Editorial note: This is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage at kslnewsradio.com/hope-in-darkness/.
SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate floor speech in April 2018, just over a month before Josh and Thamy Holt’s release from a Venezuela prison, threatened to potentially undo all the work behind the scenes to secure their freedom, in the eyes of a Senate staffer whose work was key to that effort.
“I was worried we were completely burned to a crisp and that it had ruined any chance to get you out,” Caleb McCarry, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, told Josh Holt two years later in an interview for his podcast, “Hope In Darkness.”
'On the edge of collapse'
Rafael Lacava, the governor of Venezuela’s Carabobo state, invited Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to visit Caracas in April 2018. Lacava was aware of the Holts’ imprisonment; he knew McCarry through a mutual friend and legislator, opposition leader Pedro Diaz-Blum, who had been with McCarry and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at a Boston retreat in the early 2000s aimed at mending fences between Venezuela’s government and opposition factions and the United States.
Durbin hoped to negotiate the Holts’ release during his visit. He also wanted to urge Venezuelan leaders not to go forward with potentially unfair elections. At the time, there was concern among international circles that Maduro had moved the election date up by a number of months in order to more easily win reelection.
When he got back to Washington, Durbin felt compelled to document the conditions he witnessed there, which were far beyond anything he expected. He described a country not just in crisis but arguably failing.
“No doubt many are aware that Venezuela has been suffering devastating economic and democratic backsliding,” Durbin said in his April 2018 Senate floor speech. “But what I found was a country that is on the edge of collapse, facing overlapping economic, humanitarian and political crises.”
“Inflation is rampant, expected to reach 13,000% this year, leading to what some call a race for survival,” Durbin said on the Senate floor. “Business leaders told me they’re being vilified by the government, forced to sell products below costs and out of market so the government can be the exclusive seller of imported goods. They also shared stories of workers — listen to this — fainting on the job from hunger. One particular concern: One of the largest employers in Venezuela said they decided they had to start bringing fruit to this workplace in the morning so their workers could get something to eat.”
McCarry, who was still serving under Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer at the time, knew Maduro was sensitive to overseas perceptions of his country. He’d visited Maduro to try to negotiate Josh Holt’s freedom in February 2018 and also helped arrange a phone call between Maduro and now retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. He worried what Durbin said that day had undone those efforts.
Durbin spoke for 17 minutes. It was minute 13 before he mentioned Josh and Thamy Holt.
“I visited him in a prison known by its prisoners as ‘hell on earth.’ He and his Venezuelan wife have served 21 months with no end in sight. He is suffering and clearly a political hostage of the regime. I appealed to President Maduro to release him,” Durbin said.
McCarry didn’t have much time to worry about potential damage. On May 16, 2018, the world got word of an uprising inside El Helicoide, the so-called “hell on earth” where the Holts were held. Josh Holt posted videos to Facebook pleading for help.
“I was worried to death about you, Josh,” McCarry told him later. “I frankly was worried you were going to be killed.”
But after a couple of days, the riot ended, with Josh and Thamy Holt moved to an office within El Helicoide separate from the prison. The election resulted in the expected victory for Maduro. Then, McCarry’s phone rang.
An offer he couldn’t refuse
“I got a call from Lacava, and the timing of this was one week after Maduro had staged his reelection,” McCarry said.
Lacava had a feeling that if McCarry could get his boss, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to visit Venezuela in person, Maduro might release Josh and Thamy Holt directly to him. Freedom, he believed, was a strong possibility.
McCarry was optimistic, but also skeptical. Lacava’s feeling was not a guarantee. Plus, there were high-ranking U.S. officials and politicians who would see a visit as akin to signing off on Maduro’s staged reelection. Traveling to Venezuela would make people angry.
Still, the invitation was the most promising one he’d received in months of working on the case. He took the offer to Corker, who agreed to give it a shot. Corker told the Secretary of State what he had in mind, and got the tentative go-ahead to do it.
“I wasn’t entirely sure we were going to be able to get on that plane,” McCarry said. “I didn’t tell even Sen. Hatch’s office until I was on the plane in Washington with the doors shut.”
We still don’t know exactly why Venezuela’s Maduro agreed to let Josh and Thamy Holt leave his country. Was he riding a high after his reelection? Possibly; Maduro traditionally released some prisoners at certain times, such as holidays or after elections. Was it truly just because a senator visited the country? Harder to say; Durbin’s visit, in theory, should have qualified. Did the riot apply some pressure? Also a possibility — the optics of an American pleading for his life from inside a prison may have weighed on him. We don’t know, because he didn’t say.
What we do know: McCarry landed in Caracas with his boss, Corker. The two of them joined Diaz-Blum and Lacava in a meeting with Maduro at the Venezuelan presidential palace, Miraflores. McCarry served as translator and insists there was no trade, deal or exchange made for the Holts’ freedom. After all, the same people angered by Corker’s trip to Caracas in the first place would have been even more angry over a quid pro quo scenario.
To this day, even McCarry can’t say for sure what changed Maduro’s mind after nearly two years.
“Maduro did this for whatever reasons he did it. But in part, he did it for me, because of our friendship,” McCarry said. “And I’m grateful to him forever for that. And I had nothing to offer him. Nothing.”
At the end of the meeting, Corker and McCarry had an agreement from Maduro that the Holts could leave, along with Thamy’s older daughter, Marian, whose sister Nathalia had come to the United States to stay with Josh’s parents in February 2018.
The Holts first started to learn of their release through news reports, which they were able to see on their phones. But they didn’t believe what they were seeing until the warden summoned them after midnight on the morning of May 26, 2018. He told them to pack up and get ready to leave that day. What little they had, they squeezed into a pair of backpacks. They didn’t sleep, worried at any moment it would turn out to be a false alarm.
But by midmorning, a van carrying a government official arrived to take them to the Caracas airport, where they met up with Corker, McCarry and Lacava. Lacava planned to fly with them to Washington, where President Donald Trump had invited the Holts to the Oval Office.
McCarry released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
“I didn’t know whether or not you were going to be released. I thought you were going to be. But I didn’t know until you stepped out of that van and Sen. Corker greeted you and I hugged you,” McCarry said.
A few minutes later, another vehicle pulled up, delivering Thamy Holt’s daughter, Marian, to the airport. The family boarded the small jet, which taxied toward the runway.
“And the plane goes and starts to take off, and then out of nowhere, it just starts slowing down, and we’re like, ‘What the heck is going on? Why is it slowing down?’ And we’re all kind of looking around at each other like, ‘Oh, no,’” Josh Holt recalled.
The captain broke in over the intercom — it was just an instrument that needed to be calibrated. They’d be on their way again soon.
Minutes later, the jet took off for real, though it didn’t seem real yet to the Holts. That changed for Josh when he heard the captain announce they had entered U.S. airspace.
I am pleased to join Senator Hatch and President Trump in announcing the release of Josh and Thamy Holt. We are on our way home. pic.twitter.com/0Ku2pzwOYL— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) May 26, 2018
“I have chills — I literally have chills right now, goose bumps going down my arms,” Josh Holt said as he described that moment. “I remember how excited I was, knowing that finally, I was going home.”
In Washington, D.C., after they landed, Josh and Thamy Holt and Marian got a quick check from the president’s personal physician. In the next room, Laurie and Jason Holt waited to greet their son for the first time in nearly two years.
“For me, the best moment of this entire thing was when you and Thamy ... were getting your medical exam, and I walked in the next room and gave — your mom gave me the biggest hug,” McCarry said. “And I said, ‘Your son’s in the next room, ma’am. You’re gonna see him in just a few minutes.’ That was far — meant far more to me than going to the Oval Office.”
McCarry insists Laurie Holt’s refusal to give up hope ultimately resulted in her son’s freedom, even over his own role in the process. But his participation had unintended consequences.
“It didn’t go well for me, you know? People were really mad at me,” McCarry said. “I lost my job.”
Hardliners in Congress who disliked the optics of a sitting senator visiting Maduro pressured Corker and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get rid of McCarry.
“But I don’t care,” McCarry said. “Someone asked me, ‘If you knew everything you know now, would you do it again?’ I said, ‘100% chance.’”
A family reunited
Hatch’s office tweeted out a video of the moment the door opened and Jason and Laurie Holt finally got to see their son and his family.
Reunited. pic.twitter.com/Lb43PfEVXQ— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) May 26, 2018
“And I remember, I walked in there, and she just ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever received from my mom. And she just cried. She just cried on my shoulder. She says, ‘You’re here. I have you in my arms. I’m never letting you go, ever again,’” Josh Holt remembered.
It wasn’t long enough for them; Jason Holt, Josh’s dad, said the initial reunion lasted no more than three minutes.
“Then they took us all — they split us, they wouldn’t even let us ride together with them in the caravan — back to the White House,” Jason Holt said.
In a borrowed suit, they reunited again inside the Oval Office, where the family met Trump.
Looking forward to seeing Joshua Holt this evening in the White House. The great people of Utah are Celebrating!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2018
WELCOME HOME JOSH! pic.twitter.com/2X0cKE4stx— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2018
“He basically shook my hand for a second, didn’t even talk to me, just shook my hand. And then he said, ‘Let ’em in.’ And that was the craziest thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life, the way the media just rushed in,” Josh Holt said.
The president spoke for just over 10 minutes, highlighting his administration’s work to free American prisoners overseas.
“We’ve had 17 prisoners released during the Trump administration. Most people don’t know that,” Trump said.
“He is just as cocky in real life as he is on TV,” said Jason Holt.
Josh and Thamy Holt and Marian spent a couple of days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, addressing unresolved health issues from nearly two years in prison and going through a debriefing process.
“I spent probably five or six hours with — I don’t know 100%, but I believe he was with the CIA,” Josh Holt remembered.
Then, May 28, 2018, they were cleared to go home to Utah.
Back in Riverton, friends and family had just a few hours’ warning to put together a welcome celebration. They decorated the town with black and lime-green balloons, Josh Holt’s favorite colors, and made signs and banners. Then, a crowd gathered at Salt Lake City International Airport to greet the family. The crowd was so large, airport officials moved them to the international terminal to accommodate the throng.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember going from my seat to the crowd. I just remember walking up to the escalator, and stepping on the escalator with my wife, and then, boom. There are all of these people,” Josh Holt said.
Derek Holt, Josh’s older brother, said Thamy’s younger daughter, Nathalia, had no idea what was about to happen. She hadn’t seen her mother, sister or stepfather in over three months.
“She’s thinking that it’s grandpa’s birthday, and that all of these people are here to celebrate grandpa’s birthday. That’s what she thought,” Josh Holt said.
Both sisters’ faces lit up with smiles when they caught sight of each other.
“I felt like everything was complete, even though my heart was a little torn for having left my family,” Thamy Holt said. “I knew the moment I married Josh that some time, I would move to this country, but that was a process, and I’d have time to prepare and things like that. But no, I just got on a plane: ‘Here you are, you live here, now you live there.’ ... And from that moment, from the 26th of May, I haven’t seen my mom, I haven’t seen my grandma.”
After a limousine ride to Riverton City Park, another crowd gathered to celebrate the Holts’ freedom. Just two days out of prison, sleep-deprived and malnourished, Josh Holt still managed to speak to the gathering. He wanted to thank them for the prayers he believed helped pave the way for his release.
“It doesn’t matter what faith you have, what denomination,” he told the crowd. “Stay strong to who you are inside.”
“Josh stayed and shook every single person’s hand and thanked them, which a lot of people — what he just went through? Wouldn’t have done that. I don’t think. They’d have been like, ‘Sorry, we’ll do a meet-and-greet later,” Derek Holt said. “But he sat there and let every single person come by and talk to him.”
A bittersweet homecoming
The Holts did their best to adjust to life on the outside. They held a second wedding in October 2018, finally following up on their original plan to have a civil ceremony in Venezuela and a formal wedding in Utah.
In December, the extended family gathered at Laurie and Jason Holt’s Riverton home for Christmas morning festivities. They had a special gift for Laurie: a gift-wrapped, framed ultrasound printout. Thamy Holt was expecting.
“She was so excited to be a grandma,” Jason Holt said.
Thamy Holt’s pregnancy was not easy, however.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to keep the baby. And I remember one day, she bled a lot. So I called my mom and told her what happened, and I told my mom that we were going to see the doctor in like, a couple of hours, because we’d called them and they got us in,” Josh Holt said.
Laurie Holt said she would meet them there on that day in February 2019.
“And she walked in and they saw the baby and they saw that everything was fine, and the heartbeat was fine. Everything looked fine. And we left. And that was actually the last time that I saw my mom,” Josh Holt said. “I didn’t even give her a hug goodbye that day, because we were planning on seeing her a couple of days later for Nathalia’s birthday party.”
Instead, the following Sunday morning, Jason Holt could not wake Laurie for church. She died, Josh says, of an enlarged heart.
“It was — man, it was the hardest thing that I had to go through, coming home from being held hostages, to lose my mom,” Josh Holt said.
Still, he is grateful his release came before his mom passed.
“I’m glad. I’m so glad, and so thankful, that I was actually home, that I was able to spend that little time with her,” Josh Holt said. “We ended up naming our daughter after her: Oakley Laurie Holt. Mom’s name was Laurie. And she’s helped a lot — having Oakley in my life along with my wife and our two other daughters — it’s really helped kind of fill that little void.”
Oakley celebrated her first birthday as the podcast wrapped production in August 2020. The older girls, Marian and Nathalia, are eager to return to school after the coronavirus pandemic forced them to learn from home this spring. Before that, they said their least favorite day was Friday, because it meant two days with no school.
Thamy Holt is in school herself. She had a degree in Venezuela and a job as an instrument technician as a hospital, but has not been able to do the equivalent work here in the U.S. She continues to improve her English while working on a similar degree.
Josh Holt is working on a book, occasionally speaking in public, while working full time
“We’re just enjoying life,” he said.
All 12 episodes of “Hope in Darkness” are now available. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.