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Hope In Darkness – Ep. 1 – Full Transcript

Full Transcript – Ep. 1: The Knock at the Door

Josh Holt, a young man from Utah, finds himself on the wrong side of the law in Venezuela, where he’s just arrived to get married and spend his honeymoon. How did this happen to an American citizen?

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Ep. 1: The Knock at the Door

HOST: BECKY BRUCE

Hope In Darkness is a podcast that addresses sensitive topics, including torture, abuse, and human rights violations. Listener discretion is advised.

JOSH HOLT:

We heard that dreadful sound. Boom. Boom. Boom. Police officers coming to the door.

BECKY:

June 30, 2016. Joshua Holt, an American citizen, is asleep next to his wife of just two weeks, Thamara, in their apartment in Caracas, Venezuela.

JOSH:

I wake up to just a gun being shoved onto my foot. I look up, and there was an AK 47 just pointing right in my face. I’m thinking whoa, what’s going on?

BECKY:

Josh and Thamy don’t know it yet, but they are about to become hostages of the Venezuelan government. They will spend most of the next two years in one of the country’s most notorious prisons, El Helicoide. But in that moment, all they know is that something very strange is going down.

JOSH:

They said, “You need to give us your phone and get ready because you’re coming with us.”

BECKY:

I’m Becky Bruce and this is Hope In Darkness, episode one, “The Knock at the Door.” Over the course of this podcast, you’ll hear Josh Holt tell in his own words what it was like to be locked up abroad on false charges for nearly two years.

REPORTER:

A Utah family says their son is sitting in a Venezuelan jail after they say he was framed for being a US spy.

VENEZUELAN OFFICIAL:

Entre los capturados figuran el ciudadano norteamericano Joshua Anthony Holt.

MIA LOVE:

Maduro wants to talk to somebody. He wants to see if he can have a better relationship with the United States.

JOSH HOLT:

I need the help of my people to come and get me and my wife.

LAURIE HOLT (JOSH’S MOTHER):

If I could change places with him I would. If I could go there I would.

BECKY:

We’ll address human rights violations, abuse, violence, and even torture. We’ll also try to make sense out of the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela that led up to the Holts’ arrest. For now, we go back to the beginning to understand how Josh and Thamy became pawns in an international game.

More after this.

BREAK

BECKY:

Venezuela was about the farthest thing from Josh Holt’s mind growing up in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. His dad Jason says his personality was evident from the start.

JASON HOLT (JOSH’S DAD):

Josh was a funny kid. One story…he got on top of a six-foot picket fence and stood on the top rail, went to jump over, cut his foot on the top of it, fell face down in the gravel…and we’re all inside just watching him outside. He looks up, looks around, doesn’t see anybody, just shakes his head. Stood up, ran away, and he just didn’t let stuff bother him.

DEREK HOLT (JOSH’S BROTHER):

He was always getting hurt it seemed like.

BECKY:

Derek is Josh’s older brother.

DEREK:

We were crazy, I guess. He was more crazy than I, I think.

JASON:

He’s a good kid. Then he grew up. [laughing]

BECKY:

He looked forward to becoming a police officer, or maybe even a pilot. But first, he submitted the paperwork to do something a lot of young Latter Day Saints do — he applied to go on a mission for his church.

JOSH:

So when I got my callback, I was just ecstatic. And then kept reading, and then I found out I was going to be speaking the Spanish language.

BECKY:

He would be serving just outside of Seattle in Everett, Washington. So, he packed up his shirt and tie and name badge. Elder Holt — all male missionaries are called elder — headed off to the missionary training center, where he learned Spanish and got ready for his mission. But it turned out his nine weeks there weren’t really enough time to get proficient, let alone fluent.

JOSH:

I remember for the first long time…I mean, just in the first couple weeks, just being super frustrated and super angry, because I couldn’t understand anything. I remember one of the first lessons we went into… when we leave their house, I was just, I just remember I was angry. I had been out for a couple weeks at this point, and I was just thinking, I’m never going to get this down. My companion goes out of the house, and he’s just as happy as he could be. He goes “Elder, Elder, they said yes!” And then I turned to him, and I go, “They said yes to what?” Kind of in an angry tone, probably. He goes, “They said yes that they want to get baptized.” And my mood just changed automatically. I was like, holy cow, I didn’t understand any of that, but that’s awesome.

BECKY:

While Josh was growing up and going on his mission, Thamy was going through some ups and downs of her own. Born in Ecuador, she moved to Venezuela around the age of five, became a mother for the first time at the age of 17, went on to finish high school and got a degree, and survived an abusive first husband. Not only that — she was widowed at age 24, when her husband died suddenly in a car accident. Thamy was left to care for her two girls, a four and a seven-year-old. And in an effort to improve her English, she looked for Spanish-speaking Americans who could help her. A church website offered profiles of currently serving missionaries — including Josh Holt. She sent a Facebook friend request which Josh would not see until after he finished up in Washington and headed back home to Utah.

JOSH:

Any person that’s been on a mission knows that when you come home from a mission, you have, like, 500 to 1000 Facebook friend invites. So basically, every single person that you met on your mission who had Facebook, went on there and just added you as a friend. But since you’re not allowed to use Facebook, you never accepted those. So, you get home, and you have all these Facebook requests.

BECKY:

Assuming Thamy was one of the people he met in the Spanish-speaking community of Everett, Washington, Josh accepted her friend request.

THAMY HOLT:

I wrote to several people and only Josh answered me. Only Josh. There were people ignoring me, so when Josh answered me, I started talking with him.

JOSH:

I had been home maybe three days at this point and she goes, “Hi.”

THAMY:

“I’m Thamy.”Josh answered me like, “I’m Josh. You’re from my mission?” “No.”

JOSH:

She said, “Nice to meet you.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s nice to meet you.” She goes, “Well, I don’t speak any English, so…”

THAMY:

“Okay, I can’t talk with you anymore. So bye.”

JOSH:

And so, I just kind of started laughing.

THAMY:

He told me, “Wait, I can speak Spanish.” We started…talking in Spanish. But Josh’s Spanish was so bad.

BECKY TO THAMY:

How bad was it?

THAMY:

Horrible. [laughing]

BECKY:

Next thing he knew, Josh was spending all his time talking to Thamy, first over Facebook messages, then video chat. His friends and family were skeptical, to say the least.

DEREK:

I was not a fan at all.

BECKY:

That’s Josh’s older brother again, Derek.

DEREK:

I’m like, the protector, I’m the big brother. I’m the one that’s always, you know…why are you doing that? That’s not smart. Think about what you’re doing. At first, when he said, “she’s just a friend, nothing big, you know, not a big deal. But when you’re hanging out with him, and he’s glued to his phone 24/7, I knew it was only a matter of time before he would start falling for her, because that’s how Josh is. Falls really quick and really hard.

JOSH:

One of my good friends, he realized I was always on my phone. He goes, “Dude, why are you always on your phone?” I told him that it was just a girl from Venezuela, and he goes, “Dude, you’re not marrying a girl from Venezuela.” I said, “Dude, I’m just talking to her. I want to, you know, better my Spanish, and she’s really cool.” He goes, “Dude you can’t marry her.” All of a sudden out of nowhere, his dad comes up, and he goes, “Yeah, he’s definitely gonna marry her.” I just started laughing. I was like, “Guys, I’m not gonna marry this girl!”

DEREK:

All of us were saying, keep it as a friendship. You don’t need be doing anything. I was like, you know, there’s people here in Utah that can speak Spanish. If you want to talk to someone that speaks Spanish.

BECKY:

Just as Derek predicted, it soon became clear to both Thamy and Josh that they were not just friends.

THAMY:

The first time he was teaching me.

JOSH:

Our conversations were basically, how do you pronounce this? How to use this word? Where do I put this word?

THAMY:

Y después, con el tiempo, la confianza, fueron cambiando las conversaciones, empezamos de hablar de que eres linda, que yo sí soy bonita.

JOSH:

She just said that, as we started getting more confidence with each other and in the relationship, we started changing from….how do you do this…to, oh, you’re so beautiful. Oh, no, you’re beautiful.

THAMY:

And yeah, at that point, we start like…gustarnos. [laughing]

JOSH:

We started to like each other?

THAMY:

Yea.

BECKY:

As their romantic relationship blossomed, Derek’s resistance to the match grew.

DEREK:

Quit thinking about it. She’s not gonna come over here. It’s gonna be too hard to get her over here. You can’t go over there, you know, and I just…probably wasn’t the nicest about it, but I’m like, you’re dumb.

BECKY:

Josh’s dad, Jason, didn’t feel as strongly as Derek. He didn’t know Thamy yet, but he knew his son.

JASON:

I understand wanting to protect your kids. I’m all for that, but at the same time, you gotta let them spread their wings, you know, you gotta let them fall on their face maybe a time or two. To build that resilience. To build that strength up. So they can go through heartbreak if that happens. Or, you know, they’re going to be responsible for their choices.

BECKY TO JASON:

And so if they faceplant in the gravel, they can just shake it off.

JASON:

They can just shake it off.

BECKY:

In May, just a few months into their online courtship, Josh flew to the Dominican Republic to meet with Thamy. But to minimize the risk, they each planned to bring a friend along. In the end, Josh’s friend couldn’t go. So it was just Josh, Thamy, and her godmother who made the trip to Santo Domingo. They met in person for the first time at the airport.

JOSH:

And it was like the Fourth of July. Fireworks going off. I was actually hugging her. I had her in my arms. I thought about that moment for six months.

THAMY:

Josh was shaking a lot. I don’t know why. So he came and hugged me so, so strong. So hard. I…I told him something in Spanish like, no puedo respirar. I can’t breathe!

JOSH:

After three days, I just knew. I said, you know what? I know that this is the girl. I brought a ring with me to give it to her, to propose to her. I said, “Guys, why don’t we go to the temple grounds and take pictures.”

BECKY:

Josh and Thamy put on their nicest clothes and headed to the capital city’s temple — a scenic building surrounded by palm trees and manicured lawns.

JOSH:

I said, “Hey, you should walk up the hill, and I can take a picture of you at the temple.” She goes, “Okay.” So, she starts walking up the hill, but she didn’t know that I was following her or grabbing the box. As soon as she turned around, there I was, kneeled on the ground with the box open and the ring showing. And I just asked her, I said, “Will you marry me?” Her hands were just in front of her face, and she goes, “Ahh, what are you doing? Get up you idiot.”

BECKY:

This is sound from the cell phone video of the proposal shot by Thamy’s godmother.

JOSH:

She never said yes. She just started crying.

THAMY:

I feel so comfortable, and I feel like peace in my…inside me. I feel he’s my answer to my prayer.

BECKY:

When the week in the Dominican Republic was up, Josh said it was hard to say goodbye.

JOSH:

I remember that day in the airport being one of the worst days of my life, because it was just like…here’s this woman that I love, she’s going back to Venezuela, and I’m going back to the United States. Who knows when we’re gonna see each other. And so, it was hard. It was hard to see her just crying, and I was just holding her. I remember telling her, you know, “I love you, don’t worry. We’ll be together soon.”

BECKY:

Soon enough, Thamy found a good deal on airfare for Josh to travel from Utah to Venezuela. His departure date was set for early June, but Josh’s family still wasn’t convinced.

JOSH:

My parents, they weren’t too happy about it. Especially my mom, because she really wanted, you know, to be there when I got married. And I told her I said, “It’s not, you know, a real marriage.”

BECKY:

That is, the first ceremony would be a civil one. Thamy and her mother are Latter-day Saints, but the rest of Thamy’s family is Jehovah’s Witnesses. The plan was to have a civil ceremony in Venezuela, so Thamy’s family could take part, and then have a formal wedding in the temple in Utah for family and friends in the U.S. But Laurie Holt had other concerns as well.

JOSH:

Not just because of the whole wedding thing, but also because Thamy was saying things to her that, you know, Venezuela is dangerous in some places. That’s the same in the United States, you know? There’s places in the United States in specific cities where it’s dangerous, and you can’t be in those places at specific times or probably anytime.

BECKY:

What Josh didn’t know is that a crisis was brewing on multiple fronts in Venezuela. A kind of perfect storm fueled by the rising pressure of an authoritarian regime and the swirling winds of opposition protesters. Its longtime socialist president, Hugo Chávez, had died in 2013. His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, came to power in a period of economic crisis. In the months before Josh traveled to Caracas to get married, the country had played host to more than a thousand protests and lootings amid growing food shortages. His critics became louder. And in response, Maduro’s regime became more authoritarian. In April, a month before Josh and Thamy met in the Dominican Republic, members of the opposition gathered signatures to have President Maduro removed from office. There were more protests and more lootings in May and June — again, with food shortages playing an important role. In Utah, Josh wasn’t aware of the turmoil, and he was determined to marry Thamy. His brother Derek dropped him off at the Salt Lake City airport. His worst fear not that his brother would be arrested or imprisoned — but that he was making a mistake in love. Derek told his baby brother that he could still back out, that it wasn’t too late.

DEREK:

We were like, “This isn’t smart, you shouldn’t be going.” He’s like, “I’ll be fine. You know, don’t be worried.” That’s what he wanted, and that’s what he went for.

JOSH:

Thamy told my parents that she was gonna take care of me, and that’s what she did. We never went to places where we shouldn’t be. We were never out at night. We would go from her apartment straight to the bus, straight to her cousin’s house, and then we’d always be in there. We were never out and about.

BECKY:

As it turned out, they didn’t have to be out and about. Trouble found them at Thamy’s front door.

BREAK

BECKY:

Josh arrived in Caracas on June 11, 2016.

JOSH:

I’ve heard that Venezuela is just beautiful. I was just really excited. I talked to my wife about all the different things that we were going to do while I was there. All the beaches that I was going to go to. Being from Utah, I’ve only seen so many beaches my entire life, so that sounded great to me.

BECKY:

Venezuela is positioned atop South America, where the continent meets the Caribbean. Lush green mountains surrounded the city of Caracas, which is separated from the sea by just a short distance. Palm trees sway along the streets.

THAMY:

Caracas is famous for food, beach. Every time, every Sunday, every holiday, the people go to the beach.

JOSH:

If you’ve seen those Fast and Furious movies, it’s kind of where you have those houses on the hill. They’re just kind of stacked on each other. You can’t see any of the hill at all. It’s just straight houses. They’re all different colors, and so, it is beautiful.

THAMY:

Now, no. But it was a beautiful place.

BECKY:

Thamy immediately put Josh to work helping make decorations for the upcoming wedding.

JOSH:

She was just telling me what to do. What to color. What to cut. It was just a humble little wedding, and we just made everything ourselves.

BECKY:

The wedding itself was, again, very different from what Josh expected. But it was 100% their own. They rode a bus to the courthouse and got in line.

JOSH:

There we stood outside in a big line for probably two hours. We waited for our turn. Then when we went in there, and we were finally getting married, to do it all in Spanish, it was crazy. A lot of the words were the same just in Spanish. And to me, I never really thought about my first time getting married it was going to be in Spanish. As soon as we got done, it was just time to go and party, and have fun with her family.

BECKY:

Thamy’s family and friends gathered at her cousin’s home where Josh met many of them for the first time. The couple even had their first dance with a little training for Josh from his bride.

JOSH:

When she was trying to teach it to me, we were watching all these different YouTube videos of people dancing, and how it’s supposed to be in the steps. I did it. So I made her happy. [laughing]

BECKY:

The next morning, they headed out to the airport for their honeymoon.

JOSH:

So, we get to the airport, probably seven o’clock in the morning, and our flight was leaving right around 10. But for some reason, they weren’t allowing anyone onto the flight. So, everyone was just sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting, and finally someone comes and tells all of us that the plane was commandeered by the government because they said that they found drugs in the plane.

BECKY:

Josh and Thamy spent the entire first day of their honeymoon waiting around in an airport. Josh believes that set the stage for a very close call. They left for the honeymoon a day late, so they came back home a day late, too.

JOSH:

I remember we were going up the mountain. I remember all of these motorcycle cops in jeeps and cars just coming down from the mountain. There were a ton…there were over 100 to 200 police officers.

BECKY:

It wasn’t just one law enforcement group, Josh learned later. This was likely the OLP, roughly translated as the Operation for the Liberation of the People. OLP was launched in the summer of 2015 by President Nicolas Maduro to crack down on a wave of crime in the country. It’s a joint effort involving military and police officials from multiple agencies. OLP is blamed for a number of human rights violations between 2015 and 2017, all reported by Human Rights Watch. Witnesses and victims complained about the use of force, people being arrested without cause, people being kicked out of their own homes, and executions carried out without due process in the court system.

JOSH:

And so, at this time, I didn’t know anything about this. I was just like, wow, this is crazy, and my wife just goes “Yeah, they do that sometimes.” So, she didn’t really think anything of it. I didn’t really think anything of it, but thinking back to that, I’m thinking, wow, you know. If we were there, if we didn’t have that extra day that we just sat there in the airport for a whole day, we probably would have gotten taken that night.

BECKY:

In Josh’s view, if they’d come home a day earlier when they were supposed to, the ordeal that would become their next two years would have started a week earlier. Instead, the next few days were uneventful. They adjusted to their new life as newlyweds, they hung out with Thamy’s family, and waited for the paperwork that would allow them to take the girls, Marian and Nathalia, to the states.

JOSH:

I remember the day before we got taken, we had this awesome day with her family. It was awesome. We went bowling. We went out to eat. We went and saw Finding Dory. It was an awesome night. Then on the way back home, we were riding on the bus, and I remember my wife and I got in a stupid argument.

BECKY:

Josh found himself sleeping on the couch. But at some point in the night, Thamy came out and invited him to go back to bed. He would only be there a couple of hours before she shook him awake.

JOSH:

At five o’clock in the morning, and she had this look on her face. And it was one of those looks on her face where you could tell she was scared. She woke me up in a dead sleep, and so my brain’s not really processing. I can just hear her saying, “Joshua, Joshua! The police are going into all the houses.” I’m not really understanding what’s going on. I’m not really registering.

BECKY:

At this point, Josh was still the guy who hoped one day to become a police officer. The idea that the police were the enemy, even in another country, was a foreign concept to him.

JOSH:

It wasn’t until I started finally waking up, my brain started processing everything. That I started realizing that I was hearing people screaming, hearing babies crying, hearing kids screaming and crying. I started realizing that it was something crazy that was going on, so I just was trying to calm her down. I told her, “You know what, let’s just kneel down, and let’s say a prayer.” So that’s what we did. We kneeled down, and we basically just asked for protection.

BECKY:

He went back to bed. The shouting still confused him, but Thamy explained that the police were looking for men, which didn’t make much sense to him. Somehow though, Josh was able to go back to sleep.

JOSH:

About an hour later finally, you know, we heard that dreadful sound. Boom. Boom. Boom. Police officers coming to the door.

BECKY:

They asked Thamy if there were any men inside. Yes, she said. Can we come in? Of course.

JOSH:

She goes to the door, and she opens it up. And there are two police officers staring her down. So, they come in, and they have their guns out. And they’re looking at every single room. They go and look at my daughters. They come into my room, and they’re…I was asleep on the bed. I wake up to just a gun being shoved onto my foot. I look up and there was an AK-47 just pointed right in my face. I sit up and the person just says, “Who are you?” I give them my name. My wife gives him my visa, and he just asked me a couple more questions. He said, you know, “When did you get here in Venezuela? Why are you here in Venezuela? When are you leaving, and what do you do for work?” So, I gave him all of the answers, they looked at the visa, and then they left. So, we’re thinking, you know, like…that was a close one. Josh and Thamy peeked out the living room windows to see what was happening.

JOSH:

I look out there, and I just see police officers running all over the place, shooting at people. I see — and this is something to the day that just, I just get so shocked by it, still thinking about it. You literally had mothers walking their children to school. In the midst of all of this craziness, in this riot and cops shooting back and forth, they’re just walking their kids to school, like it’s nothing. And I just thought, man, what is going on? Then, all of a sudden, I see other people being handcuffed. I remember seeing this line of probably like 20 men, just handcuffed from arm to arm with their shirts pulled right over their head so you couldn’t see their faces. And, you know, here in the United States, what do you do whenever you see an accident? Whenever you see something crazy going on? You pull out your phone, and you start to record it.

BECKY:

Those videos never wound up being sent. For one thing, Thamy, unlike Josh, was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of taking photos or video of the police. To Josh, the situation was surreal.

JOSH:

We had another pound on the door. Boom. Boom. Boom.

BECKY:

Quickly, Josh put the phone away.

JOSH:

She goes and opens the door, as soon as you turn the doorknob, they just barge through the door, and it’s not two police officers this time. It’s not three or four. It’s upwards of 10 police officers, and they all come straight to me, right around me circled up. They have their guns pointed at me. The first thing that they say to me is, “Where is your suitcase?” Yeah, what? What kind of question is that? I was like, “It’s in the room, like, what’s going on?” They said, “You need to give us your phone and get ready because you’re coming with us.”

JOSH:

I remember just kind of getting upset and saying, you know, why am I even going with you? I don’t understand. You guys see my visa, I haven’t done anything bad. So one of the police officers came up to me and it was one of the supervisors, and the supervisor just told me, “Hey, you know, be calm. We just want to make sure that you didn’t have any issues in the United States, and that you don’t have any issues here in Venezuela.”

BECKY:

That made sense to Josh at first — sort of. But pretty soon, that narrative didn’t hold up anymore.

JOSH:

As I was walking down with this police officer, anytime we would see any other type of police officer, the police officer would look at me and say, “Who’s he?” The police officer would always respond to the other one, “He’s the gringo.” Then the other officer would always respond, “Ahh, okay.” This happened — and I’m not joking — this happened multiple times, just between going down three flights and walking, you know, 300 feet.

BECKY:

Again and again, this played out. By this time, Josh started to worry. The officers took him out to a waiting truck.

JOSH:

They throw me into the back of that pickup truck, and I’m not handcuffed or anything. But there are two other guys that are handcuffed in that pickup truck. Both of those guys that are in there I never saw again.

BECKY:

Thamy’s apartment complex sits high on a hillside. Josh expected the officers to drive the truck down the mountain towards the police station.

JOSH:

Instead of taking that right turn to go down the mountain, they took a left turn to go up the mountain, to this building that was under construction. They started smacking me over a head. They started saying, you know, racial things to me. They start calling me racist. Finally, they took me out of the truck, and they put me up against the wall. And they said, “Stay right there.” So, then they all kind of gathered together and they were all laughing and talking. I didn’t know what was going on. Then all of a sudden, they all kind of lined up. Looking at me. They pointed their guns at me. They all started just dry firing their weapons. And this is the point where I thought, I’m gonna die today.

BECKY:

Next time on Hope in Darkness.

THAMY:

They take a pencil sharpener, and they tried to put my…all my fingers inside.

JOSH:

They took the bottom part of the pencil sharpener, and they ran her fingers up from the bottom. And took her nails off.

BECKY:

Hope in Darkness is written and produced by me, Becky Bruce. Additional producing and editing came from Nina Earnest. Sound mixing by Trent Sell. Our executive producer is Sheryl Worsley. Original theme composed by Michael Bahnmiller. Additional voice work provided by Rebecca Cressman and Alex Kirry. Special thanks to Josh and Thamy Holt and their family for sharing their experiences and story. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at Hope Darkness pod or online at hopedarkness.com. And your feedback is always helpful. Drop us a rating or review wherever you listen. Hope in Darkness is a KSL podcast.

Dive deeper into the Josh Holt story.