To screams of joy from friends and family that turned into an off-key version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Josh Holt returned to Utah two days after he was released from a Venezuela prison, the conclusion of a horrific, nearly two-year long ordeal.
“I don’t even know how many days it’s been,” a clearly overjoyed but somewhat bleary Holt said upon arrival at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday evening. “We’ve gotten, like, maybe four hours of sleep in four days.”
But, sporting a blue t-shirt emblazoned with an American flag, he quickly moved to heartfelt reunions with his sisters and brother. And his grandmother, Linda Holt, had prepared a special moment for him — she wrapped him in the flag that had draped his grandfather’s coffin. His funeral was the last time the whole Holt family had gotten together.
“It was very emotional,” said Josh’s older brother, Derek. “I felt like I’d hold it together better than I did. But when I saw him, the tears just started.”
And so did the hugs. After extended embraces with his siblings, Holt hugged seemingly everyone in sight. Not all of the 100-plus friends and family who turned out to greet him, but at least half of them.
They gathered at the international terminal in a festive mood, chattering excitedly as they awaited the arrival of the plane carrying Holt and his wife, Thamy, along with her daughter, Marian.
Many carried signs on green cardboard — the color of all the ribbons that greeted the Holts in his hometown of Riverton — proclaiming “Prayers are answered!”; “You’re Home!” and “Bienvenudo a tu casadonde hay libertad y democracia” (“Welcome to your home where there is freedom and democracy”).
Before heading off to Riverton for a second celebration, Holt thanked everyone who worked to secure his release, including members of the Utah Congressional delegation and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. — after asking to be reminded of Corker’s name.
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, was right up front with the family, a $25 restaurant gift card in hand. “He told me he was craving Iggy’s,” she said.
Nearly two years earlier — June 11, 2016 — Holt had traveled to Venezuela to marry Thamara “Thamy” Caleno, whom he had met online. About three weeks later, Venezuelan police, alleging they had found a cache of assault rifles and other weapons, arrested Holt on charges of conspiring against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. His wife was also jailed, accused of being an accomplice.
The Holts denied all the charges, and were held without being given a court date. Despite efforts by members of both the Obama and Trump administrations — as well as members of Congress led by Sen. Orrin Hatch — the Venezuelan government refused to free the Holts until Saturday, when Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Maduro in Caracas and secured their release.
The Holts arrived in Washington and, after a meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump, were taken to Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to be treated for injuries sustained while they were imprisoned.
And then, they were home.
Tim Olsen, who has been neighbors and friends with Holt for 10 years, helped organize the Riverton gathering. He shouted updates to the crowd as the car from the airport got closer. “They’re on the freeway guys,” he yelled. “They’re pulling around the corner,” he claimed. “Start cheering,” he directed.
“He’s needed this so that he can see how many people care about him,” Olsen said. “For two years, I think he wondered if anyone was listening.”
As the motorcade of black SUVs pulled into a Riverton park, hundreds of friends and family lined the sidewalks. They held signs that said, “Welcome home.” They cheered when he stepped out of the car. They released neon green balloons. And they stopped him every two feet to hug him and cry with him and congratulate him.
Holt held tight to the hand of his wife through it all.
He spent an hour shaking hands, hugging, taking selfies and greeting everyone who came out to welcome him Monday night. The line stretched long around the Old Dome Meeting House. Many didn’t know what to say when they got to him. “Is this really happening?” one neighbor asked him. “I’ve been praying for two years,” said another.
He kissed his grandma. He hugged his aunt. He smiled at his uncle, who snuck up behind him. He kept his older brother in view the entire time.
McCall Stirland, 26, went to class with Holt from elementary through high school. She also attended church with him. “I’m just so relieved,” she said.
As they walked into a meetinghouse filled with even more well-wishers, Holt said the same thing to multiple people: “We finally got our freedom.”
Inside, the Holts sat on a couch. They nodded their heads as the mayor spoke. They rubbed their tired eyes. And they looked at each other for confirmation and security.
Josh Holt spoke for a few minutes, starting off with a joke: “Man, that was a long vacation.” The crowd laughed and cheered and whistled. He then talked about the trial of his incarceration. He mentioned being held 50 feet away from his wife, but not being able to see her. And he credited his faith and prayers for making it out alive.
“There were times — many, many times — when I started to blame God,” he said. “But he’s the one who got me through it.”
Thamy also approached the microphone, starting off by repeating “gracias” and “thank you.”
“I’m very thankful to all of you for your fasting and your prayers and your support,” she said through a Spanish translator.
As Love, who fought for Holt’s release and became close friends with his mother throughout the process, walked up to the podium Holt leapt from the couch and stepped on a beetle crawling toward the congresswoman.
“Josh has my back, too,” she said, as they both laughed. But she teared up soon after, trying to talk about his strength and the support the young couple will need going forward.
“This is not the end,” Love added.
Holt’s mother, Laurie, held her son in a hug before the hundreds gathered in Riverton and simply said: “Now I have my family altogether.”