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.
RIVERTON, Utah — Utah mom Laurie Holt first learned her son, Josh, had been arrested in Venezuela, through a cryptic Facebook message from his mother-in-law. But she had to wait weeks after learning about his arrest to speak to her son about how he was doing.
“She hit rock bottom pretty bad when — I mean, obviously — when Josh was gone. But what parent wouldn’t?” said Derek Holt, Josh Holt’s older brother.
At the time, Josh Holt was one of about 20 other American citizens held by hostile foreign powers — countries like Iran and North Korea. We don’t have an exact number because the government keeps that information classified.
Laurie Holt: Mama Bear
Laurie and her husband, Jason Holt, found themselves at a loss.
“There’s no book,” Jason Holt said in episode six of the podcast detailing his son’s ordeal, Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story. “It’s all trial and error as you go. You learn to fly or learn to swim – or sink.”
The Holts started making phone calls.
“You know, we rattled every cage we could, and we had some contacts throughout the country and throughout the world, really,” Jason Holt said.
Laurie Holt even found an inside line to the prison, in part because of missionary work Josh Holt did in Everett, Washington.
“This lady in Washington, her cousin ended up being a guard in the prison that Josh was being held at,” Jason Holt said. “And so we got information from him, from inside the prison, that nobody could — the embassy couldn’t get, nobody else could get.”
The family held fundraisers and rallies to raise awareness. They spent countless hours on the telephone with anyone who would listen.
But they couldn’t talk to Josh himself, to find out how he was doing, until Josh Holt’s fellow inmates at El Helicoide made contact with him through the cell next door.
“Are you the Gringo?”
Late at night, a few weeks after Holt arrived at El Helicoide, Josh Holt saw a pair of hands through an opening in the wall high above his solitary cell. A voice asked if he was “The Gringo.” He said yes. Then, the voice asked whether Holt’s family knew where he was.
“And I said, ‘No. They don’t know I’m here,'” Holt recalled.
The other man asked if Holt would like to call his parents.
“‘Of course I would like to call them. 100% yes!'” Holt remembered answering. “He said, ‘Okay, at night, when all the guards go to sleep, I’ll pass you a phone and you can talk to ’em.'”
That night in the summer of 2016, the other man passed Holt a cell phone through the opening between their cells and cautioned him not to let the guard see. Eager, Holt dialed home.
“And the phone wouldn’t connect. It just wouldn’t work,” he said.
Navigating a broken system
By the summer of 2016, Venezuela’s economic crisis had extended to cell phone networks. In April, two months before Holt arrived, the country’s two largest mobile carriers suspended all international calling. They were millions of dollars in debt to overseas providers. The Venezuelan government wouldn’t allow them to increase rates to recoup any of that loss. It’s the reason why Josh Holt couldn’t get through to his parents on that borrowed cell phone initially.
He gave the cell phone back to the man in the cell next door feeling defeated.
“The next day, [I was] talking to this kid again, and he said, ‘You can text her, but you can’t call.'”
So that night, that’s what he did. His fellow inmate slipped him the phone again, and he started typing out a message.
“I just said, ‘Mom?’ And I sat there, waited and waited… and she said, ‘Who is this?’ And I said, ‘It’s Josh.'”
Laurie and Jason Holt had already been through a rough few weeks by then. They didn’t recognize the number, and worried someone was trying to trick them. The Holts waited to respond until they thought of something they could ask that only Josh would be able to answer.
They settled on the nickname of the old red pickup truck Josh drove in high school: The Burrito.
“And we texted back and we made him say, ‘If this is Josh, what was the name of your truck?'” Jason Holt said.
Josh typed the words “the burrito” into the phone.
“And [my mom] was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, Joshie! How are you? I love you, I miss you,'” Josh Holt said.
The five or ten minutes they’d spent texting before he had to give the phone back rejuvenated Josh and gave his mother renewed energy to fight for his freedom.
A two year mission of her own
Every single person interviewed for Hope In Darkness described Laurie Holt’s tenacity in her son’s case as the driving factor that ultimately resulted in his safe return to the United States.
“She was my best friend, but she was — I’d say she was one of the best mothers a kid could ask for,” Jason Holt said.
“I loved those big bear hugs that she would always give, and that’s why we always called her the Mama Bear. You don’t mess with Mama Bear, and you don’t mess with Mama Bear’s kids. And that’s who she was,” Josh Holt said.
The Holt kids, brothers Derek and Josh and sisters Katie and Jenna, knew their friends would be loved and embraced by Laurie, too.
“She was so open and just so happy,” Derek Holt recalled. “[If] she didn’t know you, you were getting a hug. Didn’t matter.”
“She was relentless”
Putting Mama Bear Laurie Holt out there as the family’s face and voice on TV and radio was a conscious choice.
“Emotions play a big part in media, and so, we thought it would be best to put her front and center, you know … tug on the heartstrings,” Jason Holt said. “And that worked for a while. But after that, she just knew her stuff.”
Laurie Holt amassed a personal phone number collection for major players in government, including then-Utah Rep. Mia Love, who represented the Holts’ congressional district.
“Laurie Holt was scary to me, in a sense,” Love said. “I wanna explain what that means. It’s that, most of these situations, you look at them and you think, you know, this couldn’t happen to me. …This happens to other people. But Laurie Holt was, in essence, the mother next door.”
Love found it frightening to think that what was happening to the Holts could happen to anyone – herself included.
“She was just this ordinary mom that all of a sudden is fighting for the life of her son,” Love said. “She was relentless.”
The two women became close friends.
“She knew that if she called my personal cell phone and I saw her number come up, that at any time of day, day or night, middle of the night, even if I were on the floor voting, I would run out and pick up that call,” Love said.
An ally in the Senate
Retired Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch too became a fan of Laurie Holt.
Throughout the 23 months Josh and Thamy Holt spent in prison in Venezuela, Hatch released regular videos on Facebook and YouTube to update the public about his work to get them freed. He routinely asked his constituents for their prayers — not just for Josh and Thamy, but for Jason and Laurie Holt, too.
“She never gave up. She was the true Mama Bear,” Hatch said. “And I miss her now that she has passed. I think of her often. We all could use a mother like that, let me tell you.”
He talked about how hard it was to watch the Holts endure their separation from Josh and Thamy in another video.
“I’ve gotten to know Josh’s wonderful family, and it’s been painful to watch them go through this terrible ordeal,” he said, adding, “I will not stop until we have Josh back.”
“She was so compelling that she made her member of Congress and her senator 100% 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.
Hatch and Love were both on hand in May 2018 when Josh Holt finally arrived back on US soil and got one of Laurie’s famous Mama Bear hugs.
Listen to episode 6 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.
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