goudreau, a decorated Green Beret veteran known as a great shot and the kind of soldier you wanted at your side in battle bragged about organizing a plot to overthrow Maduro. A plot that inexorably entangled Luke Denman and Airan Berry.
But they still don’t know exactly what drew them in.
“I didn’t know him personally, but I heard Luke talk about Jordan as one of his brothers as part of his team,” said Mark Denman.
The two had served together with the 10th Special Forces Group.
“They got very close,” said Denman. “Jordan was a medic in that group.”
Luke Denman “had no reservations about Jordan,” said the older brother. “He gave him complete trust.”
Denman said after hearing about the capture, he began researching Goudreau and Silvercorp USA, the Melbourne, Florida, company Goudreau created initially to provide school security in the wake of the Parkland high school massacre.
Finding a number on the Silvercorp website, Denman said he called.
Jordan Goudreau answered. But he didn’t shed much light on the situation during a conversation that lasted about 10 minues, Denman said.
“His first words were that he went in with a particular mission and now the only mission was bringing the guys out,” said Denman, who wanted information about a situation “involving multiple intelligence agencies from multiple nations at odds with each other. I have no clue what to believe, because this is not a situation I am used to.”
But Goudreau was less than helpful, Denman said.
“When asked for specifics, he was fairly vague,” he said. “He told me he was talking to lawyers and that the lawyers wanted to keep it hush-hush. He was vaguely hinting at the clandestine nature of this and said ‘believe me, we are doing everything we can’ and yadda yadda.”
Reading reports that his brother and Berry had gotten involved in the venture for between $50,000 and $100,000 added to the puzzlement, said Denman.
“That’s not that much money,” he said. “Luke had a career ahead of him. Deep sea diving pays pretty well. Our family is not desperate. Money was not his motivation at all. It was a compilation of trusting Jordan and the situation mattering.”
Luke Denman, explained his older brother, had routinely passed up chances to chase contracting jobs.
And he must have believed that Goudreau had the backing of the U.S government.
“I can’t imagine Luke getting involved if he did not think that there was U.S. backing and support,” said Denman. “I have seen the documents with (Guaidó Plan Pais’) signature. If the U.S. government said Guaidó is the legitimate leader of Venezuela, hiring a contracting company that is legitimate, that is how I imagine Luke’s thinking went.”
“He didn’t want to just protect corporate assets,” said Denman. “He believed in the Green Beret creed De Oppresso Liber – liberate the oppressed. He was living by that creed.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer