BOGOTA, Colombia -- A Utah man being held in Venezuela on weapons charges described living a “horrible nightmare” of police harassment and recurrent illnesses in his first communication from jail.
“It feels like the pressure of the world is weighing down upon my chest. My heart feels like it is swollen and about to burst,” Joshua Holt wrote in a handwritten letter made public Tuesday by his mother. “Since I arrived at this horrible place where demons stroll the hallways ... my life has been in utter destruction.”
Holt was arrested nearly two months ago when police said they found an assault rifle during a raid on the public housing complex in Caracas where he was staying with his Venezuelan bride. The two met on the internet when Holt wanted to practice the Spanish he had picked up as a Mormon missionary in a Latino community in Washington state. He flew to Venezuela to marry the woman and wait for a U.S. visa so they could start their life together near Salt Lake City.
But last month, Venezuelan Interior Minister Gustavo Gonzalez referred to Holt as “the gringo” and alleged the 24-year-old was a trained gunman linked to unspecified attempts by the U.S. to undermine President Nicolas Maduro’s rule during a period of deep economic and political turbulence in the socialist South American country.
His mother, Laurie Holt, told The Associated Press that she received a scanned copy of the letter from her son’s mother-in-law after a recent jailhouse visit. She posted a typed transcript of the message on Facebook in a bid to garner more support from the Obama administration.
American diplomats have met with Holt, most recently on Aug. 16. But the U.S. government so far has avoided ratcheting up public pressure on Venezuela amid already strained relations between two countries that haven’t swapped ambassadors since 2010.
In the letter written in the past week, Holt describes being overwhelmed by fear and confusion following his arrest, saying he was forced to sleep for a week and a half in a hot cell with two tiny out-of-reach windows and barely big enough for a twin-size bed.
“The following hours were full of fear and terror as they threatened to do horrible things to me, as they took pictures of me and laughed as if I were some freak of nature or some animal from another world. Even the head boss over all of SEBIN took photos with me as if I were some sort of trophy to him,” he wrote, referring to the initials for Venezuela’s secret police. “I thought this must be the lake of fire and brimstone.”
He denies any wrongdoing and accuses police of planting the weapon and a grenade in the apartment after officers unsuccessfully tried to shake him down for a $10,000 bribe.
Late last month, family and friends of Holt held a rally at the state capitol to try and bring attention to his situation, CBS affiliate KIDK reported.
At the rally, people held signs saying things like “Free Josh” or “Bring Josh Home.” Many also shared favorite stories and memories of Holt.
Holt said he cries himself to sleep questioning his faith and struggling with a string of illnesses.
“I have had one sickness after another, kidney stones, bronchitis, and now have something that makes me itch like I have never itched before. I had times where I could barely breathe. The judge approved not one time, but twice for me to go to the hospital, however I have never left the jail,” he wrote.
Holt’s wife, Thamara Caleno, is also being held as an accomplice.
In the letter, Holt says he is grateful for the thousands of people who have taken an interest in his case under the #JusticeForJosh hashtag but asks them not to forget his wife. He said the two manage to see each other once a day when they fetch pop bottles filled with water for bathing.
“The truth is if I could I would stay here double the time just so my wife could have her freedom and be with our daughters,” he wrote, referring to two children she had before she met him.
Holt said he has found solace in verses from the Book of Mormon.
A State Department official said U.S. officials are closely following the case and have discussed it with their Venezuelan counterparts. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department policy, said the agency is calling on the Venezuelan government to respect due process and human rights and guarantee a free trial.
Holt says he wants the Obama administration to do more.
“When it comes to taking my money my government becomes an expert and never fails, but when it comes to saving my life, they abandon me and say there is nothing they can do,” he wrote.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 15, when Holt says he will be able to demonstrate his innocence.
“However, with this government and with the things that I have seen and heard that doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “The only thing I can do is beg the Lord to soften the hearts of this people and that of the governments.”
There is a GoFundMe account set up to help Holt’s family with expenses, such as the lawyer fees.