OAKLAND, Calif. - The family of an Oakland man, who was arrested in Venezuela last month, say they are being extorted for tens of thousands of dollars and the U.S. government is showing no sense of urgency in their family member's safe return.
The mother and sister of 37-year-old Savoi Wright, said he was wrongfully arrested, has not been able to see a lawyer, and has only had intermittent contact with his family since his arrest. They said they don't know where he is being held.
KTVU spoke with Wright's mother Erin Stewart, and his sister, Moizeé Stewart on Monday.
The Associated Press previously reported Wright, a 6-foot-10 inch Berkeley native, who also has a Florida residence, was arrested on Oct. 24 and that he joins at least seven other U.S. citizens who remain imprisoned in that country. AP reports the arrest stands out because it came on the heels of the Biden administration's easing of oil sanctions in Venezuela, something considered a politically risky move. The U.S. - Venezuelan relationship has been strained in recent years.
His mother said she was not sure the exact day her son was arrested. They told AP he was set up and that Wright told them he was stopped by police in a park while he was with a woman who had drugs on her. Police ruled out wrongdoing on Wright's part, but determined his passport did not have a stamp and that he was turned over to immigration for deportation. By the family's account, it is not clear what happened next. Wright's family said they have heard he is being held in a detention center run by Venezuelan military counterintelligence. There have been reports of torture at this detention facility.
The family considers themselves to be "nomadic." Wright has held on to this family tradition.
"Savoi loves South American culture. He has a deep resonance for it; an affinity for…just the lifestyle, the people," his mother said. She said her son is fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese as well as English. "He lives a nomadic lifestyle as a mortgage-loan specialist." She said he has a passion for travel and his career allows him to work remotely. "He's gone all over the world and does extended stays in different places. But he has spent a lot of time in Colombia and Brazil," said Erin.
His mother said he most recently became infatuated with Venezuela. "His true crime, if there is any, is that he fell in love with Venezuela. He said, ‘Mama, these people are some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.' He said the country is just gorgeous and beautiful. There was just a deep resonance for him there. His spirit was called there."
Photo of an Oakland man, Savoi Wright, who was arrested in Venezuela. Family members say he was wrongfully arrested and is being held for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Wright was arrested in October. (Photo courtesy Erin Stewart/Moizeé Stewart )
Wright's family said they speculate he was in Cúcuta, a city at the Colombian border, on either Oct. 22 or 23.
Wright's sister said she and her mother received a call from cousins, who Wright originally reached out to, who said he was being held against his will and that there was a request for a substantial sum of money for his release. These family members said Wright reached out to them first because he feared his mother would have a "heart attack."
"Basically, during that time, we weren't sure what had happened. When you hear that news, it's difficult to digest, let alone process," his sister said. "We were up all night trying to scrape together what we could." She said they were trying to do whatever they could to ensure her brother's safety. "We did pay that substantial amount of money."
Wright's sister said after not hearing from him for about 10 to 12 hours, they did eventually hear from him through WhatsApp – a free private messaging and communications app. "He was able to speak to us kind of in code. He was speaking to us in a very, kind of coded way." She said he would say things like, "I can't answer that," to some of their questions and that you could hear people in the background. She said those in the background would be mumbling and directing him.
After the initial waiting period, his sister said her brother told them he was in police custody. While in police custody, family members understood Wright to be in Valencia, in the north, near the Carribean Sea and about 430 miles from Cúcuta. It is unclear to family members who Wright was initially with when they first spoke with him. They also said they do not know whose online account they paid the ransom money to.
"To anyone that has had the misfortune of being in this situation, your initial instinct is to go to the authorities for help and expecting that there will be substantial support. This is not a situation that we've ever been in, let alone do we know what to do in this situation," Moizeé said. "Repeatedly, I was kind of informed that the U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with Venezuela and there is very little that can be done."
She referred to the current travel advisory impacting travel to Venezuela on the U.S. State Department's website, but said she wasn't completely aware of the severity of the situation. It states you should not travel to the country because of civil unrest, kidnapping and the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.
Moizeé said based on her experience, U.S. government officials have shown a lack of empathy and that she's heard things similar to, "You shouldn't have been there." She said she's also been hung up on over the phone when dealing with certain departments as she tried to navigate the system to secure her brother's safe return home.
"I understand that there aren't official diplomatic ties [with Venezuela], but clearly this is a system that's broken," Moizeé said. She said the situation felt disheartening.
Wright's mother said it feels like they're being "ghosted." She said they had to escalate the situation because her son has dietary restrictions due to health issues. Family members were told Wright had passed out and was taken to a clinic because he was not supplied with basic dietary needs.
His mother said during Wright's deportation process that they continued to be extorted. Erin said there is family and an attorney on the ground, but they were denied access to see her son. "We haven't had anyone with eyes on him for more than three weeks now," she said.
The family members said they have reached out to Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee's office and have submitted forms, but are awaiting a response after about a week. KTVU has reached out to Rep. Lee's office to see where they are, if they are indeed working on this case. We will update with any new developments if we hear back.
Wright's mother calls her son a "gentle giant" with a loving spirit, who loves life. His 38th birthday is this week. "He has no political ties. He is not a threat to Venezuela. We're very concerned for him. Nobody's acknowledging him. Nobody officially. We're very concerned for his health and his well-being. We want him home."