'Totally devastated,' says mom of Utah man Josh Holt, ordered to stand trial in Venezuela

Image: Joshua Holt and Thamara Holt
Joshua Holt with his wife, Thamara Candelo Holt, in an undated photo.Courtesy Holt Family

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By The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — The hopes of a Utah family were dashed Tuesday after a Venezuelan judge ruled that a jailed American man must stand trial on weapons charges — a day after his mother released an audio recording of her son saying he was suffering without medical care.

The judge's ruling came almost 18 months after Joshua Holt was arrested.

Holt, 25, traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met on the internet; shortly later the couple was arrested at her family's apartment in a Caracas public housing complex after police alleged he was stockpiling weapons.

Holt's mother, Laurie Holt, told The Associated Press she was "totally devastated."

"I don't even know what to think," she said. "I can't understand how they can send a young kid who's completely innocent to trial and feel good about that."

"I'm totally devastated. I don't even know what to think" the mother, Laurie Holt, told The Associated Press by telephone from her home near Salt Lake City.

Judge Ana Maria Gamuza's decision to formally charge Holt and his wife, Thamara Candelo, came almost two months after she heard arguments in support and against his continued imprisonment — another procedural delay that Washington has cited as evidence the case is being politicized by President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government to retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

Further stoking those concerns, Lee McClenny, the head of the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela, was forced Tuesday to wait outside the courtroom for hours after the judge refused to grant him access to the proceedings in apparent violation of the Vienna convention on consular rights.

Laurie Holt said her son had requested McClenny be present for the hearing as detained foreign nationals are entitled to under the treaty, to which Venezuela is a party.

On Monday, the mother shared an audio recording of her that she said was sent by cellphone and she pleaded with Venezuelan authorities to release him on humanitarian grounds.

In the 40-second voicemail message, Holt talks about throwing up all night, feeling dizzy and struggling to think.

"I'm very dizzy and I can't think and my stomach hurts," he says. "It hurts bad, and I don't know what to do. I've never felt like this before."

Alarmed by the recording, the State Department on Tuesday reiterated its call for Holt's release.

"He's in extremely poor health. We want him to be brought home," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press briefing in which she said she expected U.S. Embassy officials would be present at the hearing.

Holt said she hasn't heard from her son since he made the distress call Monday morning and she fears his cellphone was taken away in retaliation for her decision to release the recording.

Holt and Candelo are being held in the Helicoide, a spiral shaped Caracas prison where Maduro's most-prominent political opponents are jailed.

In an odd twist in the case, his legal defense is being paid for by a wealthy Venezuelan shipping magnate with close ties to Maduro's government. The same businessman, Wilmer Ruperti, is funding the defense of first lady Cilia Flores' two nephews in a separate, politically charged narcotics trial in the United States.

The nephews, Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores, were arrested by police in Haiti in 2015 and convicted a year ago of conspiring to smuggle more than 1,700 pounds (800 kilograms) of cocaine into the U.S. They are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.