Matty Gonzales’ clear, blue eyes looked straight ahead as he told the story. Even before he allowed himself to share the more horrific details, the torment swimming in those eyes was apparent. The popular Milwaukee musician went to hell and back last year.
“What did they do to you, Matty?” I asked him as we sat in his Wisconsin Rapids home on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Matty traveled to Abu Dhabi last April to do IT work on a cruise ship bound for Singapore and Spain. It was work to be done when the big ship was at sea. With a wide range of technical skills, Matty has done that kind of work in ports of call across the globe. This assignment wasn’t expected to be any more or less exciting than his previous journeys.
He was only supposed to be in Abu Dhabi for six hours. That illusion vanished, though, when officers at the security entry point found the prescribed pain medicine Tramadol in his bag.
“Next thing I know, I was being transported in a paddy wagon basically,” he said with a look of disbelief playing on his face. “It’s just a van, but we were shackled. I was like, ‘this isn’t good.’”
Soon Matty found himself in a jail. “As soon as we got to the jail, I was freaking out.”
It was there in the lockup that his captors presented him with a document scrawled entirely in Arabic that they wanted him to sign.
“As far as I was concerned, they were trying to get me to confess to smuggling twenty pounds of heroin or something so they could execute me, like I didn’t know.”
Matty made a vow, “I’m not signing that. I’m just not,” he said.
That’s when he ended up in a dark room, beneath intense lights, surrounded by men wearing surgical masks. He was subjected to electrical shocks and even the abject horror known as waterboarding.
“It’s a lot worse than I ever imagined actually. You’re drowning,” he said of the waterboarding. “Maybe it was ignorance but I just always thought, ‘well that’s not quite torture.’”
Matty didn’t find out until later, the document his captors wanted him to sign was merely an acknowledgment of the charges against him.
Matty was moved from jail to a desert prison. He shared a cell designed for five prisoners with nineteen. Daytime temperatures in the slammer were often well above 100 degrees. The prisoners weren’t the only inhabitants of the desert dungeon.
“The bugs, the rat,” he recalled. “I woke up the first night with a rat this big on my forehead and the bugs were really, they’re just crawling all over you constantly. That’s when I would scream.”
As Matty remained locked up, his sister launched an aggressive social media campaign to free her brother. During that time we spoke with Nicole Denil at her Florida home by Facetime. She reached out to U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D) Wisconsin and Marco Rubio (R) Florida.
She also made countless trips to the Middle East to participate in court hearings aimed at obtaining her brother’s freedom. Despite her efforts, Matty was sentenced to two years in his desert hell.
To call the experience hellish isn’t an overstatement. Case in point, one of Matty’s cellmates was a Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic. He had been in the prison for over a year and guards were well aware of his needs. Despite that fact, Matty says the guards arbitrarily decided to deny the man his insulin for an extended period of time.
“Died right in front of us,” Matty said tersely. “The next morning, as if to prove their indifference to our humanity, they handcuffed his corpse and dragged him, just dragged him out, head bouncing down the concrete steps.”
Matty still isn’t sure what happened that ultimately resulted in his freedom. He mentioned the efforts of Rubio and Baldwin during our conversation. Nicole’s social media campaign was also successful in attracting the attention of mainstream media outlets including TODAY'S TMJ4.
“Mr. Gonzales’ family contacted our office for help, so we reached out to the Trump Administration to bring this case to their attention and express concerns,” read a statement we received from Baldwin’s office Thursday. “Senator Baldwin is pleased that her office could play a role in his safe return home to his friends and family.”
However it happened, in late June Matty Gonzales arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to a warm embrace from his sister. That was followed a few days later by a big celebration and fundraiser at the Nomad World Pub downtown. Nicole and Matty estimate the court costs, lawyer fees and travel expenses incurred exceeded $120,000.
Matty has no intention of abandoning his wanderlust. He has been a world traveler for much of his adult life. He is, however, crossing Abu Dhabi off his list.
“I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “I’m hesitant to say just don’t go there, but don’t go there.”