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New podcast details Venezuela imprisonment of Josh Holt

In a Facebook post, Josh Holt described this photo as documenting his "worst day" at El Helicoide prison in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo courtesy of the Holt family.

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost exactly two years after his release from a Venezuelan prison, Utahn Josh Holt is offering never-before-heard details in a new podcast about his ordeal. 

The podcast, “Hope In Darkness,” will roll out with new episodes publishing free every week starting May 27, 2020 on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and other podcast platforms. 

A love story

“Hope In Darkness” begins with a love story: How Josh Holt, of Riverton, Utah, wound up serving a Spanish-speaking mission outside of Seattle that led him to meet a woman named Thamara Belen CaleƱo Candelo on Facebook. 

Thamy, who lived outside of Caracas, Venezuela, reached out to Josh Holt as someone who she thought might be able to help her improve her English. She reached out to several missionaries serving in Spanish-speaking missions, but only Josh answered her Facebook request. 

Holt knew his Spanish was still weak even after his mission, and he was eager to improve and to keep learning. 

Over the course of several months, he and Thamy realized their conversations were no longer just language lessons. In May 2016, they got engaged, and in June 2016, Josh Holt traveled to Venezuela to be married and wait for the necessary paperwork to bring Thamy and her daughters, Marian and Nathalia, to the United States. 

The knock at the door 

Everything changed about two weeks after the Holts’ wedding when they awoke in the early morning hours of June 30, 2016, to pounding on the door of Thamy’s apartment. 

They demanded to know where Holt kept his suitcase. 

“I was like, ‘It’s in the room,’ like, ‘What’s going on?’ And they said, ‘You need to give us your phone and get ready because you’re coming with us,'” he said. 

Groups of armed men patrolled the complex, Ciudad Caribia, many of them wearing all black, including masks. The officers, likely members of a group known as the OLP, which roughly translates to the Operation for the Liberation of the People, rounded up Holt and a number of other men that morning. The Organization of American States, a regional forum for North and South America similar to the United Nations, confirms this raid in one of its annual reports. At least six people were killed. Holt was one of at least 10 arrested. 

Thamy’s arrest came a few hours after her husband’s. According to Thamy, she watched through her own balcony window as officers planted a grenade in Josh’s suitcase. Minutes later, they demanded to know where the grenade came from. Her response was angry. 

“‘I don’t have a grenade in my house! You put the grenade in my house!'” she recalled telling them. “I was so mad, and I was crying a lot. And I was so scared and so nervous that I stopped talking to them.” 

Josh Holt at El Helicoide 

Thamy and Josh Holt wound up at El Helicoide, a strange landmark in the heart of Caracas. The triangular spiral design of the structure was originally meant to be a drive-in shopping mall, with the road curving along the outside of the building in a three-sided pyramid.

El Helicoide Josh Holt

View of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) headquarters, known as “El Helicoide” in Caracas on May 9, 2019. (Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images)

It never served that purpose. Instead, it sat partially finished for decades — sometimes serving as makeshift housing for people displaced by natural disasters, before Venezuelan government agencies started to use it as office space. 

In 2016, however, the offices were just part of El Helicoide. The building housed a notorious prison, one of three places where human rights agencies knew the government of President Nicolas Maduro held political prisoners. 

During their nearly two years inside the infamous prison, Josh and Thamy Holt witnessed a number of human-rights abuses. They endured harsh interrogation techniques, torture, isolation and dirty and cramped living conditions, all detailed in the podcast. 

How they earned their freedom 

One part of the story not widely understood before is exactly how the Holts’ freedom came about. The podcast will offer details not publicized before. 

A team of people came together to get Josh and Thamy Holt out of El Helicoide and back to safety in the U.S. They included lawyers, many of them working pro bono, in both the U.S. and Venezuela; members of the faith community, and family members who put their own lives on hold to make sure the Holts had food and other resources in prison. The team also included members of Congress, and a Senate staffer who happened to have a unique connection to Maduro: They attended a retreat together in Boston in 2002 and became friends. 

Every single person involved in helping get the Holts freed pointed to the efforts of Josh’s mother as being critical. 

“People don’t know what really happened, until you come to our household, and you saw the notebook that my mom had with all the business cards, just pages and pages of information,” said Derek Holt, Josh’s older brother. “She’s talked to people that most people in their lifetime would never reach.”

The Mama Bear who never gave up

Laurie Holt Mama Bear

FILE – In this July 13, 2016 file photo, Laurie Holt holds a photograph of her son Joshua Holt at her home in Riverton, Utah. Laurie Holt spent nearly two years pushing to get her son freed from a Venezuelan prison. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Mia Love, the former congresswoman representing Laurie and Jason Holt, Josh’s parents, described Laurie as “scary.” 

“I want to explain what that means,” Love said. “Most of these situations, you look at them and you think, you know, ‘This couldn’t happen to me. This is not something that could happen to me. This happens to other people.’ But Laurie Holt was, in essence, the mother next door… and it was scary to me because instead of me saying, ‘Oh, you know, that’s – these are things that happen to other people because of the situation,’ I found myself saying, ‘That can happen to me also. What would I want, if that were me, what would I want my representative to do?’

“She was relentless – her engaging personality, her determination. Like I said, she was the sweetest person but scary in the sense that I saw myself in her. She made it — she was so compelling that she made her member of Congress and her senator 100 percent committed to getting Joshua out. And I just kept saying to her, ‘We are not going to give up until he comes home,'” Love said.  

Hope In Darkness will release new episodes weekly. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts. 

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