Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Episodes at kslnewsradio.com/hope-in-darkness.
SALT LAKE CITY — Two hundred and forty years to the day the United States declared its independence from the United Kingdom, a Utah man hoped to have an independence day celebration of his own.
The latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story” takes the listener to Caracas, Venezuela, on July 4, 2016. That day, after five days of interrogation, authorities took American Josh Holt and his wife, Thamy, to that city’s Palace of Justice for a preliminary hearing with a judge. It wound up being not an independence day, but a day of crushed hopes.
‘Today is my Independence Day’
As described in a previous episode of the podcast, the Holts’ arrest came amid civic unrest in Venezuela. In the months before June 30, 2016, a shortage of food and other political upheaval led to rioting in the streets of Caracas. Opposition leaders wanted a recall election to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office. In mid-June 2016, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called publicly for Maduro to release Venezuela’s political prisoners — many of whom were arrested during riots over food shortages.
Josh Holt didn’t know any of that when he landed in Caracas on June 11, 2016. He set about preparing to marry Thamy in a civil ceremony, scheduled for June 16, 2016.
Two weeks later, on the morning of June 30, 2016, members of a coalition of law enforcers known as OLP, which roughly translates to Operation for the Liberation of the People, raided Josh and Thamy Holt’s Ciudad Caribia apartment complex. They were two of many people to be arrested that day, though Josh was the only American.
Josh Holt viewed his freedom as guaranteed. He believed any judge would throw the case out as soon as they saw the evidence: weapons that Thamy Holt observed being planted in her husband’s suitcase. When he realized his preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 4, 2016, it only solidified his optimism.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, this is it. I know I’m going to get my freedom,’” Josh Holt said.
Guards loaded Thamy and Josh into a van and drove them to the Palace of Justice, a sweeping structure that crosses over a major thoroughfare in Caracas. They waited for their turn before the judge, then were handcuffed together and instructed to walk up the stairs to their hearing.
“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.
Sent back to El Helicoide
Outside the judge’s office, they met briefly with an attorney hired by Thamy Holt’s family to represent them. The lawyer reassured them, promising to do everything in his power to help them get their freedom.
Josh Holt knew almost right away his optimism was misplaced, as soon as he locked eyes with the judge.
“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 is the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, a Venezuelan law enforcement agency that serves as a kind of combination FBI and CIA. El Helicoide, the prison where Josh and Thamy Holt were taken after their arrest and again after their court hearing, is under the control of the SEBIN.
“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.
Also gone was the money Thamy Holt’s family had paid to hire him.
After returning to the prison, a guard showed Josh Holt to his new home.
“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.”
About the width of a twin-sized bed, and maybe only a couple of feet longer, Josh Holt immediately started to sweat in the heat of his cell. Two tiny openings in the concrete 8 to 10 feet up provided air flow — except there wasn’t any. They opened not to the outside, but to another cell next door. A non-functioning fan sat in each of the openings. Two fluorescent bulbs lit the cell day and night, making it hard to know the time of day.
It was cramped, hot and lonely, but Josh Holt was resolved.
“I was like, ‘OK. You know what? Forty-five 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.”
Word arrives in Riverton
A world away in Riverton, Utah, Josh Holt’s friends and family geared up for Riverton Town Days, an annual celebration of American Independence held over multiple days leading up to July 4.
Jason Holt, Josh’s dad, remembers coming home from work the Friday before the holiday to a cryptic Facebook message: “911, Josh Thamy prison.”
The message, from Thamy’s mother, Maria, struck Jason and his wife, Laurie, as some kind of prank at first. They wondered if Maria had been hacked. Then, a second message corrected that line of thinking. It included a photo of a Venezuelan newspaper that showed Josh Holt with his library card, passport, driver’s license, concealed weapons permit and some cash.
“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.
Laurie Holt reached out to two of Josh’s closest friends, who happened to be at the Riverton Town Days parade. She knew Quynn Allsup and Kaden Hansen spoke Spanish after serving missions in South America, and she wanted their help as translators.
A woman on a mission
Allsup remembers the text from Laurie Holt saying something like, “Hey, Josh is in prison.”
“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.
Hansen did what most people would do: tried to search for more information. Through Google, he was able to piece together more about the accusations against the Holts. What he found online was frightening. He relayed the information to Josh’s parents.
Allsup and Hansen say they watched Laurie Holt transform from the mom next door into a woman on a mission.
“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 take 23 months before she could say mission accomplished.
“Hope In Darkness” releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.