An American missionary is opening up about the horrific conditions he and his wife endured while being held hostage for nearly two years by Venezuela.
Josh Holt, a 26-year-old Mormon missionary, had been held captive with his wife, fellow missionary Thamara Caleno, since shortly after their wedding in 2016. The two had been jailed and held without trial after Venezuelan law enforcement accused the couple of stockpiling weapons in their apartment in Caracas, reports NBC News. According to NBC, the State Department has called the charges against the couple “questionable.”
He told Hoda Kotb on NBC’s Today, Tuesday, that conditions in the prison were “horrible.”
“They put me in a cell that was no bigger than what a twin bed would be,” he said of the Caracas prison, called The Helix. “They had covered the door with a plastic bag so I wasn’t get much air. It was super, super hot. So I literally was just laying on the ground, just in my underwear and just sweating as cockroaches are crawling all over me.”
Josh claimed, “They never took me out to go to the bathroom. If you had to use the bathroom, you either had a bottle or a newspaper.”
Meanwhile, Caleno was held in a small cell with 23 women as authorities allegedly tortured her so she would turn on her husband, who met her while searching online for a Spanish speaker to help him with the language, NBC News reported.
“They were trying to get her to go against me,” Josh claimed to Today. “So while they were trying to fill out paperwork to get her to sign things saying I was a bad person… She didn’t want to do it because she knew it was all fake. So they actually started to put her fingers into pencil sharpeners to take off her nails, scare her. They tried to scare her with tasers.”
Josh described to the morning show how police officers came into their apartment in 2016, asked some questions, then left. However, he claimed they came back about 30 minutes later to take them to a jail.
“At first I wasn’t as afraid because here in America you trust your police officers when you’re around them,” Josh said to Kotb. “But over there, I didn’t know it was so dangerous.”
Josh’s mother, Laurie Holt, said she learned of the arrest from her daughter.
“We got a Facebook message from one of my daughter’s Facebook messenger, and it said ‘911, Josh and Thamy taken to prison’ and there was attached an article,” she explained on Today. “At first I was like, ‘No way.’ I was waking in Friday night from work, walking in the door and I see it. I sat down and I looked at it.”
She added, “You widen the picture and you can see all of his personal belongings and I knew, and neither one of them were responding to me.”
Laurie fought to have her son returned home by petitioning political heads and holding rallies.
“There was a lot of anger, but I just had to keep pushing,” she said to Kotb. “I knew that I was his voice and I was the only thing that was going to be able to get him home.”
Days before he was freed, Holt had pleaded for the U.S. government’s help in two videos posted to Facebook, according to The New York Times. “I’ve been begging my government for two years,” he said in one video. “They say they’re doing things, but I’m still here.”
His release was perceived as an effort by Venezuela to thaw tensions between the two nations, after the U.S. joined other countries to question the results that recently elected President Nicolás Maduro to another six-year term, NPR reported. Venezuela countered by expelling the top two U.S. diplomats from the American embassy, the New York Times reported.
Holt and his family were welcomed in May to the Oval Office by President Donald Trump and lawmakers who assisted in his diplomatic release.
“You’ve gone through a lot. More than most people could endure,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript of his remarks.
“I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude for you guys, for everything that you’ve done; for the support of my wife through these two years,” Holt said, according to that same transcript. “They were a very, very, very difficult two years. Not really the great vacation that I was looking for. But we’re still together. Starting off a marriage rough, but now we’re going to be together.”
“And I’m just so grateful for what you guys have done, and for thinking about me, and caring about me, just a normal person,” Holt said. “So it really touches me. And thank you.”