'It's like someone is telling me to live in another place'
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Staring at the prison bars in front of him, Ugueth Urbina says he can't help but think about his mother being held hostage by kidnappers only a year ago.
For more than five months she was captive in a remote camp in the southern mountains near Colombia, some 300 miles from Venezuela's capital. Bandits, disguised as police, stole her away from Urbina's ranch, then demanded $6 million for her release. Pay it, they warned the veteran major-league pitcher, or he would never see her again.
It's been 10 months since a squad of Venezuelan anti-kidnapping police, in a heroic rescue mission, traveled through thick jungle terrain before eventually killing one of her abductors, capturing four more and freeing Urbina's mother.
Since early November, Urbina has spent his days and nights in a prison in Los Teques, on the outskirts of Caracas, where he awaits his trial on a charge of attempted murder. On Oct. 15, two weeks after Major League Baseball's regular season ended, there was a bloody episode at Urbina's ranch. Five ranch hands, employees of Urbina for only a month, claim that Urbina and several of his friends attacked them after falsely accusing them of taking a pistol from his home.
One suffered machete wounds to his shoulders, back and hands. Two others suffered severe burns and accuse Urbina of ordering his friends to set them on fire.
"I love my country, but here, there are people that love money," Urbina told ESPN in an exclusive interview from his jail cell. "What do they gain from this? They say that it was me so that they can get money, you understand? These are people that live simply, let's say. So by them saying it was me, they could somehow gain and take money from all of this."
He added: "I'm trying to find a solution to this problem and clear my name as much as possible so that people can see I had nothing to do with this problem."
Urbina's family has been the target of thieves and kidnappers before. In an 11-year major league career, Urbina has made more than $25 million in salary. Drug lords tried to extort $6 million of it with his mother's kidnapping. A decade before, his father was murdered while fending off a robbery attack.
"What we want is justice, for him to pay with jail time," said Ricardo Osal, who needed 300 stitches to close wounds on his back and another 150 to repair severed tendons in his hands. "We're not looking for any type of financial arrangement. Nothing that has anything to do with money. We don't want them to offer us any money and we're not asking them for any money."
An Unforgettable Party
According to accounts of the incident, here's what is known.
Around noon on Saturday, Oct. 15, Urbina and his son drove up to his ranch, located in Ocumare del Tuy, 30 miles southeast of Caracas. In addition to the family's adjacent construction-supply business, the journeyman pitcher raised cattle with the help of a handful of employees.
Upon his arrival, he found some of his employees swimming in the pool. There were approximately 10 people, and they had brought two cases of beer and several bottles of liquor.
Vinkler Gallegos, one of the employees, told authorities that seeing Urbina reminded him of the Florida Marlins cap he had kept for the moment when he would have the chance to ask his idol to sign it.
After fraternizing with the men and women in the pool, Urbina left, returning later at midnight with five friends.
What happened next is in dispute. According to Jose Luis Tamayo, Urbina's attorney, alcohol consumption led to an altercation. "He tried to calm things down," Tamayo said.
But Gallegos tells a different story. The 20-year-old farmhand said he woke up on Sunday morning with several injuries. So did Osal, Argenis Farias, Mickelín Echenique, Tony Rodriguez, Bernardo Navarros, Jonathan Duarte and four others who claim they were attacked.
According to Venezuelan Police's forensic report:
• Osal had injuries on his shoulder, hands and back, as well as burns on his face and blood clots in his eyes.
• Rodriguez had burns on his neck and in his right ear, injuries to his face and both eyes, a knife cut on his right arm and a perforated eardrum.
• Gallegos had bruises on his face and ribs.
• Farias had fractures in his nose and cheekbone.
• Echenique had minor injuries and several contusions.
"He told us he was going to kill us and bury us underneath the ranch," Osal told ESPN. "After he gave me the last machete chop, he said to leave me there alone because I was going to die on the ground bleeding like a pig. 'This one is dead,' he said. 'This one's a cadaver. He'll be the first one we'll bury beneath the ranch.'"
Said Tamayo: "If you believe the testimony of the victims, it's unexplainable why Ugueth Urbina did not kill these people, because he had ample opportunity, according to their testimony."
According to the accusers' statements, Urbina and his friends attacked them after he discovered several personal items, including a gun, were missing.
"He hit us in a brutal manner, and he told us that if we pressed charges, he would kill our families," Osal said.
Rodriguez said three of the victims were tortured by Urbina, who ordered his friends to set them on fire using a variety of flammable liquids, including paint thinner and gasoline. They were allowed, he said, to dive into the pool to extinguish the flames.
Navarro and Duarte were hospitalized for several days after the incident. Navarro said Urbina sprayed him with fuel, then set him on fire with a match.
The minor, whose identity is being protected by Venezuelan authorities, said that before the police arrived, Urbina was kind to him, as if nothing had happened. Urbina even offered him a towel and asked him to make some coffee.
From his jail cell, Urbina disputes the allegations.
"Those people started drinking from 3 in the afternoon, and it was almost midnight when this happened. You can imagine how inebriated these people were," he said.
"When I woke up the next morning I was surprised that the police were there, telling me there was some sort of problem the night before. I told them, 'As far as I know, there has been no problem here.'"
The Morning After
By the next morning, the story was on the front page of every newspaper in Venezuela. Images of the injured workers were shown on television-news shows. Theories abound about what might have happened on the ranch.
Ariel Prat, president of the Caracas Lions, the Venezuelan team that Urbina plays for during offseasons from the majors, said he doesn't believe what he has read in the papers.
"The story describes a monster, and that doesn't fit with Ugueth," Prat said. "It is hard for me to believe in the whole incident, like the press described it. I never saw him lose his head in that way. He is tough; he never folded against pressure. He has always had his feet on the ground."
But this isn't the first time that Urbina has been accused of violence.
In 2004, Urbina was briefly imprisoned along with a friend for firing a gun while under the influence of alcohol on a street in Caracas. Four years earlier, when the relief pitcher played for the Expos, he was accused of assaulting a man in a Montreal night club.
He has had three other run-ins with Venezuelan police, two for allegedly fighting and another for a traffic incident, in which the pitcher's car ran over an old man. All three cases were resolved out of court.
"What I know is, I don't think Ugueth's a murderer," said Ozzie Guillen, Chicago White Sox manager and a Venezuelan. Guillen was a coach and Urbina a pitcher for the 2003 World Champion Miami Marlins.
"The people in the United States think Ugie tied these guys up, put gas on them and lit them on fire," Guillen said. "No, I know that's not true. These were people who got on fire, but they were fighting, the same people fighting each other."
The prosecuting attorney in charge of the case did not immediately ask for Urbina's incarceration. Family members of the injured employees claim the police did not take the incident seriously, which is why they went to the National Guard, a wing of the Venezuelan military.
It wasn't until Nov. 7, more than three weeks after the alleged incident, that Urbina was eventually arrested. He said he never considered leaving the country: "I came to give face. Everything will be cleared in the future."
More than a month later, he's still awaiting his trial. When exonerated, he said, he plans to leave Venezuela and move to the United States.
"I've had two experiences, with my mother and this one. It's like someone is telling me to live in another place," he told ESPN. "After this, once everything is cleared up, I have my house in Miami. I'll probably come on vacation, one week, maybe two weeks, to see my family. But I think I'm going to take residence in Miami."
Ignacio Serrano is a sports reporter for El Nacional in Caracas, Venezuela, and a correspondent with ESPNdeportes.com. Pedro Gomez is a reporter with ESPN. ESPN Producer William Weinbaum also traveled to Venezuela and contributed to this report.
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