Joshua Holt, a former missionary from Utah, traveled to Venezuela on June 11 with one plan in mind: marry the woman he had fallen in love with and take her and her two girls back to the United States.
Instead, Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleño, are being held by military intelligence — and might face charges of terrorism, espionage and illegal possession of weapons after authorities say they found two automatic rifles and a hand grenade in their apartment.
But his real crime, said a woman who was present when he was detained, was being a U.S. citizen. And she claims that she and four others saw security forces plant the weapons in the apartment to frame the 24-year-old man.
“The only reason they have him is because he’s a gringo,” said the woman, who asked the Miami Herald not to use her name for fear of retaliation. “I don’t care what color his eyes are, what color his hair is, where his passport says he’s from — he’s innocent and his human rights are being violated.”
Holt is the 12th U.S. citizen known to be in Venezuelan custody, and his detention comes as Venezuela struggles with a tanking economy, political instability and shortages of food and other basic goods.
The ministries of Interior and Communications did not immediately respond to requests for information, but Holt seems like an unlikely candidate for international intrigue. Raised in Riverton, a Salt Lake City suburb, the bespectacled blond man had just come off a two-year stint as a Mormon missionary in Washington State where he had learned Spanish.
He met Caleño, 25, also a Mormon, online and fell in love with the woman and her two girls. After meeting with his fiancée in the Dominican Republic a few months ago, he came to Caracas in June to get married.
“He’s the type of person who was willing to spend two years of his life for a church, to promote God to the people and to take on this new family,” said Holt’s father, Jason. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s a saint is what he is.”
According to the witness, the couple’s nightmare began on June 30, a few days after they returned from a week-long honeymoon on Margarita island. They were staying in Caleño’s apartment in Ciudad Caribia, a crime-ridden subsidized housing complex built by late President Hugo Chávez, and waiting for an appointment at the U.S. Embassy to get visas for the new family.
At 6 a.m. that Thursday, police began conducting door-to-door searches, inspecting the home and Holt’s documents. Then they noticed he was recording them on his mobile phone, the witness said.
“In his country, you can’t search without a warrant, so he thought it was noteworthy,” she explained. “They confiscated his phone and took him away with other people.”
Two hours later, a group of about 30 masked security officers — some identified as military intelligence — returned. The witness says she and several neighbors watched as the men carried a black bag up four flights of stairs to the couples’ apartment. As one group questioned Holt’s wife, the witness said one of the officers stepped out of sight and then announced he had found the weapons — in a black bag on the floor.
According to news reports, police recovered an AK-47, an “imitation” M-15 assault rifle and a hand grenade.
The woman said it was inconceivable that Holt, or anyone in the house, could have purchased the weapons. Caleño’s relatives hadn’t let the man out of their sights since he arrived in Venezuela, she said, fearing that his poor Spanish might get him into trouble. And Caleño was well known in the building for her work at a government-run health clinic.
“They were planted,” she said of the weapons. “They weren’t there before.”
She also said that Caleño was a careful mother. “There is a 5-year-old and 8-year-old girl living in that house — if they had touched anything, it would have blown away three buildings,” she said.
A relative of the Caleños who is closely involved in the case, said authorities were considering terrorism and espionage charges, but that officially the pair remains under investigation. An Interior Ministry press release from July 1 mentions a raid on Ciudad Caribia and says seven people died in a firefight with police and that nine others were arrested on drug charges, but the couple’s names are not mentioned.
In polarized Venezuela, Americans are often portrayed as the enemy. President Nicolás Maduro routinely accuses the United States of being behind plots to topple his socialist administration and of dispatching mercenaries to assassinate him.
In 2014, another American was arrested in Venezuela in a case with political overtones. Todd Michael Leininger, a 34-year-old man who was born in Miami but raised in Indiana, was detained after he shot and wounded a neighbor in the border town of San Cristobal in an altercation that his family believes was self-defense.
In that case, Gov. José Gregorio Vielma Mora described Leininger as an “international agent” who was bent on helping to overthrow the government. Authorities said they found three rifles, two handguns and eight sets of camouflage uniforms.
His family believed that he’d been framed. Leininger, who speaks little Spanish, had moved to Venezuela with his now-estranged wife, and requires medication to control anxiety problems and a long-time case of Tourette’s syndrome.
On Wednesday — more than two years after being detained — the courts dropped charges against Leininger of terrorism and being in possession of “weapons of war.” But he’s still awaiting trial on the attempted homicide charge, and the conditions of his detention have deteriorated dramatically.
According to his mother and his lawyer, in May, without warning, Leininger was transferred from jail in San Cristobal to the notorious Rodeo prison in Caracas. He’s missed at least one court date due to the change.
A few weeks after his transfer, there was a riot at the prison and Leininger became a hostage, his mother, Barbara Leininger, said. According to her, his captors called the U.S. Embassy demanding a ransom.
Then that changed, too.
“Suddenly, last week, someone in the prison accused Todd of being part of the rioting and that he was in possession of a gun, so they have placed Todd in ‘quarantine’ and will not allow anyone to see him,” she said. “They keep coming up with these reasons not to give Todd due process, that’s what terrifies me.”
Now she’s heard that he has scabies and isn’t getting enough to eat in a country where food shortages are rampant.
“He’s starving,” she said. “You have to imagine that prisoners are going to be the last people to eat.”
Holt and Caleño, meanwhile, are said to be held in a military detention center in Caracas called the Helicoide, away from the general prison population. Some of Caleño’s relatives have received word that the newlywed couple are being treated well.
But Holt’s father said they need to talk to their son.
“We just wish that Venezuela would allow him to contact his family, so that we’d know if he’s OK,” he said. “The uncertainty is what makes it the hardest.”