Married in Venezuela, U.S. man, wife accused of being spies
Laurie Moon Holt was at work on Tuesday morning in Salt Lake City, when she got a panicked phone call from an unknown number.
It was her son, Joshua Holt, who has been in a Venezuelan jail since 2016, speaking urgently into the phone.
He was barricaded inside his prison cell — his bed shoved up against the door — as a group of convicts tried to break in.
“I could barely hear him, but he was saying ‘Mom, they’re trying to kill me. Mom, they’re trying to kill me,” Laurie Holt recalled. “He was saying, ‘Mom, they’re trying to break into my room.’”
For almost two years, Holt has been held in Venezuela's hulking Helicoide prison, awaiting a trial that never materializes.
Venezuelan officials have called the 26-year-old former Mormon missionary a dangerous “spy,” “mercenary” and "terrorist." To his supporters, however, Holt is an innocent political hostage trapped in a full-blown diplomatic war between Washington and Caracas.
That war got uglier on Tuesday, when President Nicolás Maduro — fresh from winning reelection through 2025 — expelled the highest ranking U.S. diplomat in Venezuela, Todd Robinson, who had been working to win Holt's release. Robinson's ejection was in retaliation for the United States slapping Venezuela with painful financial sanctions and refusing to recognize Sunday's "sham” election.
The jailhouse revolt involving political prisoners just days before the vote, ramped up tensions in a country already under international pressure.
Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristóbal who has been detained since 2014 and is in the Helicoide awaiting trial, said the convicts and prison guards colluded to punish the opposition political activists housed there.
“We’re determined to resist, including with our lives, so that we can be heard and so that people will see what’s happening in the dungeons of this dictatorship,” Ceballos said in a video that surfaced during the riot. “We’re tired of them killing and torturing people.”
The government has accused Ceballos and others of starting the rebellion as a stunt to embarrass the administration on the eve of the elections.
But what's clear is that Holt was trapped in the middle.
His mother said Tuesday, May 15, started on a hopeful note. After intense diplomatic pressure from U.S. senators and the U.S. embassy, it appeared to Laurie Holtthat her son might actually get a court hearing.
But, as has happened countless other times, the prison transport vehicle never picked him up.
“I don’t know why I was surprised that they didn’t take him,” Laurie Holt said in a telephone interview. “That’s pretty much how it goes over there. They have a hearing but then they don’t take him to the hearing.”
According to accounts from opponents of the Maduro regime, a group of convicts — that share the prison with people like Holt, who are simply awaiting trial — chose that day to go on the attack.
As they tried to break down Holt’s door, the inmates seized Gregory Sanabria, a young political activist who was arrested in 2014 in the midst of nation-wide protests, according to the reports.
Sanabria’s lawyer said the inmates beat him so badly that his skull was fractured, his nose broken and his face lacerated. On Monday, his legal team said the damage was so severe that doctors couldn’t operate until the swelling goes down.
Prisoners also apparently barricaded themselves in different wings of the jail to stave off attackers.
It was during this free-for-all that Holt and others managed to send video and voice mail messages to the outside world.
“I’m calling on the people of America, I need your help to get me out of this place,” Holt tells the camera in one message. “I have been begging my government for two years. They say they are doing things, but I’m still here and now my life is being threatened. How long do I have to suffer here?”
In another video, Holt is seen standing with Ceballos and two other inmates that the opposition considers political prisoners.
In that clip, he says he’s safe but demands that the government provide the prisoners with medical attention and give them their constitutional right to a trial. He also says he’s being held hostage by the Venezuelan government.
Foro Penal, a legal aid group, said 20 of the 54 political detainees at the Helicoide have been granted parole, but the administration is refusing to release them.
For Laurie Holt, the video was welcome proof that Holt was alive but she also found it disturbing.
“It upset me greatly," she said, “because Josh is not part of the opposition and never has been part of the opposition, and I felt like he was pushed to do that for security reasons — because they were all he had in there to keep him alive.”
The video plays into the Venezuelan government’s narrative that Holt was part of a broader opposition-Washington cabal bent on destroying the “socialist revolution.”
But by all other accounts, Holt was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Holt had met Thamara Caleño, a Venezuelan and fellow Mormon, on a religious dating site and fallen in love. In 2016, they met in the Dominican Republic to continue their courtship. And in June of that year, he traveled to Venezuela to get married.
The couple honeymooned on Venezuela’s famous Margarita Island, and had been back in Caracas a few days, waiting for Caleño and her children to get U.S. visas, when they were both detained on June 30, 2016.
Security forces claim they found hand grenades and automatic weapons stashed in their apartment. Holt and his lawyers say he’s innocent. And an eyewitness told the Miami Herald that they saw the police plant the weapons to frame the young man, who barely spoke Spanish.
If there’s been a bright spot amid the prison revolt it’s that the couple were reunited. A picture emerged of them inside the jail, looking tired and tearful — but together.
But that moment of respite likely didn’t last long. Later Thursday, panicked voice mail messages from inside the jail began to emerge, warning of a police raid.
“Help us! The [police] are coming in right now and threatening our lives!” Vilca Fernández, a student activist and congressional candidate, said in a message sent to the Miami Herald by a human rights lawyer.
A message from another detainee called the situation “out of control.”
“They are not going to guarantee our lives, they’ve already told us that they are going to f--- us,” he says.
The Miami Herald could not independently confirm the veracity of either recording. But Laurie Holt said that her son also seemed convinced that the police were going to subdue the revolt with violence.
By most accounts, the police were able to regain control without bloodshed. Later, images of Ceballos, Fernández, Holt and others surfaced seeming to show them in good condition.
The government says the convicted criminals have been separated from the non-violent political prisoners, and that all prisoners were interviewed and provided medical care.
But tensions are still running high.
On Saturday, a group of 18 female prisoners said they were beginning a hunger strike inside the Helicoide. Holt’s wife, Caleño, was not on a list of the strikers.
And U.S. officials said they have been denied access to Holt.
Robinson, the U.S. diplomat, visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday to demand information, but authorities declined to receive him.
On Friday, the embassy reported that "the Venezuelan government has denied us... access several times, which represents a violation of the Geneva Convention.”
On Tuesday, Laurie Holt said neither embassy officials nor her lawyers had been able to see her son or his wife.
While she's confident he survived the revolt unscathed, she said her son remains in a fragile emotional state.
“He’s been suicidal,” she said. “He has said that he’s going to stop eating until he dies, because he just doesn’t care — that he can’t stay there for the rest of his life.”
“I have never been able to really sit and talk to him. It’s always been brief calls of panic from him that I get,” she said. One time she got a voice mail message from him “where he told me goodbye, and he told me that he knew that he was probably not going to be coming home.”
Laurie Holt is hoping that Maduro’s reelection on Sunday might change the dynamic — that the president might see the release of her son and daughter-in-law as a way to begin building bridges with Washington.
“Josh has almost been killed multiple times and we’ve gotten lucky because he’s had guardian angels watching over him,” she said. “But next time he might not be so lucky. And if he’s killed over there, Maduro has to know that the United States will not be happy about it, and there will be a price to pay.”