National News

'I love you, be strong, we'll get through this': Josh and Thamy Holt open up about their ordeal

Posted June 23, 2018 10:27 a.m. EDT

— Nearly a month after their surprise release from a Venezuelan prison, Josh and Thamy Holt say it's still hard to believe they are together and safe.

The journey that led Josh Holt to a notorious South American prison started as a love story more than two years ago, just days after he returned to Utah from his LDS mission in Washington. That's when he met Thamy Caleño online.

The two hit it off, and in early 2016, spent night and day communicating online.

"Go to work talking to her. Come home talking to her. Go downstairs talking to her. Fall asleep talking to her," Josh Holt said.

They quickly fell in love.

Months later, they finally met in person in the Dominican Republic.

"Yeah, we were both shaking," Josh Holt explained. "We were both super excited; it was just like, 'Wow, are you really here in front of me? I've seen you so much over the phone.'"

The trip went so well it ended with a marriage proposal.

"It was just perfect," Josh Holt said. "It was exactly what we imagined. Exactly what we hoped for."

There was no reason for them to have imagined the ordeal that awaited them in the months and years ahead.

In June 2016, Josh Holt traveled to Venezuela for the wedding. After the honeymoon, the newlyweds stayed with Thamy Holt's family in their apartment for four days.

Because he was the only American around, he drew some attention, including eventually, that of police. They showed up one morning to arrest him. Thamy Holt described the tense confrontation.

"Two officers asked me, 'Where are the gringo's suitcases?'" she told KSL through a translator. "I went out of the room and five seconds later (they said) 'Boss, we found a grenade.' They put that grenade there to have a justified cause to arrest him."

The arrest seemed inevitable, Josh Holt added.

"There was no negotiating."

Additionally, he said the photos of guns the Venezuelan government used against him were taken in Utah.

"I never had a gun in Venezuela," Josh Holt said. "Never touched a gun. Never saw a gun until I went to jail."

Police also hauled Thamy off to jail, where she says guards threatened her with a Taser and stuck her fingertips into an electric pencil sharpener, trying to get her to turn on Josh.

"All of the things they did to me were to persuade me to make a declaration against him," she said.

At one point, the Holt family heard from Thamy Holt's mother through a Facebook message. She said the couple was in prison. The message also contained a news article describing the alleged crime, and showing pictures of guns, a grenade, money, Josh Holt's passport, and credit cards and IDs said to have been confiscated from the apartment.

The weeks behind bars turned into months - and then the months into years.

"There was one time where they took all my clothes away from me and just left me naked, and I had to do jumping jacks for a couple minutes," Josh Holt said.

The couple was marched in and out of courtrooms 20 times - a brief reprieve from the horrible prison conditions.

"You just have cockroaches crawling all over you, and you kick them off," Josh Holt described.

Prison bosses would let Josh visit Thamy's cell for just a minute, where he got bottles of water to bathe with. He developed a routine.

"Get the bottles. Kiss her. Tell her, 'I love you, be strong, we'll get through this,'" Josh Holt said.

The other prisoners generally treated them well, with the exception of one time. In mid-May, violent prison riots prompted a frantic video post from Josh Holt via a smuggled phone.

"I am calling on the people of America. I need your help to get me out of this place," Josh Holt said in a Facebook video posted on May 16. At this point, the Holts were allowed to stay in the same prison cell.

"They were trying to break into our room to kill me," Josh Holt said. "It was crazy. Every moment we were wondering if we were going to live or not."

During the two years in captivity, there were several times the couple thought they were about to be freed.

"They'd come up to me and tell me, 'You're being freed. Get your stuff together.' And so I'd get my stuff together and they'd come by just laughing at me," Josh Holt said.

In late May, the news was actually real. On May 25, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro after months of back channel discussions between an aide to Corker and close allies of Maduro.

Josh and Thamy Holt were released on May 26. The Holts were reunited at the Caracas airport with Thamy's daughter from a previous relationship. All three boarded a chartered flight with Corker to Washington. Thamy Holt's other daughter was already in the United States, living with Josh's mom.

But they weren't home free quite yet. On the runway, the pilot abruptly stopped the plane during takeoff.

"Actually, it was the mechanic that came out of the cockpit and said, 'Don't worry. Don't worry. Everything's fine. We just forgot to calibrate something in all of the chaos of everything that was going on,'" Josh Holt said.

The Holts could finally breathe a sigh of relief once on American soil, receiving a homecoming welcome from President Donald Trump.

Almost a month later, Thamy Holt and her two daughters are learning English and adjusting to life in America. Eating breakfast together in Riverton, the Holts say it's still hard to believe they're together.

While in the prison, "I lost hope a lot," Josh Holt said.

Now the couple hopes others learn one thing from their long ordeal - and that's to be resilient.

"You really do have to make yourself happy - and it's possible," Josh Holt said. "When you're going through bad situations, open your mind and see those small and tender mercies, because they really are there."

Thamy Holt's family has left Venezuela and is safe in Ecuador. In a June 5 "Today" show interview, Josh Holt said that he and Thamy are writing a book about their experience so they can help and bless people in hard situations.