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Family rallies support for Utah man jailed in Venezuela

SALT LAKE CITY — Friends and family of a Utah man who is being held in a Venezuelan jail say it is a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"He's someone who always stood up for what is truly right, and for something like this to happen to someone like that is really hard to bear," friend Quynn Allsup said during a rally Saturday at the state Capitol.

Josh Holt, described by loved ones as giving, humble and soft-hearted, had gone to the economically ravaged country to marry a woman he had fallen in love with over the internet. The two had practiced Spanish together and after several months decided to wed.

Despite warnings about the state of unrest he might find, Holt married Thamara Caleno in Venezuela on June 16. But when they returned from a honeymoon on Margarita Island on June 30, they were both arrested on alleged weapons charges.

The two were staying in a government-subsidized apartment in a rough area of town, and military intelligence believed he was a "trained gunman" with a pilot's license and was in the country to "undermine President Nicolas Maduro's rule during a period of deep economic and political turbulence," according to The Associated Press.

Holt's mother said her 24-year-old son, who took a basic flight class in high school but never received a license and can't fly a plane, has developed medical conditions for which he has not yet seen a doctor, and "his mental state is suffering."

"Right now, Josh has no freedom. He has no rights whatsoever," Laurie Holt said. "He is not in a good place."

She believes there's been a terrible misunderstanding about her son, who she says "wouldn't hurt anyone."

"He's a great young man," Laurie Holt said. "He just lights up a room with his grin. … I'm fighting for you, honey. I will get you home."

The Riverton family has traveled across the United States begging support from state and national officials, as well as Venezuelan communities throughout the country. They have set up multiple social media accounts to grow awareness of Josh Holt's circumstances.

They also have a lawyer meeting with him and members of the American Embassy in Venezuela, where Josh Holt and his Venezuelan national bride have been detained for more than 31 days.

"He needs to be home with his family. He needs to be here with us," said Josh Holt's grandmother, Linda Holt. She said the experience has made her "not take her freedom for granted anymore."

The family has found it difficult to continue their lives without Josh Holt here.

"I feel guilty enjoying a nice meal, knowing he is starving in a jail cell," said his 20-year-old sister, Katie Holt. "It makes you not want to eat."

She keeps hoping her brother will come bounding in the door and curl up with her on the couch and crack some jokes, like usual.

"He just brings out the best in everyone," Katie Holt said.

Josh Holt, who recently returned home from a Spanish-speaking LDS Church mission in Washington state, intended to stay in Venezuela only until his wife, 25, could obtain an American visa to return to Utah to live. They were planning to hold a wedding reception in Utah upon their arrival, which could have been as early as August, his sister said.

The Riverton man, born in Pocatello, Idaho, is one of 12 Americans known to be jailed in Venezuela, though his family says his case is unique. The only crime Josh Holt is guilty of, they say, is love.

"It's wearing on my family," Laurie Holt said. "I need the government to step up and help us. I can't fight this fight by myself. As a mother, I can only hold it together for so long."

She said she would continue to offer support for the struggling country even after her son returns home, but Jason Holt, Josh Holt's dad, said "this goes beyond political lines."

"We need to bring this Riverton man, this Utah man, this American citizen home," he said.

The family is asking people to spread awareness, contact public officials and follow updates posted online on Twitter using @freejoshholt or #justiceforjosh.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards