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Inside El Rodeo
  • September 20, 2013 : 06:09
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His communication with the outside world was limited to phone calls to his parents, his Venezuelan attorney and his best friend, Stone Douglass, a film producer who had somehow convinced the Venezuelan authorities that he and Tim were cousins. The stress of trying to secure Tim’s release from a government that appeared to have no regard for reality, diplomacy or justice made for tense moments back in the States. Tim’s friends, acquaintances and more than a few total strangers were trying to solicit celebrities, organize protests, launch social media campaigns and initiate other forms of public outcry. The fact that so many were trying to help was telling. It wasn’t just out of loyalty or in the interest of justice; it was because Tim had put it all on the line to tell a story that needed to be told and in so doing had transformed himself from a run-of-the-mill L.A. freelancer half a year earlier to the man he had always wanted to be. Tim wasn’t just loved by his friends—now he was something of a hero.

The darkest moments came after speaking to his parents, who were in a state of extreme anguish. I never doubted or regretted one decision I made, Tim thought to himself. I did the right thing, but was I selfish? Did I consider anybody but me?

On Tuesday, May 28, word spread that some prisoners were going to be evacuated without any explanation. Some said it was because of overcrowding, others said it was for renovations. At five the next morning, Tim and seven inmates from his “band of brothers” were awakened and told they had a few minutes to pack a shopping bag to take with them. Whatever possessions remained in the cell would be thrown out.

They were being moved to El Rodeo Dos, which SEBIN officials assured them was Venezuela’s model prison, complete with athletic facilities and staffed by corrections officers specially trained to understand the needs of foreign inmates. None of what Tim heard passed the smell test. To begin with, if it really was necessary to evacuate Helicoide, why were so many of his fellow inmates remaining behind?

This wasn’t looking good. As Tim was being led out, Steve, the Russian, pulled him aside. “I got one word of advice for you,” said Steve. “Don’t trust anybody.”

May 29, 2013

The moment El Rodeo came into view from his seat on the transport van, Tim knew his fears were justified. The prison entrance was riddled with bullet holes from a prisoner uprising two years earlier that had resulted in 25 deaths. The whole thing reminded him of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

“Venezuela’s prisons are just about the worst on Earth, and I say that measuring every word carefully,” says Anderson. “El Rodeo has an absolutely terrible reputation. For an American to get sent there and not get hurt or killed would be highly unlikely.”

The warden, a 40-ish slob whose godmother was head of the national prison system, was waiting for Tim and the other SEBIN transplants in the processing area. He wasted no time in marking his territory. After confiscating all the prisoners’ personal items but their toothbrushes, he took out a pair of electric clippers and shaved the head of each new arrival. He lit up when it was Tim’s turn. Here was the famous gringo he’d heard so much about. The warden leaned in close.

“You tried to kill our revolution, and now you’re going to die in here,” he said. All the guards laughed.

Tim spent his entire stint at El Rodeo in solitary confinement, during which time he was subjected to taunts and various forms of humiliation by a guard named Alvaro, one of the highest-ranking corrections officers in the building. Tim took to calling him Kevin Bacon, whose prison-guard character in the film Sleepers had a similar sadistic streak. Alvaro verbally berated Tim while he defecated, wouldn’t let him bathe and confiscated his bedding and towel. On day three, as Tim was being transferred from one solitary cell to another for no apparent reason, he saw his friend Assan from Helicoide being led in the opposite direction. As the guards stopped to chat, Assan leaned and whispered to Tim.

“I heard they’re going to kill you tonight,” he said. “Be careful.”

Tim barely made it to his new cell without collapsing. He was overcome by a panic attack that left him shaking in his bed. He told the guard he needed to speak to Alvaro. When Alvaro arrived, Tim begged to see a priest so he could be issued last rites before they murdered him.

“Sorry, gringo,” Alvaro said, smiling, “we don’t do that in here.”

Tim spent the night in terror. When morning came and he was still alive, the fear was replaced with rage. Alvaro came by to talk smack about Tim being in the CIA. On this morning Tim wasn’t taking any of it. A few minutes later, he was thrown into a vermin-infested, shit-stained basement pit and left alone to drive himself mad.

On the night of his 42nd day of incarceration—his sixth night inside El Rodeo—he found himself awake and trembling, another night of insomnia, listening to the sounds of the prison, smelling its despair, scratching at the bloody mosquito bites on his feet. There was a horrifying realization—this was his existence, and it was highly possible he would never see the light of day again as a free man and would die in this Venezuelan hellhole.

The next morning, the two beautiful nurses appeared at Tim’s cell. He had no choice but to follow them. He did not know if he was following them to his death, to another cell or to his freedom. He was led to a room where a doctor gave him a medical checkup. He realized he was being released when he was given exit papers to sign and not one minute before. He was given his clothes back, the clothes he was wearing when he arrived at El Rodeo. Like his arrest, his release came quickly, without warning. Tim Tracy was set free.

June 5, 2013

With no evidentiary hearing, Tim was expelled from Venezuela and put on a flight to Miami. The only explanation consisted of a single tweet from Interior Minister Rodríguez Torres: “The American Timothy Hallet Tracy, who was caught spying in our country, has been expelled from the national territory.”

Tim was supposed to land in Miami and then board a connecting flight to Los Angeles, but his family intercepted him in Florida and took him to their vacation home in Palm Beach. It appeared that Tim’s homecoming wasn’t exactly smooth, that he wasn’t in the best shape mentally. By all accounts he had been a marvel of positive energy during his first month behind bars. Something must have happened inside El Rodeo.

The diplomatic savvy of retired congressman Bill Delahunt was what ultimately won Tim his freedom. In a classic quid pro quo, Delahunt managed to secure a meeting between Venezuelan foreign minister Elías José Jaua and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in exchange for Tim’s release. A few hours after Tim landed in Miami, Kerry and Jaua were sitting down together.

Ten days later, Tim got on a plane to Los Angeles. Despite having a loyal support network in L.A., he decided to stay under the radar. Reporters had camped outside his Laurel Canyon home for days, and to avoid being spotted, Tim spent his first week in town hiding out at his friend Stone Douglass’s house in Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon.

Tim’s older brother Tripp was the only member of the Tracy family to speak to the press about Tim’s release. Although his affection for his little brother was plainly evident as he choked back tears on camera, he began the interview with a telling description: “For anybody who’s seen the movie Spies Like Us with Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd,” Tripp said, “that’s about as close to a spy as Tim Tracy is.” While his intent was anything but malicious, the statement struck me as jarring, comparing the bumbling comic duo unsuited for survival in a foreign country to Tim and his ordeal in Venezuela.

I had flown to L.A. the day Tim was released and had been hanging around for two weeks when I finally got the call I’d been waiting for. It was from the crisis-management publicity expert Tim had hired after he got out, who said Tim was in town and except for me he had decided not to grant any interviews for the foreseeable future. I’d get as much time as I needed. The following morning I drove to Santa Monica.

Had I not watched a five-second video clip of Tim walking through the Caracas airport the morning he was released, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him. I knew Tim as a doughy, shaggy-haired preppy, but the guy who greeted me at the door was ripped and rocking a buzz cut. If he had suffered severe trauma in El Rodeo, as I’d been led to believe, he was hiding it pretty well.

As we sat in a garden, Tim started to talk and didn’t stop for the next two days. In many ways he was the same guy I remembered meeting but more confident and impassioned by a sense of social justice. He told me that though he’d had a couple of epic meltdowns following his release—one on the plane when he’d misplaced his passport and nearly got kicked off and one back in Palm Beach with his parents—he was now feeling like himself and focused on finishing his film, which he estimated could take a year to edit. (He hopes to have it ready for Sundance in 2015.) I accompanied him to a posttraumatic stress disorder evaluation with a psychiatrist. We both laughed as Tim read aloud and answered some of the questions on the admitting form: “Do you ever feel like people are conspiring against you? Yes. Do you ever feel the government has you under surveillance? Um, yes.”

Tim and I spent the lion’s share of the next day on the rooftop deck of the Petit Ermitage hotel in West Hollywood, a few feet from a trio of stunning Eastern European models. The contrast between these surroundings and El Rodeo was not lost on Tim, who’d been recounting his story to me without a break for hours. As the sun set, I asked Tim about his reaction to Tripp’s interview and the Spies Like Us reference. “It definitely hurt,” Tim admitted. “It was kind of a bittersweet thing, because [my family] didn’t look at what I’d done and say, ‘You know what? Timmy’s arrived. We’re proud of Timmy.’ I didn’t hear that. But I’m all the better for it, because I realize now that those were fantasies. I’m my own hero for what I did, but I’m also a guy who put my parents and my family through hell.”

A few hours later, I left Tim alone with the Eastern European models to use the bathroom. When I returned, he was holding court in front of a captive audience, spinning a yarn that was way more original than the one he’d used on Delta Force night. And this one he told without shame, because it happened to be true. After our waiter announced last call, Tim looked at us and smiled with the same fiery glint in his eyes I remembered from the first time I met him. “Okay,” he said, “who wants to break into my house, swing on my chandelier and have a dance party?”

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read more: News, travel, issue october 2013

2 comments

  • Nicholas Jarecki
    Nicholas Jarecki
    This is a terrific article. We need more people like Tim.
  • Arlene Valle
    Arlene Valle
    This is a fantastic article. Well done !!! It has all the makings of a super movie. Are you listening Ben Affleck? I have been following Tim's story since his arrest. I wrote a novel and much of it takes place in Venezuela. The "People" are fantastic, generous and kind. Thanks again for this great insite into Tim and his story. I know this would make a great movie. Wish I could be part of it. ♥
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