American arrested in Turks and Caicos over ammo in bag is sentenced

Updated

A third American who was arrested in the Turks and Caicos Islands in recent months for possessing ammunition was given a suspended sentence of 13 weeks in prison and a $2,000 fine Friday, his spokesperson said on social media.

Ryan Watson of Oklahoma had pleaded guilty and faced a potential prison sentence over four rounds of ammunition that were found in his carry-on bag when he and his wife visited the British territory earlier this year.

Watson has been out on bail for weeks as his case moved through the islands' legal system, but he wasn't allowed to return to his wife, Valerie Watson, and their two children in the U.S. until his case was resolved.

Watson immediately flew back to the U.S., arriving at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City late Friday night, where he was met by a large group of family and friends, along with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Sen. James Lankford.

"It was a huge weight that was lifted," a relieved Watson told reporters upon his arrival. "We've still got to get Sharitta home, she's my adopted sister now...I won't be able to rest completely until she's home," he said of Sharitta Grier, a Florida woman whose case on similar charges is still pending on the islands.

"I'm just glad cooler heads prevailed, and they realized these mistakes happen, and the punishment does not fit the crime," Stitt said.

According to spokesperson Jonathan Franks, the judge found that the case had exceptional circumstances and that the lengthy sentence would be arbitrary. 

"We will make payment shortly, depart TCI and anticipate being home in OKC tonight," Franks tweeted Friday prior to Watson's departure from Turks and Caicos.

The Watsons also spoke to reporters immediately after the sentencing hearing.

"I'm feeling great," Ryan Watson said prior to his departure from the islands. But he acknowledged, "It was nerve-wracking ... knowing that the prosecution was pursuing a 12-year sentence and that they didn't think there was exceptional circumstances. But I feel extremely blessed that the judge took a holistic approach, and I'm going to pay this fine and go home and see those kids."

"We just feel so blessed that Oklahoma has stepped up in the way that they have and surrounded us, and the entire United States," he added. "...There's been so many people that have been a blessing to us."

Valerie Watson described it as "the biggest feeling of relief — that moment I've been waiting for for a really long time."

Ryan Watson after his sentencing hearing in Turks and Caicos on June 21, 2024.
Ryan Watson after his sentencing hearing in Turks and Caicos on June 21, 2024.

Watson was arrested on April 12 when four rounds of hunting ammunition were found in his carry-on luggage as the couple were trying to head home from a vacation. Valerie Watson was allowed to return to the U.S. and didn't face any charges.

Ryan Watson told CBS News in April that he regretted the ordeal and didn't intend to break any of the islands' laws.

"There was zero intent behind this and this was 100% a mistake and an accident," he said.

Two other Americans who were arrested under similar circumstances were sentenced last month. Bryan Hagerich of Pennsylvania received a suspended sentence and a $6,700 fine for possessing 20 rifle rounds that were found in his checked bag on a family vacation. Tyler Wenrich of Virginia was sentenced to time served and a $9,000 fine over two 9 mm rounds that were found in his backpack as he was trying to board a cruise ship. Both men have returned to the U.S.

Hagerich and Wenrich faced potential mandatory minimum sentences of 12 years in prison, but the courts found that there were exceptional circumstances in their cases, which resulted in lighter punishments for the Americans.

Amid calls from members of the U.S. Congress to show leniency to the Americans, island lawmakers have reconsidered the mandatory minimum sentence for firearms offenses. According to local news outlet The Sun, the House of Assembly voted on June 14 to approve an amendment allowing judges more discretion in sentencing when they find there are exceptional circumstances.

Grier was arrested in May after two bullets were allegedly found in her carry-on bag when she was going home from a surprise Mother's Day vacation.

A fifth American, Michael Lee Evans of Texas, was allowed to return to the U.S. for medical reasons while he is out on bail.

Eye Opener: President Biden to hold rare news conference to answer questions about 2024 race

Sneak peek: Unmasking the Zombie Hunter

House minority leader acknowledges Biden concerns, says conversations are ongoing

Advertisement