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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Utah man's hopes for being freed from a Venezuelan jail, where he's lingered for more than a year in declining health, now lie with a wealthy shipping magnate closely linked to the country's socialist government.
Just why Wilmer Ruperti is funding the defense of former Mormon missionary Joshua Holt is not clear. The Venezuelan businessman is not talking, and Holt's parents say they are simply grateful for the help after 16 months of confinement for their son, who has been accused of stockpiling weapons in a bizarre case that Holt's supporters say was a set up to retaliate against the U.S. as tensions between Washington and Caracas rise.
The financial support for Holt's legal defense against government prosecutors is even more remarkable because Ruperti is also underwriting the defense of President Nicolas Maduro's two nephews in a separate, politically-charged U.S. narcotics trial, and he continues to do business with Maduro's administration. Last year, one of his companies won a $138 million contract from the state oil company PDVSA to remove a 12 million metric ton dune of an oil byproduct used as fuel for power plants.
Ruperti, 57, declined a request for comment, but told the Wall Street Journal last year that he was helping defend the president's family because he thought the U.S. charges were an attempt to destabilize Venezuela by portraying it as a narco-state.
Maduro's nephews, Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores, were arrested by police in Haiti in 2015 and taken to New York, where they were convicted a year ago of conspiring to smuggle more than 1,700 pounds (800 kilograms) of cocaine into the U.S.
In the case of Holt, Ruperti has become convinced the American is being held unjustly as a political bargaining chip, people familiar with his involvement say. They say Ruperti, who has diligently lobbied officials for the American's release, is a devout Roman Catholic with children the same age as Holt.
Holt, 25, traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 and married a fellow Mormon he met online while practicing his Spanish. He had planned to spend several months in Caracas with her and her two daughters to secure visas for them so they could move to the U.S.
Instead he was arrested at his wife's apartment in a public housing complex. Police alleged he was hiding two assault rifles and grenades, and government officials later linked him to unspecified U.S. attempts to undermine Maduro's rule during a period of economic and political turbulence.
After staying silent for months about their son's unlikely legal benefactor, Laurie and Jason Holt now credit Ruperti with pushing along a case they feared was being shoved under the rug by President Donald Trump's rush to slap sanctions on both Venezuela and its senior officials.
Ruperti visited the Holt family at their home in Salt Lake City this year and has met Holt a few times at the Caracas prison where he is being held alongside some of Maduro's most prominent jailed political opponents. The businessman was also seen exiting a Caracas courthouse last week wearing a green #JusticeForJosh wristband given to him by Holt's family.
"He's like Josh's godfather," Laurie Holt told The Associated Press. "Anything Josh needs he tries to take care of."
Ruperti's seemingly contradictory positions offer a window into the tangled and often perplexing web of political and business connections that dominate decision making in Venezuela.
Ruperti, who worked as an oil tanker captain before starting his own shipping business, has longstanding ties to Venezuela's government. In 2002, he came to the rescue of then-President Hugo Chavez by chartering a fleet of Russian tankers to import gasoline after a workers' strike at state oil company PDVSA helped spur a fuel shortage in Venezuela.
For his efforts, he was decorated by Chavez with military honors and saw his business as a prized PDVSA contractor boom. Ruperti showed his gratitude by giving the leftist leader two pistols used by independence hero Simon Bolivar, which reportedly cost him $1.6 million. Later, however, he was sued by a unit of the Russian shipping company for allegedly paying millions in bribes. That commercial dispute was settled last year.
The businessman became involved with Holt four months ago at the request of an American yachting buddy, Bill Duker, according to three people familiar with the case. They agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because of its politically sensitive nature. With Ruperti's financial backing, they said Duker solicited the help of his friend David Boies, whose blue-chip Manhattan law firm is also defending one of the two so-called "narco nephews" of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores. Both defendants signed a conflict of interest waiver after U.S. prosecutors warned that any third party paying their bills might pursue a legal strategy not in their best interests. Their sentencing is slated for next month.
Meanwhile, Holt has also gotten his day in court under Ruperti's stewardship.
Last month, lawyers argued for charges to be dropped at a preliminary hearing that should have taken place within 20 days of Holt's arrest, but was delayed without explanation for 15 months, leading the U.S. government to question the motives for his continued detention. Judge Ana Maria Gamuza has yet to issue a ruling. The next hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
Still, Ruperti's business and political interests could be complicated further yet.
The Trump administration has been ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela's socialist government, with much of the attention focused on corruption at PDVSA.
As part of a U.S. probe, prosecutors have secured guilty pleas from 10 individuals for their role in payments of bribes and kickbacks to PDVSA officials. And last month in Spain, police arrested on a U.S. warrant four former senior officials tied to former oil czar Rafael Ramirez, who ran PDVSA for a decade until being named Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations in 2014. The U.S. government says it suspects officials siphoned off at least $2 billion from PDVSA during Ramirez's tenure.
For now, Holt's parents say they have stopped asking why Ruperti is helping with their son's case. They are simply worried about Holt's health. Laurie Holt said her son has been losing weight the past two weeks as a result of an intestinal infection, and his wife Thamara Candelo, who is being held as an alleged accomplice, needs rotator cuff surgery to relieve pain that has spread across the right side of her body.
"He didn't have to do this," said Laurie Holt about Ruperti. "But he truly loves Josh and Josh loves him. He knows he's innocent."
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman
This story has been corrected to show that the family name of Holt's wife is Candelo.
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