Will the U.S. Tourist Face 12 Years in Prison for Carrying Ammunition to Turks and Caicos?

An Oklahoma man finds himself potentially facing a lengthy prison sentence on a Caribbean island after authorities discovered ammunition in his luggage. Ryan Watson, accompanied by his wife Valerie, embarked on a trip to Turks and Caicos to commemorate his 40th birthday on April 7. Joining them were two friends, coincidentally also celebrating their 40th birthdays.

the U.S. Tourist Face 12 Years in Prison for Carrying Ammunition to Turks and Caicos
The 12-years sentence has left the Watson family deeply distraught. Image Credit: CBS News/Valerie Watson

The Incident

Ryan Watson embarked on a trip to Turks and Caicos with his wife, Valerie, to commemorate his 40th birthday on April 7. However, their vacation took an unexpected turn when airport personnel discovered a zip-close bag containing bullets in their carry-on luggage.

Watson explained that it was hunting ammunition he had inadvertently brought along. Despite his explanation, under the stringent laws of Turks and Caicos, a mandatory 12-year sentence could still be imposed by the court. “They were hunting ammunition rounds that I use for whitetail deer,” Watson explained in an interview with NBC Boston on Tuesday.

The Charges

Following the court hearing, the charges against Valerie Watson were dropped, allowing her to return home to Oklahoma City. However, her husband, Ryan Watson, remains detained on the island, confronting the possibility of a mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years.

Turks and Caicos’ Law

The possession of firearms or ammunition is strictly prohibited in Turks and Caicos. A court ruling in February reinforced this law, stipulating that even tourists preparing to depart the country could face imprisonment. Since November 2022, a total of eight prosecutions related to firearms and ammunition have been initiated, involving tourists from the United States.

The Warning Issued By U.S. Embassy

In September, the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a stern warning to travelers regarding the stringent laws governing firearms and ammunition possession in Turks and Caicos, a popular vacation destination situated southeast of the Bahamas.

The advisory emphasized, “We wish to remind all travelers that declaring a weapon in your luggage with an airline carrier does not grant permission to bring the weapon into TCI [Turks and Caicos Islands] and will result in your arrest.”

Furthermore, it cautioned that individuals caught with firearms or ammunition in Turks and Caicos would not receive assistance in securing their release from custody. Despite requests for comment, neither the embassy nor the Turks and Caicos government responded immediately.

The Aftermath

The ordeal has left the Watson family deeply distraught. Valerie Watson returned to Oklahoma City in tears, characterizing the once-dream vacation as a harrowing nightmare. The couple also expressed the strain of an unexpectedly prolonged trip, with Valerie lamenting, “When I heard that, I immediately was terrified, because I was like we can’t both be in prison for 12 years. We have kids at home, and this is such an innocent mistake.”

She emphasized their primary objective: “Our goal is to get Ryan home because we can’t be a family without Dad.”

Earlier Incident

A similar situation also happened in February involving another American, Bryan Hagerich, a former professional baseball player from Pennsylvania. Hagerich found himself in a predicament when ammunition was discovered in his luggage before attempting to board a flight out of Turks and Caicos.

He claimed it was accidentally left in his bag. While on a family vacation with his wife and two young children, Hagerich has now spent 70 days in the country, including eight days in prison before posting bail.

“It’s incredibly scary. You know, you just don’t know what the next day may bring — you know, what path this may take,” Hagerich said. Reflecting on his ordeal, he expressed, “You know, it’s certainly a lot different than packing your bags and going away with your family for a few days. It’s been the worst 70 days of my life.”

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