SALT LAKE CITY — Sitting in the White House Saturday night next to President Donald Trump after a long day of travel, Josh Holt was "overwhelmed with gratitude" for the efforts of all the people that brought him home to U.S. soil.
"I'm just so grateful (for) what you guys have done and for thinking about me and caring about me — a normal person," the 26-year-old Riverton man said, tearing up. "It really touches me. Thank you!"
Thus ended a two-year ordeal for the Holt family, after the former LDS Church missionary and his wife were released early Saturday morning from a Venezuelan prison and flown to Washington, D.C.
Holt and his wife, Thamy, landed in the nation’s capital accompanied by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who traveled to Caracas to negotiate their freedom. Corker, R-Tenn., met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday in Caracas, where he pushed for Holt's release. They were met by his parents, Laurie and Jason Holt, as well as Sen. Orrin Hatch and his wife, Elaine.
Holt's imprisonment had also caught the attention of the Trump administration, which had called for his release several times in the past year.
"You were a tough one I have to tell you. That was a tough situation," the president said to Holt as the family gathered in the Oval Office. "You've gone through a lot. More than most people could endure."
Josh Holt joked at one point: "It was not really the great vacation that I was looking for."
That "vacation" began in 2016, when Venezuelan authorities claimed Holt was keeping guns in the home of the woman he went to the country to marry. Holt denies the charges. His family has said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time of a raid in the Caracas neighborhood of his wife, whom he met through online Spanish lessons after returning from an LDS mission.
At Saturday's reunion, Laurie Holt praised Trump as well as Hatch and Rep. Mia Love for their efforts to help get her son freed from his captivity.
"I've grown to love Sen. Hatch and Mia so much," she said. "Not everybody gets to talk to Sen. Hatch and Mia Love and when everything happened last week, Mia was the one that answered her phone and was the one who got things rolling, with Sen. Hatch, to save Josh."
She also thanked the Venezuelan president for "releasing Josh and letting him come home."
Before dawn on Saturday, the Holts received word in their Riverton home that their son would be released. They flew to Washington for the long-awaited reunion.
Years of work
Corker said in a statement that he started discussions with the Venezuelan government about securing Holt's release at Hatch's request earlier this year. Corker said he met with Venezuelan Gov. Rafael Lacava in March and with Maduro on Friday at his request.
Shortly after Corker’s meeting with Maduro, social media in Venezuela lit up with speculation that Holt and his wife would be released as a goodwill gesture to improve relations, much as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did by freeing three American detainees, the Washington Post reported.
Corker and Hatch also credited the efforts of Caleb McCarry for playing an instrumental role in Holt's release. McCarry is a Corker aide who was involved in back channel talks earlier this year with people close to Maduro.
Hatch said it took two years of hard work to secure Holt's freedom.
"Over the last two years I’ve worked with two presidential administrations, countless diplomatic contacts, ambassadors from all over the world, a network of contacts in Venezuela, and President Maduro himself, and I could not be more honored to be able to reunite Josh with his sweet, long-suffering family in Riverton," the senator said.
Love said she was thrilled to hear in a phone call from Trump that Holt was returning to the U.S.
"We're so excited. So many times we thought it was going to be impossible. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work that’s been put into this. It seriously was a big team effort," Love said before heading to Washington to meet Holt.
U.S. officials told the socialist Venezuelan government Holt's release would be a "last-ditch effort to show that you're willing to work with the United States. We were able to get members of Congress and a whole bunch of other people to specifically focus on Joshua because Joshua is a U.S. citizen."
Love, who has fostered a friendship with Laurie Holt, teared up while talking about the family.
"I have always maintained and told the family that I was going to do everything I can, as if it were my son that was in Venezuela," she said. "This is just kind of an emotional release for me because I've been so incredibly stressed and worried about Joshua."
At the Holt home in Riverton, Holt's brother, Derek Holt, washed the newly freed man's car that has sat in the driveway for two years. He referred reporters to the family statement.
Neighbors were elated that Holt would be coming home and excited to see him.
"We actually heard it from the Holts before it broke on the news. We were overwhelmed and excited," said Crystal Watts, who along with her husband Corby, lives across the street from the Holts.
Watts, who has grown close to Laurie Holt the past couple years, said the family endured many ups and downs, "really a lot of downs, I should say. But Laurie is a warrior. She's done everything possible that she can to get him home."
Laurie Holt often needed a smile or moment to breathe, "but there wasn't a lot of those," Watts said. "I just felt so bad for this family."
Roger and Adrienne Shulze have lived a few doors down from the Holts for 14 years. Josh Holt would drop by their house to help or for advice.
"I just thought it was the greatest thing for some teenage boy to help his neighbor out pulling weeds," Adrienne Shulze said, adding she also saw Holt doing Scout projects in the neighborhood.
Roger Shulze, who served in the military, remembers Holt asking him questions about becoming a pilot in the Army.
"He's a great dude," Roger Shulze said. "It's good to finally see him come home."
Other members of Utah's congressional delegation and the governor also expressed joy about Holt's release.
"Like so many in Utah, I’m so relieved and pleased that, after two nightmarish years being unlawfully detained, Josh and his wife Thamy will be coming home safely,” Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said.
This past week, Curtis questioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about efforts to free Holt, but his answer wasn't optimistic.
Pompeo told the panel that he worried that Maduro expelling the top U.S. diplomat in the country would hinder efforts to free Holt.
Gov. Gary Herbert said he was "overjoyed" to hear the news.
"Josh’s return comes in answer to many prayers," he said. "The people of Utah look forward to welcoming him home."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who attended the White House gathering Saturday night, said earlier in the day he was excited about the news.
"We have long fought and prayed for his release from the Venezuelan government and are thrilled for his family," Lee said.