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Hope In Darkness – Ep. 9 – Full Transcript

Full Transcript – Ep. 9: The Darkest Hour

After realizing his life and safety may well be in danger, Josh Holt negotiates a transfer “up the hallway” to a cell among the political prisoners. Health and prison conditions combine to sink Josh into his lowest point as a hostage of the Venezuelan government.   

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Ep. 9: The Darkest Hour

HOST BECKY BRUCE:   

Hope in Darkness is a podcast that addresses sensitive topics including torture, abuse, and human rights violations. This episode also addresses mental health. Listener discretion is advised.

Months past, Josh’s health began to deteriorate in the tough living conditions at El Helecoide, enough to bring his spirits down. And besides…

JOSH HOLT:

At this point, I hadn’t seen the sun yet.

BECKY:

Week after week, he watched everyone else get to go outside three times a week for their time in the sun, but he was never allowed to go with them.

JOSH:

I really wanted to go outside. I was like, you know, I need to get vitamin D inside me. And I just want to feel better. I’m sick of all this medical stuff. I just need to get sun.

BECKY:

One morning, he resolved he would not be left behind again.

JOSH:

I remember that police officer came to the door, opened up the door, and I was the last one in the group to leave. As soon as I got to the door, the police officer slammed the door in my face and locked it. He said, “You’re not going anywhere.” I said, “Please, I want to go out with everyone else. I want to go out to the sun.” And he said, “No, you can’t go.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I said no.” I said, “But those are my rights. I’m allowed to go out there.” He said, “Here in Venezuela you don’t have any rights.” So, then I told him, “You open this f***ing door!” And I screamed it. Everyone that was in the hallway just froze. He came back to me and he said, “What did you say to me?” I said, “You heard me, open this door.”

BECKY:

This didn’t work out in Josh’s favor. Eventually, another guard came to play good cop. He couldn’t go out this time, he said, but they’d do their best the next time.

JOSH:

Well the next time they didn’t let me go out, and they didn’t let me go out for a long time. In those two years when I was held captive there in Helicoide, I could count on one hand how many times I was able to see the sun. Some of those times were only because they were taking me from the prison to the courthouse. And so, I was able to see that for those five to ten seconds of walking from the door to the van where they’d put me in.

BECKY:

I’m Becky Bruce, and this is Hope in Darkness, Episode Nine, “The Darkest Hour.” In this episode, we’ll explore the health and safety scares that plagued Josh at El Helicoide, the infamous Venezuelan prison that was his home for nearly two years. His living conditions, as well as the fact that his hopes of going home were dashed again and again, sunk Josh to the lowest point of his imprisonment.

[BREAK]

BECKY:

While the fight to get Thamy’s daughters out of Venezuela dragged on behind the scenes, Josh adjusted to prison life with his three roommates — Colombia, Franklin and Buñuelo. Buñuelo, considered one of Venezuela’s most dangerous criminals, had taken the gringo, Josh, under his wing. Settling in was still difficult. Josh had a cough that wouldn’t go away. He had a hard time breathing, exacerbated by the smoking habits of his roommates, and the room didn’t have a toilet.

JOSH:

One day, after being constipated for over four to five days, I finally got a hemorrhoid.

BECKY:

I know you’re thinking, big deal, a hemorrhoid. But again, the conditions at El Helicoide were ideal for infection — not so much for keeping illness at bay.

JOSH:

I had no medicine. I had no cream. I had no help.

BECKY:

In a rare show of concern for prisoner welfare, the guards agreed Josh could see a medic.

JOSH:

I went to the paramedic. He basically just had me bend over. When he looked at it, he basically just took his finger and shoved it right back up — and broke it of course. And from there I started bleeding really, really bad for the next three to four days.

BECKY:

This wasn’t just a little blood. Josh soaked through multiple layers of toilet paper several times a day. Back in Utah, Laurie Holt scrambled a last-minute news conference on the front lawn of the family home. She demanded the Venezuelan government take him for real treatment. Not just a quick look from a paramedic.

LAURIE HOLT (JOSH’S MOTHER) ARCHIVAL:

He has the internal bleeding that is actually very dangerous for him.

NEWS ARCHIVAL:

The family’s lawyer in Venezuela says a judge has ordered Josh to be taken to a hospital immediately.

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

The pneumonia or bronchitis.

NEWS ARCHIVAL:

The jail refuses to comply.

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

I am pleading as a mom, to the Venezuelan Government, to please don’t let him lay there and just die. [emotional crying]

BECKY:

They never took him to the hospital, but the bleeding did stop.

JOSH:

It was one of those blessings that I just can’t understand, but I was so grateful for it. Because I was honestly really scared of what was gonna happen.

BECKY:

He struggled with back pain too, likely from sleeping on a thin mattress on a tile floor for several months. Down the hall, his wife also slept on a two-inch pad on the floor, which she shared with a fellow inmate. But Thamy decided to use her prison privileges to help her new husband.

THAMY HOLT:

Hicimos lo posible para poder pasar una litera…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

We did what we could to get a bunk bed. We did what was possible to get one inside, but Josh was having back problems, and I decided that he should sleep in that bed. And I’d keep sleeping on the floor. We spoke to the superintendent who was the chief inside the prison, asked him permission to bring a bunk bed in from our house.

THAMY:

[fades in]…entonces yo traje una cama de mi casa para Josh.

BECKY:

The new mattress came with some gifts of its own.

JOSH:

After using the bed for a couple of weeks, I began to itch. It wasn’t a whole lot at first. But after a week, I started itching a lot, and it was everywhere.

BECKY:

Scabies. Scabies results when microscopic mites take up residence or your skin and burrow into it to lay their eggs.

JOSH:

I got this cream and seeing as how no one in my cell wanted to rub this cream on my back, I had to get permission from the warden in order to allow my wife to rub that cream onto my back. And so, after I would shower, with you know, my two-liter bottles of water, I would go in front of her cell, and she would basically just rub this cream on my back. Then I had to go back to my cell.

BECKY:

But that only treats the scabies on your skin. It doesn’t address the potential for re-infestation. Anywhere other than a prison, you’d fix that with heat, washing in hot water at least 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and 20 or 30 minutes in the hot dryer. They improvised.

JOSH:

I had to somehow pay someone to give me an iron so that I could iron my bed, because by ironing the bed that kills the bacteria that’s on there.

BECKY:

With that situation handled, Josh could relax a bit more. He borrowed a portable DVD player from another inmate to pass the time.

JOSH:

I was watching that while texting on my phone.

BECKY:

You know, like you do in prison.

JOSH:

Out of nowhere, all of a sudden I was blinded by a light. I looked up and it was someone taking a picture of me. I thought, what the heck? And so,  I went out, and the person taking the picture ran away. This person was a guard that actually really liked my wife. He wanted to be with my wife and didn’t want me to be with my wife. And so, he’d find any way he could to get me in trouble.

BECKY:

The DVD player wasn’t contraband, but the phone was. Josh worked fast to slide it into a small cut in the side of his mattress.

JOSH:

I kind of like went back and I was watching the movie and I was just really jittery. I was waiting. I knew something was gonna happen.

BECKY:

A supervisor came by.

JOSH:

We call him “the dog” — el perro. He knows this is his name, and this is his name because he’s a…he’s a bad person. He does lots of bad things.

BECKY:

The Dog took Josh out of the cell.

JOSH:

They come, they take me out of the cell and they said, “‘Give us the phone.” I said, “What phone?” He said, “Don’t play dumb. Give us the phone. I saw you with a pink phone.” And I said, “Well, I was playing with my cards. You can see my cards on the bed and they’re also pink. They’re kind of like the reddish pink.” He said, “No, they weren’t cards. It was a phone.” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

BECKY:

The Dog called over some other guards. They took away Josh’s clothes, every last stitch. Standing stark naked in the hallway outside his cell, other inmates watched his humiliation through their doors.

JOSH:

So now I’m here naked right in front of them. I had to bend down. I had to jump up and down. I had to do jumping jacks. I had to run in place. I did a bunch of stupid things. I’d just sit there for probably over 45 minutes, just sitting and waiting while they started to raid the room.

BECKY:

The guards didn’t find Josh’s pink flip phone, but they did find a phone belonging to Buñuelo. Buñuelo, whose bed was next to Josh’s mattress, had hidden the phone in a pillow that had fallen into Josh’s things. This development would become a pivot point for Josh’s peace and security in the cell.

JOSH:

But there were threats they were always making to me because of the phone that he lost, and he wanted me to replace it. I didn’t think that it was fair that I had to replace it because if you lose something in prison that you have, it’s just as much your fault as it is my fault for having it.

BECKY:

The drama with Buñelo ramped up when the four men got a new roommate. He was a political prisoner named Aldana — and was in fact the guy who’d been fixing the fan and talking on his cell phone when Thamy and Josh first arrived at El Helicoide.

JOSH:

So they’re putting him in the cell with us to punish him. He’d done some bad things.

BECKY:

Political prisoners were usually housed in better living conditions than Josh’s cell, but Aldana had been accused of stealing the warden’s credit card and using it to buy things for himself. Allegedly, Aldana was a thief — and that caused controversy in the cell.

JOSH:

Buñuelo had some shoes that he was trying to sell. And so, Aldana ended up just taking those shoes, selling them, and not giving Buñuelo any of the money.

BECKY:

Well, maybe not so allegedly. Things got tense between Aldana and Buñuelo, who again, was reportedly a very dangerous man. When Aldana’s period of punishment ended, he was moved back to the political prisoner block. Josh was well aware that Buñuelo wanted revenge for the theft of his shoes.

JOSH:

Buñuelo was very, very angry at Aldana for the things that he’d stolen from him. So eventually, Aldana – when he was walking by the cell – was grabbed by the throat as he’s walking by our cell door by Buñuelo. He started holding him against the cell door. So, we knew when that happened that we had to hide our cell phones.

BECKY:

Aldana wasn’t hurt, but the violence was disruptive and another raid seemed eminent. Sure enough, the guards came in the next day and tore the cell apart.

JOSH:

After they had gone through everything they came and got me. One of the head inspectors sat me down. He said, “Listen, I can make things really good for you, or I can make things really bad for you.” He said, “Where’s everyone’s phones at?” I said, “What phones?” He says, come on. I said, “Dude, I’m the gringo. I can’t have any of that stuff. And I think everyone knows. So, if they have phones, they’re using them in different places where, I can’t see.” They said, “Okay, what about the weed?” And I said, “What weed?” I knew that Buñuelo had weed in there, but I wasn’t about to be the person that was gonna rat him out.

BECKY:

The head inspector wasn’t going to take Josh’s word for it. He kept pressing Josh for more — Josh knew he’d have to give something up.

JOSH:

And so, I started thinking of what I could give up without really giving up something. They, the day prior, cleaned the cell, and the reason why was because here in this prison, the only way you can get a conjugal visit is to pay for it. They had talked to these guys guards, and the guards said, “Okay, yeah, you can have the conjugal visit on this day.” So, they wanted that cell to be nice, because they were going to take all of us out of there and bring in some of their women. So that they could have their conjugal visit. Then they get a bunch of alcohol in there, and I realized that they hid the alcohol in the garbage can. And so, I knew that they were going to find that. So finally, he finished talking to me and just sent me back to the cell. And I told them, I was like, “Guys, I had to tell him something, like he was looking for your phones. He was looking for your weed. He was looking for, you know, anything they can get you guys in trouble with. I just told him about the alcohol, and he goes, “No, no, you’re fine. You did good. We knew that they’d find the alcohol.”

HOST:

The other men in the cell lost visitation rights for a couple of weeks because of the raid.

JOSH:

Now we saw the bigger issue. Buñuelo and Aldana are still mad at each other. And so, Buñuelo has now come up with a new plan to kill Aldana. I listened to all of the stories of Buñuelo, the way he killed people, the way he found people, the things that he did. He wasn’t a person that you wanted to mess around with.

BECKY:

His plan to kill Aldana sounded like something out of a movie.

JOSH:

He would unscrew the broom, so he had this big stick. He would tie this knife to it using a sheet that he just tore apart, and then he would have another rope part that he used from tearing sheets apart and tying them together. So, when he threw it at him, and hit him with it, he could pull it back and then just hide the evidence. So, his next step was making a hole in the wall, and this for me was just, I couldn’t handle it because they were making such noise that I don’t know how someone didn’t come to figure out what they were doing.

BECKY:

Buñuelo dug at the bricks in the wall with knives to gouge out the hole and kept it covered whenever the guards were around.

JOSH:

It took him a long time. He worked at it forever to try to get that hole in there. Meanwhile, everyone else was trying to help him because they didn’t like Aldana either. Aldana was one of the prisoners that basically…he was almost like a cop, because he spent so much time with them. He had such a relationship with them that if he was mad at someone, he could get them in trouble just for saying, hey, go after these guys, and they would do it. So, no one really liked him. And that was their plan. I at first didn’t really think anything of it, but as I started talking to my parents and telling my parents what was going on, they started to get really worried. They told me, they said, “Josh, you got to get out of there.”

BECKY:

Laurie and Jason Holt worried. If something happened to Aldana while Josh was in that cell, Venezuela could use that to deny Josh his freedom. Guilt by association. Plus, Buñuelo was still upset at Josh over the confiscated cell phone from the earlier raid. It’s not as if his safety was assured, either. Thamy suggested they talked to the warden. And because she was friends with the woman having the affair with him, she asked her friend to tell the warden they wanted to meet.

JOSH:

They pull us out, and we go in there and we start talking to him just about our case, and about things that are happening to us. And he says, you know, “You guys were actually going to be released two days ago. But the reason you weren’t released was because of your lawyer. And the things that your lawyer was saying about you. And since this lawyer was saying these things about you, people in this government don’t want you freed anymore. I don’t know when you’ll be freed.”

BECKY:

More after the break.

BREAK:

BECKY:

Thamy and Josh were stunned. The warden said their attorney’s efforts were actually harming rather than helping them. She built her case for the Holts by labeling them as political prisoners, comparing them in the media to well-known opposition activists who were also being held by the government. Like Gabriel Valles, who we met in an earlier episode. Josh was in a catch-22 situation. He needed the government to see him as an innocent man with no political designs. But in order for Josh to protect himself inside El Helicoide – and from the murderous plans of his cellmate – he needed to be treated like a political prisoner, not a common one. Thamy put it simply.

THAMY:

Los presos comunes son tratados como animales…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

The common prisoners are treated like animals. They are beaten, they are mistreated. They are not treated as people. Their rights are totally violated. Political prisoners have a little more respect. They have more benefits. They’re treated as decent people.

THAMY:

Nada malo lo pasó a los presos políticos…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

Nothing bad happened to the political prisoners, because the international media, the press, the observers of human rights, would be against what was happening and fight it more.

BECKY:

The warden was sympathetic. He couldn’t release them from El Helicoide, but he could make Josh’s life a little easier.

JOSH:

He said, “We’ll get you out of that room, and I’ll get you into a political cell while you’ll be surrounded just around political people.”

BECKY:

Buñuelo and Colpmbia both got moved to new cells, and Aldana escaped any harm. Josh’s new cell had two sets of triple bunk beds, but it also had a lot more room for everyone who lived there. Josh found it much easier to get along with his new roommates.

JOSH:

They were kind, and they were all people that were innocent. Here I am, an innocent person, being held in these ridiculous conditions. Here I am with, you know, fellow inmates that know exactly what I’m feeling, that have been going through it for no longer than I have been.

BECKY:

His gratitude only carried him so far. In spite of the improved living conditions, pretty soon Josh became depressed. Yet another health emergency compounded his growing feeling of hopelessness.

JOSH:

I chipped my tooth in half. I suffered with that tooth chipped in half like that for probably about four months. Those of you that have ever had a chipped tooth, or even a cavity, well it gets to the point to where they hurt so bad that you start getting headaches.

BECKY:

The prison eventually arranged for dental help — sort of. The dentist who came in brought an X-ray machine that didn’t work.

JOSH:

They didn’t inject any type of numbing agent or anesthesia type of stuff towards my mouth. They just kind of went in there with a drill and just started drilling away.

BECKY:

And even after all of that, the tooth wasn’t actually fixed. The pain throbbed constantly. He couldn’t escape it, even in his sleep. With no pain medication, dirty brown water to rinse his mouth with, it’s probably no surprise it became infected. Pain radiated from his chin to his ear every single day, and there was nothing he could do about it. In July, reporters revisited Josh’s parents in Utah to mark the occasion of his and Thamy’s one-year anniversary in prison.

NEWS ARCHIVAL:

Not much has changed here at the Holts’ Riverton home in the last year.

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

It’s frustrating.

NEWS ARCHIVAL:

The signs still remain.

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

His mental state is bad.

NEWS ARCHIVAL:

Inside, pictures of their family in happier times.

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

I can’t even explain the heartache that you feel as a mom or a parent.

AUDIO ARCHIVAL:

365 days of worry and waiting. In August, they finally got the pre-trial that had been delayed so many times. It went well. They thought for sure the judge would decide there wasn’t enough evidence to keep going. At the next hearing, their attorney felt confident they’d get their freedom.

JOSH:

The awesome thing about this moment was, my sister was about to get married.

BECKY:

They were so confident someone even arranged to have a tailor standing by to measure Josh for a tux.

JOSH:

Well, of course it doesn’t go how they thought it was gonna go, and we weren’t freed. And so, I wasn’t able to actually be there for my sister’s wedding.

JASON HOLT (JOSH’S DAD):

Stuff fell through again. We had a lot…we had a lot of stuff fall through.

BECKY:

That’s Josh’s dad, Jason.

JOSH:

I remember that morning and sending a message to my sister, just telling her congratulations. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, but that I just wanted her to focus on her wedding, and that this was her day.

BECKY:

Josh’s brother Derek says it cast a shadow over Jenna’s big day — even with Josh doing his best not to steal the spotlight.

DEREK HOLT (JOSH’S BROTHER):

It was really emotional. It was really hard having like…family pictures. We had a table set up for people that couldn’t be there. Like, loved ones who have passed on from both sides of the family. And Josh’s picture was in the middle. That was just hard when they set that up. It was like…tears just started coming, you know. I remember we all looked at it, and then we all took like a family picture, and we all just lost it.

JASON:

It was bittersweet. I’ll put it that way. You know, she was such a beautiful bride, and she wanted the whole family there. So, she was heartbroken.

DEREK:

She felt like it wasn’t just about her. It was for Josh, even though it was her day. We all had that. The whole two years that he was gone. We all had birthdays, Christmas, you know, Thanksgiving. Our family was never whole.

JOSH:

My sister told me, you know, later on that, there were times where she would catch one of my siblings crying, because I wasn’t there. Or they would catch my mom crying because I wasn’t there.

JASON:

There’s a picture of Jen and I where I’m doing the first…daddy-daughter dance with her and wiping a tear. I can just remember it was two-fold. I was so happy for her, but through it was sadness because our family wasn’t all together.

JOSH:

I think the thing that tore me up the most was getting my sister’s video. A video of her wedding and the video of her bridals. Just to see how beautiful she looked, and to see all of my family there together. To see them all laughing. I remember just laying there just crying that entire night, just thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” It’s those times. It’s those days, where things were just so difficult and so hard.

BECKY:

His depression grew. It didn’t help that in the months after his kid sister’s wedding, the Holts’ legal case started to revert to old patterns.

JOSH:

We’ve had courts, court dates that came and gone and came and gone. And I just had never seen any progress at all, in the year and a half that I had been there. I don’t know what it was that finally pushed me over the edge, but I finally had that thought come into my mind that I was ready just to kill myself.

DEREK:

There was one time that…I try not to get into too much because I know you and me lose it every time. But he called and he was very suicidal.

JOSH:

And I told them that I loved them all very much, but that this would probably be the last time that I would ever talk to them again. That I was just done. I wasn’t really seeing my wife very often. I mean, I was seeing her. But I wasn’t happy, and she wasn’t happy. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Derek grabbed that phone. He said, “Joshua, will you stop it right now.”

DEREK:

And I basically chewed his ass.

JOSH:

Derek said, “I told you that someday I’m going to meet you in the airport. And that’s going to be as you walking down that escalator, not as you coming off that airplane in a box.

DEREK:

I think I was pretty good through the whole time. But you’re crying, then I start tearing up. Then after I got the phone, I just lost it and handed the phone off to someone else. But that was really emotional and I’d go downstairs, and you just sit and cry in your bed because you just don’t know. Am I gonna see my brother again because of these punks that took my brother, and you get so mad. I’m sure anyone would do that.

JOSH:

My dad told me not only are you leaving all of us, but now you have two children that you have to care for. And live for. You have a wife that’s 100 feet away from you. How dare you say that you’re going to kill yourself and leave all of these people behind? Leave your wife in that horrible prison, or as you’ve put it, in hell. How could you do that to her? I remember just crying and just tell him, “I don’t know. But I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t.” My mom would always say, “I know honey, I know. But you have to.”

BECKY:

Slowly, Josh started to emerge from the depression. As with so many other times, Thamy’s mother Maria provided a hand up at a time when he needed it. She brought him a copy of Ensign magazine from his church. Inside was an article about finding joy in chains. He thought about it again and again as he mentally clawed his way back into the light from that dark place.

JOSH:

Out of nowhere, I would just feel this amazing amount of love and care. I didn’t know how many people there were praying for me. And sometimes that would come when I couldn’t handle it anymore, when I was just laying in bed, just crying. Soaking my own pillow with my tears. This just warm feeling would come over me and I’d know at that moment that everything was gonna be okay. That this wasn’t going to last forever.

BECKY:

Next time on Hope in Darkness

COLIN MCCARRY:

As she, as your mom walked out of the door, I said to myself, if I ever get a chance to help this woman get her son back, I’m going to do that.

BECKY:

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please don’t suffer alone. The National Suicide Prevention hotline has a toll-free Lifeline, 24/7 at 1-800-273 TALK. In an emergency, call 911. 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.

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