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 — For most of the nearly 23 months a Utah man spent in a Venezuela prison, Josh Holt says his family in the US and Venezuela worked behind the scenes to try to get his new stepdaughters, Marian and Nathalia, out of that country.
The podcast “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story” details those efforts for the first time in an episode released this week.
Instant family for Josh Holt
When Josh Holt traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to get married, one of the things his parents worried about the most was that he was going to gain a family by becoming a stepfather to two young girls, age seven and four.
“I was not a fan,” Jason Holt, Josh’s dad, told KSL in an interview for the podcast. “I told him, that’s a – that’s a big step. You know, your getting married in itself is a big step, but you’re becoming an instant family. And you’re going to another country to do it.”
Josh met Thamy in person in the Dominican Republic before asking her to marry him, but the girls, Marian and Nathalia, were not along on that trip.
“I didn’t meet them until I got to the house for the very first time on June 11, 2016,” Josh Holt said.
At 24, Josh Holt knew he had a lot to learn about his new family dynamics.
“I get there, and now I’m thinking, ‘Okay. These are now going to be my stepdaughters. And I’ve got to make a relationship with them,'” he said. “And I had talked to them and seen them in videos, and they were super, super cute. They had always said super cute things. But now this was real. This was — they’re right there in front of me. And now I had to talk. And I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to talk to them. I didn’t know how to be a dad.”
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But then the Holts got arrested on June 30, 2016, in a raid on Thamy’s Ciudad Caribia apartment complex.
Thamy’s mother steps in
Thamy Holt called her mother, Maria Candelo, the moment Josh Holt was arrested. When Thamy’s own arrest came a few hours later, that left Marian and Nathalia in Candelo’s care.
“To be separated from the girls was the hardest thing in my life,” Thamy Holt said in Spanish for Hope In Darkness.
Most of Thamy Holt’s extended family fled Venezuela for Ecuador shortly after Thamy and Josh’s arrest, including Thamy’s aunt, sister and and brother. But her mother and grandmother stayed to help the Holts and to care for the young girls.
“My mom and grandmother are the only ones who stayed, because my mom and grandma had to take care of the girls, and my mom visited me,” Thamy Holt said through a translator. “And my mom, she couldn’t leave me. She didn’t want to leave the country because she was going to help me. We didn’t have anyone who could help us like she did.”
Crying in the night
Josh and Thamy Holt learned later that the girls struggled more than they realized.
“Of course, her mom wouldn’t tell us this, but afterwards, Thamy started talking to her mom, and her mom said, ‘Yeah, they would wake up in the middle of the night just screaming for you,'” Josh Holt said.
Nathalia, the younger of the two, lost her father when he died in a car accident before Thamy met Josh Holt. Marian’s father was still alive; he and Thamy were teenagers when they became parents. A few months into the Holts’ imprisonment, Marian’s father became more involved.
“About two or three months after [I became] a prisoner, he took [Marian],” Thamy Holt said in Spanish. “So my mom only looked after Nathalia. And Marian’s dad just took care of Marian. The girls were separated. And they saw each other on weekends or when my mom brought them to visit me. That was the time they shared as sisters.”
Marian and Nathalia thought Josh and Thamy Holt were away working. They did not know the Holts were in prison. Still, Maria Candelo brought them to visit their mother as often as she could.
“I only saw the girls when my mom brought them to visit me,” Thamy Holt said.
A lengthy and complicated process
From the beginning, long before Josh and Thamy Holt’s arrest, they planned to bring them to the United States. Josh Holt intended to stay in Venezuela with Thamy after their wedding for some weeks or months while they waited on the paperwork necessary to get the Marian and Nathalia to the US.
The arrest changed all those plans. But with escalating unrest in the country, Thamy Holt worried what might happen to her girls if something happened to her mother or Marian’s father. If Josh and Thamy Holt could be arrested on false charges, it could happen to the people caring for their daughters, too, they reasoned. What would happen then?
Because Marian’s father was both alive and involved in her care, the couple decided to focus first on getting Nathalia out.
“We worked a lot, asked [for] a lot of help, signed a lot of papers so that my mom would have total responsibility for her,” Thamy Holt said. “I ceded my rights to her as the grandmother so that my mom could do for her what she saw as right. And [Josh’s mom] and my mom agreed about sending Nathalia to the United States.”
Josh Holt’s father, Jason, remembers the process as lengthy and complicated.
“We tried for a year to get the justice system for children to go into the prison, just so Thamy could sign a paper,” said Jason Holt, his voice thick with frustration.
All of those delays coincided with multiple delays for Josh and Thamy Holt. Court dates came and went, and the judge didn’t show up, or deferred the case repeatedly. The longer it took for their case to work its way through the system, the more desperate they became to get the girls out of the country.
A Venezuelan ally in the US
Carlos Trujillo, an immigration attorney in Utah, came to the United States as a teenager himself, because his parents worried about the growing authoritarianism they saw in his home country of Venezuela.
“I study my high school there, and I came to this country when I was about 19 years old. At that moment, [the late Hugo] Chavez was starting to show some of his dictatorship tendencies, and my parents decided to send me over to Salt Lake City with an aunt who had been living here,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo became aware of the Holts’ case through news reports, but in April 2017, he got a phone call that put him in direct contact with Josh Holt’s parents, Laurie and Jason Holt. Elder Abraham E. Quero, an Area Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reached out to Trujillo when he came to Salt Lake City to attend the faith’s annual general conference. Quero, who had visited the Holts at El Helicoide, wanted to know if Trujillo could help them.
Over time, Trujillo became what he described as a “bridge” between the Holt family in Utah and the legal team on the ground in Caracas.
“Thamy knew, Thamy had a clear idea that she really wanted the girls out,” Trujillo said. “But it was difficult… we had to circumvent and find ways to get permission slips, power of attorneys, and things like that, and in a country when pretty much everything is not moving forward. There’s not even paper to print a birth certificate.”
Multiple failed attempts
The corrupt system in Venezuela resulted in multiple failed attempts to get Marian and Nathalia to the US. The roller coaster ride of emotions became all the more complex because Thamy Holt felt conflicted. She wanted her daughters to be safe, but she worried she might never see them again.
“I cried a lot because I was still a prisoner, I was locked up, I didn’t know how much longer I’d be locked up without seeing my daughter,” she said. “We were on trial, and we were in the decisive part, where they would decide if they’d condemn us to 18 years or give us freedom, as we were innocent. Then, I imagined if the judge said, ‘Okay, you’re going to go to jail for 18 years,’ when was I going to see my daughter again?”
Thamy Holt turned to her own faith in the midst of the uncertainty.
“If that happened, I said, ‘Okay, God. Take care of her, protect her. I know she’s going to be fine there. And she’ll have love and a good home and her studies.’ I could only trust in Laurie. I just put my faith in her and that she was going to do a good job with the girl. And I’d stay there, closed in those walls, until who knows when,” Thamy Holt said.
For over a year, the process dragged on, complicated in part because of the reluctance of Marian’s father to let her leave with Nathalia.
“He always said no,” Thamy Holt said of Marian’s father. “[He told me,] ‘When you leave, I will let her go.'”
Money speaks to a corrupt system
Eventually, a bribe succeeded where nothing else would – at least when it came to getting Nathalia to the United States.
“Finally, my parents were just like, ‘Well, is there a different way that we can do it?’ And so, Thamy said, ‘Yeah, there is, if you want to pay for it.’ And so we ended up having to pay a judge $800 to allow her mom to just sign a piece of paper,” Josh Holt recalled.
“$800? I would’ve paid that in a heartbeat six months earlier. $800, are you kidding me?” Jason Holt said. “I would’ve borrowed or something, do whatever we had to.”
The money was a bribe for the judge.
It still wasn’t quite a done deal, according to Carlos Trujillo.
“All the paperwork was ready. Then the other concerns came about, as far as, ‘Are they going to let her get out of there? How is she going to enter the United States?'” he said.
More time passed, but finally, by February 2018, everything was in place to bring Nathalia to the United States. First, her grandmother took her to El Helicoide to say goodbye to her mother and stepfather.
“That day, we celebrated her birthday. It was February 7. We sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ I cried a lot,” Thamy Holt said. “She knew that she was coming there but didn’t exactly know how. And she didn’t know she wouldn’t see me more — or she didn’t know for how long. But we always told her, ‘You can call us on the phone.'”
“What if my grandma and grandpa don’t like me?”
Jason and Laurie Holt, Josh’s parents, flew with Carlos Trujillo to Miami to meet Nathalia and take her home to Utah. Trujillo traveled with them to serve as a translator as needed. He also brought his nine-year-old daughter along in hopes she and Nathalia would become friends.
“My daughter could speak both languages. My daughter had, you know, knowledge of what we’d been working [on], and she knew what we were doing,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo’s involvement helped allay some of Thamy Holt’s fears for her young daughter.
“That made it feel safer for me and calmed me a little more,” Thamy Holt said.
In Miami, Jason and Laurie Holt waited for what seemed like ages.
“The immigration officials – the cops would come out, and they’d talk to us, and they’d go back in. They’d come out and talk to us and they’d go back in. They would come out and say that she’s crying. She’s so scared. She was telling them, you know, ‘What if my grandma and grandpa don’t like me?’ So that was pretty heart-wrenching, right there,” Jason Holt remembered later.
Instagram video records the moment when Laurie Holt embraced Nathalia for the first time, kneeling down to child-level for a hug.
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“It was good,” Jason Holt said. “I think she knew that she was loved. And it helped a lot that Carlos had taken his daughter, because it was like she had a friend that could speak Spanish.”
Home to Utah
Jason Holt said Nathalia settled in quickly with the family in the United States. On her first weekend in Utah, Laurie Holt recorded video on Facebook as the young girl experienced snow for the first time. Wearing pajamas and flip-flops, she danced in the falling snow, catching it in her hands.
Josh’s older brother, Derek Holt, worried he would become a default caregiver to Nathalia, an instant babysitter, because he was living with the Holts at the time.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to sit home and watch this kid that I don’t even know,'” he said later, laughing.
Soon, though, he became Nathalia’s biggest fan.
“It wasn’t even a week and Nathalia had Derek just wrapped right around her finger. Everything that she wanted, he would go do,” Josh Holt said.
“At the beginning, [Derek] was bothered to have Nathy,” Thamy Holt said. “But afterwards, it was, ‘Uncle Derek! Uncle Derek!’ And he had to do what she wanted. He couldn’t say anything. She was just a girl who didn’t have anyone. And she fell in love with her uncle and loves him. He only had to follow in her footsteps.”
It would be several more months before Nathalia was reunited with her sister, Marian, and her parents.
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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