Editorial note: this is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here.
SALT LAKE CITY — Independence Day 2016 marked the 240th anniversary of the birth of the United States. But in Venezuela, it meant anything but freedom for a Utah man arrested and accused of plotting against the Venezuelan government.
In the latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story,” Josh Holt recounts how he found out his stay in an infamous Caracas prison was going to be longer than he expected.
A volatile situation
As described in a previous episode of the podcast, the arrest of Josh and Thamy Holt on June 30, 2016, came in the middle of a volatile situation in Venezuela.
In the months before their arrest, severe food shortages and other political turmoil led to rioting in the streets of Caracas. About a month before Josh Holt arrived in Caracas to get married, opposition leaders had called for a recall election to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office. Then, about two weeks before his arrest, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the Organization of American States to ask Maduro to free his country’s political prisoners.
Josh Holt maintains he was unaware of the political upheaval. Before their marriage, he said, Thamy had told him there were places they shouldn’t go for their own safety. He thought that simply meant criminal activity. But he says he had no idea of the extent of the chaos.
After his arrest, he viewed his freedom as a near-future certainty. He knew the weapons that officers “found” in his and Thamy’s apartment were planted. Josh Holt believed as soon as a judge heard the case, that person would immediately realize a mistake had been made and would set him and his wife free.
At the end of five days in which Thamy and Josh Holt were interrogated and Thamy Holt was tortured, guards loaded them into the back of a van and took them to the Palace of Justice in Caracas for a preliminary hearing.
Independence Day in Venezuela
The date was July 4, 2016.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is it. I know I’m going to get my freedom,'” Josh Holt said.
Handcuffed to his wife, they climbed the stairs to appear before the judge.
“As we were walking up, I just remember thinking, ‘OK, I haven’t talked to a lawyer. I don’t know what to expect, but I know that — I know that I’m going to get my freedom. Today is my independence day,'” he said.
He assumed court in Venezuela couldn’t be that different than the United States.
“For me, it was like, it’s going to happen, you know? It’s my 4th of July. And from that day forward, it’s going to be like a different type of Independence Day for me,” he said.
Outside the judge’s office door, Josh and Thamy Holt met with a lawyer who was going to represent them. They told the man everything that had happened. He reassured them he would do everything he could to get them freed.
“That’s not the way it was,” he said on the podcast. “In fact, when I saw the judge for the first time, I immediately knew that I was screwed.”
“I wasn’t even a human being”
His concern came from the gaze he said the judge bestowed on him.
“It was the type of glare that made me feel like I wasn’t even a human being. And that’s when she said that we would have to go to 45 days’ investigation. So for 45 days, we would have to go back to the SEBIN and sit there and wait,” he said.
The SEBIN, or Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, is a government law-enforcement agency in Venezuela similar to the FBI and CIA. That agency controls the prison at El Helicoide to which Thamy and Josh Holt would return.
“I was just shocked. And we get out of the room, and we go to talk to our lawyer, and he just bounced. He just left,” he said.
Thamy’s family had scraped together the money to hire the attorney, but it looked like he left as soon as the hearing ended. Josh and Thamy Holt never saw him again.
Guards loaded the Holts back into the van to drive back to El Helicoide.
His new home
After returning to the prison, a guard showed Thamy Holt to a cramped cell with two bathrooms that she would share with more than 30 other women.
Josh Holt found himself in solitary confinement.
“There were black plastic garbage bags taped up against the bars so you couldn’t see the inside of the actual cell itself. [The guard] opened the door, and I looked in, and as soon as I stepped in, all these cockroaches just went up against the walls and into this pile of clothing/bedding,” he recalled. “And then she shut the door behind me.”
The cell was about as wide as a twin-sized bed and maybe just a couple of feet longer. Eight to 10 feet up, there were a couple of tiny openings in the cement walls, into which Josh could see a couple of non-functioning fans. Two fluorescent bulbs flooded the cell with light day and night.
He paced for a while, then shook the cockroaches off the bedding and tried to make himself a bed on the floor. Eventually, he said, he got used to the cockroaches crawling over him.
“I was like, ‘OK. You know what? 45 days. I can do this,'” he said. “And I remember taking 45 pieces of rice that first night, setting those aside, and every single day, I [threw] one of those pieces of rice away. For me, it was a way that I could tell at least where I was at in the process.
He wondered whether his family had any idea what was going on.
Independence Day in Utah
The days leading up to July 4, 2016, in Josh Holt’s hometown of Riverton came, as they always did, with Riverton Town Days: multiple days of celebrating the American Independence Day with a rodeo, a carnival, parade and fireworks.
His close friends and former high school football teammates, Kaden Hansen and Quynn Allsup, were at Riverton Town Days in 2016 when they got the news about Josh Holt’s arrest via text message from Josh’s mom, Laurie.
Jason Holt, Josh’s dad, remembers thinking at first the cryptic Facebook message he received from Thamy’s mother, Maria, must be some kind of prank. It read “911, Josh Thamy prison.”
But a second message that Independence Day weekend convinced them something horrible had happened. It included a photo of Josh Holt in a Venezuelan newspaper with his library card, driver’s license, passport, some cash and his concealed-weapons permit.
“So when we saw that, things started clicking a little more. I’m thinking, ‘Well, this — you know, something bigger’s going on here,'” Jason Holt remembered.
Jason and Laurie Holt didn’t speak Spanish, which is why Laurie texted Quynn Allsup and Kaden Hansen. Both men learned to speak Spanish after serving missions in South America.
An unexpected roadblock
Allsup recalls the message from Laurie Holt said something like “Hey, Josh is in jail.” He and Hansen were both watching the parade from different locations when they received Laurie Holt’s texts.
“And I called her, and she was just frantic. Just out of her mind. Rightfully so, of course,” Allsup said.
“You think it’s fake, of course,” Hansen added.
He did what most people would do: tried to search for more information.
“And I started Googling news reports out of Venezuela and trying to translate, and I remember my wife, who didn’t know anything was going on, kept trying to get my attention to like, watch the parade or whatever, and I’m just sitting here scrolling like crazy on my phone,” he remembered.
Everyone headed over to the Holts’ nearby Riverton home to see how they could help. Jason Holt called the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela but hit an immediate roadblock.
“They were hesitant to give me any information because Josh was over 18,” he said.
“And I think at that point, I spoke with Thamy’s mom,” Allsup said. “I think I was the first one to actually speak with her because we actually didn’t still know what was going on.”
Mama Bear on a mission
Allsup and Hansen say they watched as Laurie Holt went into full “Mama Bear” mode.
“She was sending probably hundreds of text messages and call after call. And so from day one, it was just straight — that’s all it was about. And obviously, we didn’t know how long it was going to be, but looking back on it now, that was the start of a basically two-year, daily, hourly, every single minute, that’s what her focus became,” Allsup said.
It would be 23 months before those efforts bore fruit. Listen to episode 4 of Hope In Darkness below.
Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.