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Family of newlywed Utah man arrested in Venezuela for spying fights for his release

Josh Holt (R) and his wife Thasmara Belen Caleño Candelo (L).

Josh Holt (R) and his wife Thasmara Belen Caleño Candelo (L).  (Photo Courtesy of Laurie Holt)

A Utah man who traveled to Venezuela to marry his sweetheart is now behind bars in the South American nation, accused of being a spy after local authorities allegedly discovered multiple assault rifles and a hand grenade in his apartment.

The family of 24-year-old Josh Holt, says the charges brought against him are outrageous and that the guns and ammunition found in the home he shares with his now wife, Thasmara Belén Caleño Candelo, were planted in their apartment.

“I would have thought that if a U.S. citizen has been taken captive, [the U.S. Embassy] would have got the ball rolling and got him freed A.S.A.P.”

- Laurie Holt, Josh Holt's mother

“My heart just dropped when I heard the news,” Laurie Holt, Josh’s mother, who lives in Riverton, told Fox News Latino. “I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t because I was just so shocked.”

She added, "He's just a good, kind person and for this to happen to him ... He's our little boy."

Holt, who had recently completed a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) mission in Washington state, met his future wife through LDS.org. The two began communicating over the next several months, and, in the late spring, he flew to the Dominican Republic to propose to her – despite having never met her in person.

“The two just began chatting, and pretty soon they fell in love,” his mother said.

Despite warnings from his family – and even his fiancé – about the dangers, Holt decided to travel to Venezuela on June 11, and the two were wed five days later. After spending their honeymoon on a Venezuelan island, the newlyweds returned to Caleño Candelo’s home in the Caracas suburb of Ciudad Caribia, where she lives with her 5- and 7-year-old daughters from a previous relationship.

The couple was purportedly waiting for Caleño Candelo’s visa to be processed so that the family could move to the U.S.

According to Venezuelan news website NotiSur 24, authorities followed Holt back to the apartment on June 30, and, after he refused to speak with them, entered the apartment. uncovering the two assault rifles, a grenade and a large amount of cash and electronics.

Holt’s family said they reached out to authorities in Venezuela but have been unable to gather information about what charges the couple may be facing. A local LDS bishop who was able to visit Holt, told the family that their son is being held in a 6' x 6' cell at a prison run by the country’s intelligence service and is wearing only the pair of shorts he was arrested in.

“He’s very, very scared,” Holt’s mother told FNL. “They haven’t given us any sort of message about him.”

The family also reached out the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, which suggested the family seek legal representation within the country and promised to look into Holt’s case. Laurie Holt, however, says that she has yet to hear back from embassy officials.

“I would have thought that if a U.S. citizen has been taken captive, they would have got the ball rolling and got him freed A.S.A.P.,” she said.

At the moment, she added, the only information the family is getting about their son is coming through Caleño Candelo’s family in Venezuela. Laurie Hold told FNL that her family indicated that a judge in Venezuela recently chose not to drop the charges against Holt. They added there is currently no date scheduled for another court appearance.

The family has reached out to their U.S. Senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, as well as Idaho Republican, Sen. Jim Risch. They have set-up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for Josn's legal defense, but Laurie said they are wary of sending money to Venezuela until they are certain it will go to working on his case. Holt was previously being represented by a public defender, but his wife’s family hired a private attorney to represent the couple.  

Relations between Venezuela and the United States have been strained for years as leaders in Caracas have accused Washington of trying to destabilize the socialist government. President Nicolás Maduro has taken particular issue with any perceived U.S. intervention in the country’s politics, with Venezuela expelling a number of American diplomats in 2014.

The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela has been operating on a reduced staff since Maduro requested in March 2015 that the number of American employees there be reduced by 80 percent. The embassy did not respond to calls for comment by Fox News Latino.

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