RIVERTON — Josh Holt returned home to a hero’s welcome Monday with his wife, Thamy, and two stepdaughters at his side, finally ending a two-year ordeal behind Venezuelan prison bars on what U.S. officials and his family says were false charges.
"Man, that was a long vacation. I don’t recommend a two-year vacation to Venezuela," he joked to about 200 people gathered in the Old Dome Meeting Hall at Riverton City Park where the city threw the Holts a Memorial Day homecoming celebration.
Dozens of people line up outside the building afterward to shake his hand and give him a hug before he headed to his house.
Green balloons, green ribbons and American flags lined the street in the park. Signs posted along the road read, “God bless America! Justice has been served!” and “Holt family forever.” Cheers erupted as the Holts stepped out of a black van. Reporters huddled around Josh Holt, wearing a dark blue T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag, jeans and lime green sneakers.
"It was hard," he said of his time in prison. "But we definitely felt the help, the support of the people here, of the prayers."
Inside the building, Holt, 26, embraced his mother, Laurie Holt, and she kissed him on the cheek before he took to the microphone for a brief speech that turned serious after his initial joke.
"We all have trials. Every single person in this room is going through something right now," he said.
Holt said it wasn't just the community and family support but "my Lord and Savior" who helped him get through his trial in Venezuela. It doesn't matter what faith a person has, he said, as long as you "stay strong to who you are inside."
"We have to make ourselves happy in whatever situation we're going through," he said, admitting that was difficult for him. "It doesn't matter if you're in prison, held hostage for however long, you can make yourself happy."
Thamy Holt also thanked the community for its prayers and words of support, saying in Spanish through an interpreter that she followed their posts on the JusticeforJosh Facebook page and other social media.
This is your city. This is your community," Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs told the Holts. "You can see from all the people that are here you are not forgotten at all."
Staggs said the Holt family as "relentless in the pursuit to bring Josh Holt home.
The Venezuelan government unexpectedly released Holt from jail on Saturday after U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, met with Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Friday. Corker accompanied Holt, his wife and stepdaughter to Washington.
After a welcome by President Donald Trump Saturday night in the White House, Josh and Thamy Holt were taken to a Washington hospital for medical care. They initially weren't expected to fly to Utah until Tuesday but were discharged Monday morning.
After they arrived at Salt Lake City International Airport around 7 p.m. Monday, Josh and Thamy Holt were welcomed by his grandmother Linda Holt, who wrapped him in an American flag, and a crowd of well-wishers singing the national anthem.
The couple and their daughter worked their way through the crowd, where they were welcomed with cheers, tears and long-lasting embraces.
Holt briefly addressed the airport crowd, thanking them for keeping faith in the couple's return and expressing gratitude to "everyone here for us, everyone that was worried about us and everyone that helped us any way they could."
Holt said it had been "a very long three or four (days). I don't even know how many it's been."
"We've gotten maybe three or four hours of sleep in four days, but I just want to publicly say thank you to all the people in Utah who were helping us," he said.
He offered specific thanks to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, the U.S. State Department and Corker, R-Tenn.
A chauffeured van picked up the family at the airport, and police escorted them to Riverton. Love, who rode with the Holts, gave Josh Holt a gift card to Iggy’s Sports Grill so “he can go get a burger.”
For Josh's grandmother, the couple's release was an answer to prayer.
About a week after their arrest, Linda Holt posted a daily prayer on Facebook, somewhat worried that she’d be ridiculed but she persisted nonetheless.
“For 678 days, I posted a prayer on Facebook for Josh and Thamy. Our stake has fasted for them. People (have) prayed for them,” she said.
The flag she wrapped around her grandson had draped her husband Jack's casket. His funeral was the last time the entire Holt family had been together.
“He just barely passed away and Josh was captured,” she said.
The airport was filled with well-wishers, some who carried signs in English and Spanish welcoming the Holts home. Some spoke of miracles and said "Families are forever." Others carried messages that they had never given up hope.
Road to freedom
Corker started discussions with the Venezuelan government about securing Holt's release at Hatch's request earlier this year. Corker met with Venezuelan Gov. Rafael Lacava in March.
Josh Holt said Lacava "helped a ton to get us our freedom."
After two years of captivity, their release came about abruptly, through a small window in which Maduro was willing to talk.
Corker, who was en route to Haiti, said he would meet with Maduro on Tuesday. But Caleb McCarry, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee senior staff member, told Corker that he needed to go to Venezuela immediately. McCarry had been pushing for Holt's release through back channels this year with people close to Maduro.
Josh Holt also extended his thanks to McCarry.
Maduro handed over Holt and his wife, Thamy Holt, to Corker in what his government described as a gesture of goodwill.
The Holts’ release was "unconditional," Love said in an interview Saturday. “Maduro asked for nothing.”
After an early morning phone call telling them their son would be freed, Holt's parents, Jason and Laurie Holt, and Love jumped on a flight to Washington, D.C.
Love described the release of the Holts as "a miracle."
The congresswoman from Saratoga Springs related that she had gotten got a call from Trump saying, "We’re bringing your guy home, Mia. We’re bringing Joshua Holt home."
Before releasing him Saturday, Venezuelan authorities had claimed Holt was keeping guns in his wife's home. 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 a Spanish-speaking LDS mission to Washington state.
Holt and Thamara "Thamy" Caleño met in person for the first time in May 2016 in the Dominican Republic, and he proposed to her on the lawn of an LDS church there. He traveled in June to marry her in her hometown of Caracas, one of the most violent cities in the world. The two planned to wait for her visa before flying to the U.S.
In early July 2016, Holt's family announced it had gone more than a week without hearing from him, and suspected he was being framed and held as a spy. They received a Facebook message from his wife's mother, stating that her daughter and Josh Holt were in prison.
The message had little information about the arrest but included a local news article about the alleged crime, including photos of guns, a grenade, cash, Josh Holt's passport, credit cards and IDs allegedly taken from the apartment where the couple was living.
Holt spent the next nearly two years in jail, while his family desperately pleaded for help to get him released. They turned to Hatch and Love for help, they rallied at the state Capitol and called for the Obama and Trump administrations to intervene.
Reports of Holt being tortured and falling ill surfaced as he awaited trial on what American officials and his family say were bogus charges.
Laurie Holt said Monday that the family paid lawyers a lot of money for people in the jail to keep her son safe.
Earlier this month, Holt posted on Facebook that he feared for his life as violence erupted at the prison.
"I am not a political pawn I am a human being a child of God and I just want to live happy with my wife and children. I have NEVER done anything wrong in my life. Please help me!!" he wrote.
The turmoil renewed calls from U.S. government officials and Holt's family for the him to be freed on humanitarian grounds.
In recent years, relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been hostile.
“We don’t have any relationships with Venezuela,” Love said.
In Josh Holt’s case, U.S. Embassy personnel had been denied access to his court hearings or access to detention facilities to assess his health and welfare, according to transcripts of State Department briefings.11 comments on this story
“People don’t even know that the State Department had to send people — put them in harm’s way — to make sure that Joshua was OK so they can have eyes on him and say, ‘We can confirm that he’s OK,’ ” Love said.
Over the past two years, Utah’s congressional delegation “worked hard to put Joshua at the top priority so if anybody would be released he would be the first one,” she said.
Love said she asked herself every day, "How would I want my representative to work if that were my child?"
The reunion “was like a family member coming home,” Love said.
Contributing: Ladd Egan