A 24-year-old man with ties to the Pocatello and Idaho Falls areas is reportedly being held by Venezuelan authorities after they reported finding two assault rifles and a grenade in the home where he was staying with his new wife.
But the man’s relatives allege that witnesses at the scene saw Venezuelan authorities plant the weapons. They say he was simply in the country for a few weeks to marry a Venezuelan woman, after which he planned to return to the U.S. with her and her two children.
The story was first reported June 30 by Venezuelan media outlet Notisur 24, under a headline which roughly translates: “They caught a gringo with grenade and a rifle.”
The “gringo” in this case is Josh Holt, who lived in Pocatello with his family until age 7, when his family relocated to Riverton, Utah. Many of his relatives live in eastern Idaho.
Holt finished a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January. He served in Washington state and specialized in outreach to the Spanish-speaking community.
Holt’s mother Laurie Holt, of Riverton, said when he returned home he went online to find people to chat with so he could keep up his Spanish, and that’s how he met Thamara Belen Caleño Candelo, a 25-year-old Venezuelan with two young daughters.
Laurie Holt said the two later met and decided to marry. Laurie Holt said she “begged him not to go” to the country where civil unrest and government crackdowns have been mounting in recent months.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be careful,’” she said.
Now her worst fears have come true.
“I have an ache in the pit of my stomach, and it doesn’t go away,” she said. “It’s been excruciating.”
Laurie Holt said her son has requested to speak with officials from the American Embassy in Caracas, but embassy officials have been denied access to him. The embassy could not be reached to confirm that fact.
She also said she has spoken to members of the Candelo family who were present during the arrest.
“They told us that after they brought Thamy and Josh out, they brought the guns in,” she said. “They (the weapons) were definitely planted.”
The Notisur 24 story notes that members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, were present at the arrest. That service has been accused by human rights groups of arbitrarily detaining critics of the government.
SEBIN’s director general, Gustavo Enrique González López, was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2015 for directing serious human rights abuses. A White House news release announcing the sanctions alleges SEBIN has “committed hundreds of forced entries and extrajudicial detentions in Venezuela.”
Among the items shown in police photos is a grenade which resembles a Mk 2 “pineapple grenade,” which was standard issue to U.S. troops in World War II and Vietnam, but hasn’t been used by the U.S. military in several decades.
Police photos published with the story show what appear to be M4 and AK-47 assault rifles in what Laurie Holt says is Candelo’s apartment.
Laurie Holt said she has reached out to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office and to the American Embassy for help resolving the case.