American freed from Venezuela describes nightmare conditions

Utah native Joshua Holt's anguish ended when he was freed last month from a Venezuelan prison after nearly two years held without trial. But the nightmarish scenario he endured still haunts him.

In an exclusive interview Tuesday on "Today," Holt, 26, recounted the poor conditions inside El Helicoide, or The Helix — a prison in Caracas criticized for its human rights abuses. He said cockroaches crawled over him inside his tiny cell, which was about the size of a twin-sized bed, and a plastic bag was used to cover the door. He sat in his underwear, barely about to breathe."They never took me out to go to the bathroom," Holt added. "If you had to use the bathroom, you either had a bottle or a newspaper."

Holt, a Mormon missionary, was in the South American country to marry a Venezuelan woman, Thamara Candelo, whom he met online. The couple was planning to move to the U.S. with Candelo's two young daughters.

But their future was upended when an anti-gang police squad accused the couple of stockpiling an AK-47 assault rifle and grenades at her family's home.

Holt was incarcerated in June 2016. The State Department later called the weapons charges "questionable."

8 PHOTOS
Family says newlywed is wrongly imprisoned in Venezuela
See Gallery
Family says newlywed is wrongly imprisoned in Venezuela
The family of a Riverton man says he's being held in a Venezualen jail and is accused of being a U.S. spy.

"An American spy? To do what?" asks Laurie Holt, the mother of Josh Holt.

Her son is allegedly being held in a jail in Venezuela. Holt said she heard the allegations from her son's mother-in-law, who lives in Venezuela.

"She sent me a facebook message, and in it there was a link to an article written in Venezuela," Holt added.

 

The article comes from a publication written in Spanish, claiming that 24-year-old Josh Holt had been arrested by local authorities after they discovered multiple assault rifles and a hand grenade inside the apartment he shares with his wife.

"Josh would never have anything like that," Holt added.

She said her son had recently finished a Spanish-speaking mission in Washington. Shortly after, he began an online relationship with a woman from Venezuela. She said her son flew down to the Dominican Republic last month to propose to her, despite having known each other through online communication for less than six months.

After that, he made plans to go to Venezuela and marry her, just weeks later.

"Everybody said he can't go there, it's dangerous," Holt said. "His wife even said that it's very dangerous for Americans to be there, but he said, 'I'll be OK.' He was in love. They don't listen when they are in love."

Holt said her son's wife had two kids from a previous relationship. She said the plan was for them to get married, and the four of them would then eventually move back to the United States, with Josh making the transition back up first, likely sometime next month.

"The last time I spoke with him was last Monday," Holt said. "I don't know if he's even alive right now. That's the heart-wrenching part."

Holt said she's reached out to local authorities in Venezuela, but she hasn't had any confirmation that her son and his wife have been detained, and, if so, what charges they face. However, a local LDS Bishop and her son's mother-in-law say the two are being treated fairly in jail.

They also say a judge plans to hear the evidence against her son on Monday, and may determine whether to dismiss the case, or whether to prosecute in the next 45 days.

"I hope and pray that I get a phone call from him tomorrow saying he's coming home," Holt adds.

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"At first, I wasn't as afraid because here in America you trust your police officers," Holt said. "Over there, I didn't know it was so dangerous."Police investigators, he said, tried to pit Candelo against her new husband. They put her fingers in pencil sharpeners, and they threatened to tase her, according to Holt.

Meanwhile, Holt's mother worked tirelessly to get the interest of American politicians."There was a lot of anger, but I had to keep pushing," Laurie Holt said on "Today" with her family beside her. "I knew that I was his voice."It wasn't until last month when Holt's case gained renewed attention: A prison riot broke out at El Helicoide, and Holt managed to post two short videos to his Facebook page from inside the facility saying he feared for his life.

Behind the scenes, Utah politicians Rep. Mia Love and Sen. Orrin Hatch, as well as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and others, helped to negotiate his release. A week later, he was freed. He returned to the United States and met President Donald Trump at the White House.

With his life in America restored, Holt said on "Today" that he's writing a book with his wife and they want to highlight the difficulties people in his position face."Through that book and through talking to people, we're hoping to help bless people," he added.

 

Read Full Story