Newlyweds endured 23 months in Venezuelan prison on false charges

‘She endured torture on his behalf’: How the wife of an American Mormon missionary refused to turn on her new husband when the Venezuelan government falsely accused him of being a spy and they suffered 23 months in squalid Caracas prison

  • Thamy Caleno and Josh Holt’s romance was sparked by a Facebook friend request. Both are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Holt had returned to Utah from his first Mormon mission in Washington state and accepted her request. Chatting soon led to a meeting that led to a proposal
  • Caleno was born in Ecuador but moved to Venezuela when she was 5. The pair were married in June 2016 in Venezuela. On June 30, police were at their door
  • The government accused Holt of being a spy ‘sent’ from President Barack Obama ‘to destroy the government’ of President Nicolas Maduro, he told DailyMail.com
  • They spent 23 months in a prison. It took elected officials and a concerted effort on behalf of Josh’s mom, Laurie, to free them. They arrived in Utah in May 2018
  • A new podcast, Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story, looks at what happened

Thamy Caleno knew that her new husband, Josh Holt, was the answer to her prayer.

So when Venezuelan authorities took him away in the middle of the night, she was determined not to lose him, searching her neighborhood and asking anyone she could where the gringo was.

She found him once, and then again as the police were driving him down the hill away from their apartment complex outside of Caracas.

‘And my wife got into the middle of the road and just stopped them,’ Josh recalled.

Thamy added: ‘I don’t let the car go.’  

Thrown into a separate car, she was eventually placed under arrest after the police ‘found’ a grenade in their apartment. The newlyweds had no idea then that they would spend the next 23 months in a Caracas prison and have to withstand torture as well as heinous and unsanitary conditions: cramped and cockroach-infested cells with no toilet, a riot, and experiencing weight loss as well as contracting diseases such as scabies with scant medical attention.  

‘She endured torture on his behalf,’ Becky Bruce, the host of a new 12-part podcast called Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story, told DailyMail.com.

The series is an in-depth examination of how Josh, a Mormon from Utah who went to Venezuela to marry Thamy in June 2016, got caught up in a narrative that painted him as some sort of spy ‘sent’ from President Barack Obama ‘to destroy the government’ of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro,’ he told DailyMail.com.

It took his mom, Laurie Holt, and several elected officials to free Josh and Thamy from prison and get them to Utah in May 2018. The family recently welcomed a baby daughter named Oakley.

The Holts imprisonment came amid the backdrop of a country contending with the lingering legacy of its longtime President Hugo Chavez, who nationalized industries and used some oil wealth to subsidize social programs, and his chosen predecessor Maduro. According to news reports, 90 percent of the country currently lives below the poverty line, and there have been food and other basic necessities shortages – as well as protests – for years.

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Thamy Caleno met her future husband, Josh Holt, virtually: she sent him a Facebook friend request. Both are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thamy, who was looking to improve her English, found Josh, who was serving on his first Mormon mission in Washington state, online. When he returned to Utah, Josh thought he had met Thamy during his mission and accepted her request. Above, the Holt family today: Thamy, Josh, who is holding their daughter, Oakley, born on August 3 last year, and their daughters Nathalia and Marian

Josh was the only one who accepted Thamy’s friend request. They started chatting via Facebook and video: Josh wanted to improve his Spanish; Thamy, her English. Soon, the pair decided to met in person in the Dominican Republic. ‘It was like Fourth of July. Fireworks were going off. I was actually hugging her. I had her in my arms. I had thought about that moment for six months,’ he said on a new podcast called Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story. ‘After three days, I just knew. I know this is the girl.’ Above, Thamy and Josh on their wedding day

Josh proposed to Thamy at a temple in the Dominican Republic. ‘I feel so comfortable and I feel like peace inside me,’ Thamy recalled on the podcast. ‘I feel he’s my answer to my prayer.’ Josh arrived in Venezuela on June 11, 2016. The couple decided to have a civil ceremony in Venezuela and later have a formal wedding at the temple in Utah. Above, the Holt family in 2018. In front, Marian, Nathalia, Josh and Thamy. In back, Josh’s brother, Derek, his father, Jason, his mother, Laurie, and his sister, Jenna 

It all started with a Facebook friend request.

Josh grew up in Riverton, a suburb outside of Salt Lake City. On the podcast, his father, Jason, and his older brother, Derek, described him as a ‘funny kid’ who somehow managed to hurt himself in mishaps but was able to shake it off.

‘He’s a good kid. Then he grew up,’ Jason quipped on the series.

Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Josh was excited when he got his assignment for his first mission outside of Seattle in Everett, Washington. While he trained, Josh also began learning Spanish. 

Meanwhile, his future wife, Thamy, was looking to learn English. Born in Ecuador, she moved to Venezuela when she was five, according to the podcast. Like Josh, she was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but when she became pregnant with her daughter Marian at the age of 17, she stopped attending.

‘That year was so so hard for me,’ she recalled.

Nonetheless, as a single mother, Thamy finished school to be an instrument technician and got a job at a hospital. She then met her first husband, Jose, at work, and together they had a daughter Nathalia. She went to church again.

‘But it was far from happily ever after. Jose had a drinking problem,’ said Becky Bruce, the podcast’s host.

Thamy said Jose was abusive. They stayed together for five years until he died in an accident in 2015. Now a widow with two daughters, Thamy went to temple and prayed to God to bring a good man into her life, according to the podcast.

Bruce told DailyMail.com that Thamy was looking to improve her English to get a better job with Josh wanting to better his Spanish. Thamy went to a church site that had profiles of its missionaries, including Josh, so she sent him and others Facebook friend requests. When Josh returned to Utah from Washington, he thought he had met Thamy during his mission and accepted the request.

‘I wrote several people and only Josh answered me,’ Thamy explained.

Soon, the pair were constantly chatting via Facebook and video.

‘Language lessons turn into something else,’ Bruce said.

The couple were newlyweds when the Venezuelan police knocked on their door at an apartment complex west of Caracas that June in 2016. The first time, they asked why Josh was in the country, how long he was staying and what kind of work he did. They checked his visa and then left. The couple were relieved. But not so long after, there was another pound on the door. Josh was taken into custody and then to prison. Thamy, after stopping the car he was in and saying that she wanted to be her husband, was also arrested after police ‘found’ a grenade at their apartment. Above, the couple in Utah in 2018

Both Josh Holt and Becky Bruce, the host of a new podcast Hope in Darkness, told DailyMail.com that it is still unclear why he was arrested that summer in 2016. A few months before Josh arrived in the country, there were 1,000 protests due to food shortages as well as people marching in the street that opposed President Nicolas Maduro. ‘They score kind of a coup: here’s an American,’ Bruce told DailyMail.com about the raid that night. ‘It was sort of convenient to arrest this guy and exploit him.’ Above, Thamy, Josh and his parents, Laurie and Jason, with their daughter Marian at the airport in Utah on May 28, 2018

Thamy and Josh decided they wanted to meet in person and chose the Dominican Republic. ‘It was like Fourth of July. Fireworks were going off. I was actually hugging her. I had her in my arms. I had thought about that moment for six months,’ Josh said on the podcast.

‘After three days, I just knew. I know this is the girl.’

Josh brought a ring with him and proposed to Thamy at a temple in the Dominican Republic.

‘I feel so comfortable and I feel like peace inside me,’ Thamy recalled. ‘I feel he’s my answer to my prayer.’

The couple decided to have a civil ceremony in Venezuela and Thamy found Josh a ticket for early June in 2016. Later, they would have a formal wedding at a temple in Utah.

That summer in Venezuela, there were food shortages and protests in the street.

‘I really don’t think he was naive,’ Becky Bruce, the podcast host, said. ‘I do think he missed some of the signs of what was going on in Venezuela.

‘There was definitely unrest at the time.’

Venezuela was once considered the ‘crown jewel of South America,’ Bruce, a longtime radio journalist, told DailyMail.com. 

Hugo Chavez rose to national prominence during a failed coup in 1992 when the then lieutenant army colonel said that they had stop ‘for now.’ Elected in 1998, Chavez was president from 1999 until his death from cancer in 2013. During his tenure, Chavez spent some oil revenues subsidizing programs for the poor, such as housing, while nationalizing other industries.

When Chavez took office, oil was $100 a barrel but by the time Nicolas Maduro, his vice president who was then elected president, came to power it was $40 a barrel, according to an article in The Conversation. The country is currently dealing with an economic crisis and hyperinflation.

Months before June 2016, there more than 1,000 protests because of food shortages, according to the podcast. People were also marching in the street due to their opposition to Maduro. (There was also opposition to Chavez as well.)

‘But in Utah, Josh wasn’t aware of the turmoil and he was determined to marry Thamy,’ Bruce said on the series, which is a Wondery and KSL podcast production.

He arrived on June 11, 2016 and the pair was soon married. ‘It was just a humble little wedding. We just made everything ourselves,’ Josh said.

After their honeymoon, the couple was back at Thamy’s apartment complex called Ciudad Caribia, which is west of Caracas. While they waited on the paperwork to bring his family to the United States, Josh said they spent time with Thamy and her family. ‘The day before we got taken we had this awesome day with her family,’ he recalled. ‘We went bowling, we went out to eat.’

Thamy said during the podcast that after they arrested her, they took her to the same prison as Josh. They interrogated her and asked her to sign a piece of paper that would bolster their untrue claims that Josh was a spy. Venezuelan authorities also interrogated Josh and pointed to photos he had posted on his Instagram account of ammunition that he had bought at a gun show and a video of him shooting at a range in Utah. When Thamy refused to sign the paper, they tortured her. The couple spent 23 months in a Caracas prison. Above, a sign for the couple after they were released and arrived in Utah in May 2018

Josh’s mother, Laurie Holt, above in a photo posted on Facebook. Becky Bruce, the host of new podcast, Hope In Darkness, said Laurie was ‘relentless’ and the ‘driving force’ behind their release. She told DailyMail.com: ‘His mom was absolutely fierce to get his story out there.’ Bruce said it took ‘a small village’ to get them free. Laurie Holt died at age 50 in February last year and Josh said her death has greatly affected their lives

The first knock from the police came at five in the morning.

‘I wake up to just a gun being shoved onto my foot. I look up and there was an AK-47 pointed right at my face,’ Josh recalled.

The police officers wanted to know why Josh, an American, was in Venezuela and when he was leaving, as well as what he did for work. They asked for his visa, checked it out and then left.

The couple thought the ordeal was over, but soon there was another pound on their door: ten police officers stepped into the apartment. Josh said: ‘They come straight to me, right around me circled up. They have their guns pointed at me.’

Eventually, they threw him in the back of a pickup truck and drove to a construction site. The officers took him out of the vehicle and made him stand against the wall. ‘Then all of sudden they all lined up looking at me,’ he said. ‘They pointed their guns at me and they all started just dry firing their weapons.

‘And this is the point where I thought I’m going to die today.’

Thamy, meanwhile, was trying to find Josh. The second time, she found him, she stopped in the middle of the road and when officers asked if she wanted to be with her husband, she said yes. Put in another car, she was taken back to her apartment where officers searched it. 

They asked her for Josh’s suitcase and after she shook out its content, the police asked to search it by themselves. They ‘found’ a grenade that wasn’t theirs, according to the podcast.

‘They aimed their guns at her, pulled her hair and threw her on the ground, demanding to know why she had a grenade in her home,’ Bruce said.

Thamy was arrested.

She was taken to where Josh was being held. While they interrogated Josh, they also questioned her. The officers told her that Josh had guns and was a spy.

‘And I say, no, he’s not,’ Thamy said.

They asked her to sign a paper stating these things but she refused. ‘They start to torture me,’ Thamy said. ‘They take a pencil sharpener and try to put all my fingers inside.’

Josh recalled: ‘My wife literally had my life in her hands. I’d known this woman for just over six months, seven months and she literally could have put me away for the rest of my life just by signing that one paper.’

It took almost two years to free the couple from prison, and they arrived back in Josh’s home state in May 2018. 

‘Our adjustment was pretty difficult,’ Josh, now 28, told DailyMail.com. 

But after a period of about nine months, he said his family has since found its feet. They moved into their own home and Josh works as an inspector for an engineering firm. ‘I’ve been able to look on the positive side what happened to me and my wife.’

‘The story I have to admit fell into my lap,’ Becky Bruce, host of the new podcast Hope in Darkness, told DailyMail.com.  ‘Josh Holt came to KSL, which is the station where I work, and pitched us this story.’ KSL is in Salt Lake City, Utah. A radio journalist for 20 years, Bruce said she and Josh spent anywhere from 15 to 20 hours in recording sessions. ‘I let him tell me the story.’ The 12-part series is a Wondery and KSL podcast production

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