How Josh and Thamy Holt finally got freed from a Venezuela prison
Aug 5, 2020, 12:05 AM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 11:22 am
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 — The visit of an Illinois senator to Venezuela nearly killed all the behind-the-scenes efforts to free Josh and Thamy Holt from that country’s notorious prison: El Helicoide.
“I was worried we were completely burned to a crisp and that it had ruined any chance to get you out,” Caleb McCarry, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, told Josh Holt two years later during an interview for the podcast Hope In Darkness.
The Senate floor speech
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., traveled to Venezuela in April 2018 at the invitation of Gov. Rafael Lacava, the leader of Venezuela’s Carabobo state, known by locals as “Dracula” for his late-night raids on crime in his makeshift Batmobile.
Durbin hoped to negotiate the release of the Holts, whose 2016 arrest came on accusations of stockpiling weapons to overthrow the government. He also wanted to urge Venezuelan leaders to hold fair elections. (There was concern that President Nicolás Maduro was rushing the process to ensure his own re-election.)
But the conditions he witnessed in the country horrified Durbin so much that when he returned to the Senate, he felt compelled to document what he had seen in detail.
“No doubt many are aware that Venezuela has been suffering devastating economic and democratic backsliding,” Durbin said in a Senate floor speech. “But what I found was a country that is on the edge of collapse, facing overlapping economic, humanitarian and political crises.”
McCarry, the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, knew Maduro was sensitive to overseas perceptions of his country. He worried what Durbin said that day had eroded any goodwill he had built in his February 2018 visit to Venezuela or the subsequent communications by telephone between Maduro and then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
A race for survival
“Inflation is rampant, expected to reach 13,000 percent this year, leading to what some call a race for survival,” Durbin said on the Senate floor. “Business leaders told me they’re being vilified by the government, forced to sell products below costs and out of market so the government can be the exclusive seller of imported goods. They also shared stories of workers — listen to this — fainting on the job from hunger. One particular concern: One of the largest employers in Venezuela said they decided they had to start bringing fruit to this workplace in the morning so their workers could get something to eat.”
Hope In Darkness documented the struggles facing everyday Venezuelans in a previous episode, including widespread hunger and protests over the lack of food. Durbin spoke for 17 minutes. It was 13 minutes into the speech before he even mentioned Josh and Thamy Holt — the reason for his trip.
“I visited him in a prison known by its prisoners as ‘Hell on Earth.’ He and his Venezuelan wife have served 21 months with no end in sight. He is suffering and clearly a political hostage of the regime. I appealed to President Maduro to release him,” Durbin said.
McCarry worried the damage was already inflicted.
Then, about a month later, came word of the May 16, 2018, prison uprising that resulted in threats to Josh Holt’s life.
“I was worried to death about you, Josh,” McCarry told him later. “I frankly was worried you were going to be killed.”
An unexpected offer
The riot ended. The election resulted in the expected win for Maduro. Out of nowhere, McCarry’s phone rang.
“I got a call from Lacava, and the timing of this was one week after Maduro had staged his re-election,” McCarry said.
Lacava had a surprise offer: If McCarry could get his boss, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to go to Venezuela in person, Lacava believed Maduro would release Josh and Thamy Holt to him.
McCarry was skeptical — but optimistic.
He became friendly with the future Venezuelan president over beers in Boston in the aftermath of a failed coup to remove his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. The invitation from Lacava was the most promising development yet toward the Holts’ release. But Lacava might be wrong about Maduro’s willingness to let the Holts go. And a number of high-ranking US officials and politicians opposed the idea of going there, worried it would appear the US legitimized Maduro’s staged re-election.
Corker agreed to give it a shot. He met with the Secretary of State to ensure the trip could take off.
“I wasn’t entirely sure we were going to be able to get on that plane,” McCarry said. “I didn’t tell even Senator Hatch’s office until I was on the plane in Washington with the doors shut.”
Josh Holt released from prison
It’s hard to say exactly what led to the release of Josh and Thamy Holt from prison. We know McCarry landed in Caracas with his boss, Corker. We also know they met with the Venezuelan president, with McCarry serving as translator.
To this day, even McCarry can’t say for sure what happened to allow Maduro to release Josh and Thamy Holt from El Helicoide. He insists, however, that there was no “deal” or “exchange” made. Doing so, he said, would have angered the same people who disapproved of Corker’s trip to Caracas in the first place.
“Maduro did this for whatever reasons he did it. But in part, he did it for me, because of our friendship,” McCarry said. “And I’m grateful to him forever for that. And I had nothing to offer him. Nothing.”
Inside El Helicoide, Josh and Thamy Holt first learned about their impending release in the office that became their new home after the May 16 uprising. Venezuelan news reports started to report the news first, which they saw on their phones, but they didn’t believe it until the warden summoned them after midnight on the morning of May 26, 2018. He told them to pack their things to leave later that morning. They didn’t accumulate much in prison, but what they had, they whittled down to fit into two backpacks.
Josh and Thamy Holt piled into a van with a government official, left the prison and headed to the airport. Their destination: not Utah, but Washington, D.C., where President Trump wanted to greet them in the Oval Office.
An airport reunion
At the airport, the Holts met up with Corker, McCarry and Lacava, who planned to join them on the flight to the United States.
McCarry breathed a sigh of relief.
“I didn’t know whether or not you were going to be released. I thought you were going to be. But I didn’t know until you stepped out of that van and Senator Corker greeted you and I hugged you,” McCarry said.
Another car pulled up; Thamy Holt’s daughter, Marian, arrived with her biological father. She would be going to the US with her mother.
They boarded the plane. It taxied toward the runway.
I am pleased to join Senator Hatch and President Trump in announcing the release of Josh and Thamy Holt. We are on our way home. pic.twitter.com/0Ku2pzwOYL
— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) May 26, 2018
A momentary scare
“And the plane goes and starts to take off, and then out of nowhere, it just starts slowing down, and we’re like — ‘What the heck is going on? Why is it slowing down?’ And we’re all kind of looking around at each other like, ‘Oh, no,'” Josh Holt recalled.
“Nothing in Venezuela happens in quite the same way that it happens here, and we were going down the runway and they turned the engines off,” Corker reported.
— GRUPO DE BOSTON (@grupodeboston) May 26, 2018
The captain spoke over the intercom. An instrument needed calibration. As soon as that was done, they’d be on their way. Everyone started to breathe again.
In the air, Josh Holt couldn’t get over the feeling that it wasn’t real — until the pilot announced they had entered US airspace.
“I have chills — I literally have chills right now, goose bumps going down my arms,” Josh Holt said as he related this part of his story. “I remember how excited I was, knowing that finally, I was going home.”
On American soil at last
A line of police cars greeted the plane when it landed in Washington, D.C. Josh Holt’s reaction surprised him.
“I was afraid, I was literally scared,” he said.
He reminded himself that these police officers weren’t the ones who had wrongfully imprisoned him, tortured his wife, and jailed them for nearly two years.
President Donald Trump’s personal physician stood by to check the Holts over in one room at the facility while Josh Holt’s parents waited for them in another.
“For me, the best moment of this entire thing was when you and Thamy … were getting your medical exam, and I walked in the next room and gave — your mom gave me the biggest hug,” McCarry said. “And I said, ‘Your son’s in the next room, ma’am. You’re gonna see him in just a few minutes.’ That was far — meant far more to me than going to the Oval Office.”
McCarry insists Laurie Holt’s determination to get her son home and refusal to give up was the driving force behind his freedom, even beyond McCarry’s own role in the process.
His participation cost him, professionally.
“It didn’t go well for me, you know? People were really mad at me,” McCarry said. “I lost my job.”
High-ranking members of Congress didn’t like the appearance of McCarry taking a sitting senator to negotiate with a man they see as the illegitimate leader of a potentially failing state. That anger forced McCarry out of his role at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“But I don’t care,” McCarry said. “Someone asked me, ‘If you knew everything you know now, would you do it again?’ I said, ‘100 percent chance.'”
“Just like I’ve said a thousand times, there’s no way I could ever thank [McCarry] enough,” Josh Holt said.
Reunited with Mama Bear
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, waited alongside Jason and Laurie Holt while the doctor checked out Josh, Thamy and Marian. When the door finally opened, Hatch’s office shot video of the reunion.
Senator Hatch and Elaine greeting Jason and Laurie Holt before heading to the tarmac to meet Josh and Thamy, who are returning after 2 years of captivity in Venezuela. #utpol #JoshHolt pic.twitter.com/jdKY9RqyVm
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) May 26, 2018
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) May 26, 2018
“And I remember, I walked in there, and she just ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever received from my mom. And she just cried. She just cried on my shoulder. She says, ‘You’re here. I have you in my arms. I’m never letting you go, ever again,'” Josh Holt remembered.
Laurie Holt gave her son one of her famous “Mama Bear” hugs, squeezing him tight.
Jason Holt, Josh’s dad, said the initial reunion lasted only a few minutes.
“He just said what he always says, ‘I love you, bud. I’m so glad that you’re back,'” Josh Holt recalled. “And then I shook Senator Hatch’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. He’s a big hugger. … And he just said that this was one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. That he had never fought for something as hard as that.”
Looking forward to seeing Joshua Holt this evening in the White House. The great people of Utah are Celebrating!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2018
“Then they took us all — they split us, they wouldn’t even let us ride together with them in the caravan — back to the White House,” Jason Holt said.
Meeting the president
Someone loaned Josh Holt a suit. The family reunited once more in the Oval Office, where they met the president.
“He basically shook my hand for a second, didn’t even talk to me, just shook my hand. And then he said, ‘Let ’em in.’ And that was the craziest thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life, the way the media just rushed in,” Josh Holt said.
Cameras clicked and whirred as President Trump addressed the reporters. He spoke for just over 10 minutes, pointing out the work his administration had done to bring home Americans held by foreign governments.
“We’ve had 17 prisoners released during the Trump administration. Most people don’t know that,” the president said.
“He is just as cocky in real life as he is on TV,” said Jason Holt.
WELCOME HOME JOSH! pic.twitter.com/2X0cKE4stx
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2018
“That’s all I can remember. People always ask me, ‘What’s it like being in the Oval Office? What’s it like meeting President Trump?’ And I tell everyone the same exact thing every single time: ‘I don’t know.’ My brain was so scrambled at that moment that I don’t know.”
“Hot, hot, hot water”
After the White House, Josh and Thamy Holt went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to start addressing some of the unresolved health issues from nearly two years at El Helicoide. After prison, their stay at a hospital felt more like a luxury hotel.
“I had taken the longest shower that I had ever taken in my entire life,” Josh Holt said. “And I used hot, hot, hot water.”
Doctors discovered Thamy Holt had severe bursitis, finally explaining the persistent shoulder pain that plagued her in prison and kept her up at night. She, Josh and Marian all had dental problems that needed to be addressed. They also went through a debriefing process.
“I spent probably five or six hours with — I don’t know 100 percent, but I believe he was with the CIA,” Josh Holt remembered.
After a couple of days, they finally headed to the airport with Laurie and Jason Holt to go home to Utah. Josh Holt found walking around an airport to be strange.
“That was really hard at first… being surrounded by lots of people, being out,” Josh Holt said. “It was just an adjustment. You’re used to being locked away in a room with just yourself, or with just a couple people, and that’s it.”
A Utah welcome
Back in Utah, the family got to work decorating 12600 South, the main drag from Interstate 15 to the city of Riverton, with black and lime-green balloons, Josh Holt’s favorite colors. The community rallied around them to pack Salt Lake City International Airport. Members of the media joined the crowd outside the baggage claim.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember going from my seat to the crowd. I just remember walking up to the escalator, and stepping on the escalator with my wife, and then, boom. There are all of these people,” Josh Holt said.
Nathalia, Marian’s younger sister, didn’t know she was about to reunite with her family.
“She’s thinking that it’s grandpa’s birthday, and that all of these people are here to celebrate grandpa’s birthday. That’s what she thought. And so when she sees her mom and sister coming down the escalator, and see how she lost it, and the way they hugged… ah, the reunion was just amazing,” Josh Holt said.
“I felt like everything was complete, even though my heart was a little torn for having left my family,” Thamy Holt said. “I knew the moment I married Josh that some time, I would move to this country, but that was a process, and I’d have time to prepare and things like that. But no, I just got on a plane: ‘Here you are, you live here, now you live there.’ … And from that moment, from the 26th of May, I haven’t seen my mom, I haven’t seen my grandma.”
Home to Riverton
The group piled into a limo for the ride to Riverton City Park, where Rep. Mia Love addressed a crowd eager to celebrate the Holts’ freedom.
“I want to say a burden has been lifted off all of our shoulders,” Love said.
Just two days out of prison and operating on very little sleep, Josh Holt found the energy to thank those gathered for their prayers, which he believes helped bring him home.
“It doesn’t matter what faith you have, what denomination,” he said to the crowd. “Stay strong to who you are inside.”
“Josh stayed and shook every single person’s hand and thanked them, which a lot of people — what he just went through? Wouldn’t have done that. I don’t think. They’d have been like, ‘Sorry, we’ll do a meet-and-greet later,” Derek Holt, Josh’s brother, said. “But he sat there and let every single person come by and talk to him.”
He only had one plan in mind when it was all over.
“I went home and just passed out,” Josh Holt said.
Next steps for the family
The Holts finally got to hold their second wedding in October 2018, two years later than the original plan. Then, in December, the family gathered at Laurie and Jason Holt’s Riverton home on Christmas morning. Josh and Thamy presented Laurie Holt with a gift-wrapped photo print-out of an ultrasound: Thamy was expecting.
“We just had Christmas. We’d just told her about it, and she was so excited,” Josh Holt said.
“She was so excited to be a grandma,” Jason Holt said.
Thamy Holt’s first trimester was rough, Josh Holt said.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to keep the baby. And I remember one day, she bled a lot. So I called my mom and told her what happened, and I told my mom that we were going to see the doctor in like, a couple of hours, because we’d called them and they got us in,” Josh Holt said.
Laurie Holt said she would meet them there.
“And she walked in and they saw the baby and they saw that everything was fine, and the heartbeat was fine. Everything looked fine. And we left. And that was actually the last time that I saw my mom,” Josh Holt said. “I didn’t even give her a hug goodbye that day, because we were planning on seeing her a couple of days later for Nathalia’s birthday party.”
Laurie Holt wouldn’t get to meet the baby. One Sunday morning in February 2019, Jason Holt couldn’t wake her for church. She died just nine months after her son came home, of an enlarged heart, according to Josh Holt.
“It was — man, it was the hardest thing that I had to go through, coming home from being held hostages, to lose my mom,” Josh Holt said.
“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 know a lot of times when somebody passes on, they get put on a pedestal, and I realize that, but she truly was a remarkable mom for her kids.”
“I’m glad. I’m so glad, and so thankful, that I was actually home, that I was able to spend that little time with her,” Josh Holt said. “We ended up naming our daughter after her: Oakley Laurie Holt. Mom’s name was Laurie. And she’s helped a lot — having Oakley in my life along with my wife and our two other daughters — it’s really helped kind of fill that little void.”
Adjusting to normal life
Thamy Holt says it’s been an adjustment for Marian and Nathalia, who were just 4 and 7 when she and Josh were arrested. For a while, Nathalia, the younger of the two, was reluctant to let Thamy out of her sight.
“I think the time was very hard for them, being apart from me,” she said. “But still, also, I can — when we come out of the jail and I came to the USA, and I saw Nathalia — the first two weeks, she was just with me. She don’t let me go to the bathroom alone.”
The Holts say the girls are doing better now, eager to return to school after the pandemic forced them to learn online this spring. Thamy Holt is going to school herself — working to improve her English while getting a degree in the United States that equates to her Venezuela degree. Josh Holt is working on a book, occasionally speaking in public, while working full-time.
“We’re just enjoying life,” he said.
All of this started because Josh Holt wanted to improve his Spanish and Thamy Holt wanted to learn English.
“It’s funny, when we’re shopping in stores and I’m talking to her, we’ll have people come up and start talking to us in Spanish, and they’ll go, ‘How long have you been talking Spanish?’ And I’m like, ‘Just a couple of years.’ And they’re — ‘Your accent’s amazing! You don’t even have one!'” Josh Holt said with a laugh. “I just say, ‘Well, I hope not after what I’ve been through.'”
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