Americans arrested in Turks and Caicos on ammunition charges form close bond while awaiting sentencing

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos — The airport was hectic as Ryan Watson and his wife were preparing to fly home to Oklahoma after celebrating his 40th birthday on the archipelago’s white sands.

A search of his duffel bag was slowing things down, but two of his friends who came along were ribbing him for it: He inadvertently left a few hunting rounds in the bag — a rookie mistake, but not a big deal, he thought.

But a law enforcement officer faced the tourist and stopped his world from spinning, as authorities had done in recent months to four other U.S. travelers in the island nation, informing him that possession of ammunition is a serious crime that could put years between him and the couple’s children, a 7-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl, waiting for them at home.

Watson and Sharitta Grier, two of the five Americans who have recently been detained in Turks and Caicos under a law that prohibits possession of firearms or ammunition, spoke to NBC News on Thursday ahead of the Friday sentencing of Bryan Hagerich, a U.S. citizen who was detained in a similar situation in February.

The three are former strangers who have formed a close bond while living together at an Airbnb on the island, out on bail and awaiting their sentencing.

A beach in Turks and Caicos.NBC News

‘A very innocent mistake’

On April 12, at Howard Hamilton International Airport, Ryan and Valerie Watson were still expecting to jet home. The gravity of the allegations had not collided with the tropics of their mind.

“You guys just don’t get it,” the man with a badge, in plainclothes, said, according to Ryan Watson. “He was like, you’re both being arrested and you’re gonna go to prison for 12 years.”

That’s the minimum sentence for possession of ammunition in the country.

For Watson, disbelief turned to pleading and then a little relief. His wife faced the same case because her makeup bag was found in the duffle bag with hunting rounds, he said.

During an interrogation he told authorities the rounds were his, likely from a deer hunting trip in fall. “Her makeup kit just happened to be in my bag,” he said.

Valerie Watson was free to go home.

In conversations since, Ryan Watson said his biggest request of his wife has been to “do everything in your power to let them know that their daddy’s not a bad guy.”

“This was just a very innocent mistake,” he said.

Another American detained

In the days and weeks after Watson was detained he would come to rely on an unlikely circle for support, including the man he hired as a driver during his birthday trip, who put the title of his vehicle — his livelihood — up as collateral to bail out Watson.

And then he found Grier, the latest American arrested after she said Turks and Caicos authorities said they discovered a few rounds of ammunition in a bag.

“I was just so scared, like I was in shock, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I couldn’t grasp what was going on.”

Grier made the local news, and Watson had to find her, though it wasn’t clear where she was being held. Grier was traveling with her daughters on their first trip to the country, for Mother’s Day, when she was arrested at Howard Hamilton Airport when she tried to board a return flight May 13.

Like Watson, she took the allegations lightly until their weight descended. She said she was handcuffed to a chair for three days because there was no empty cell available.

“I couldn’t move,” she said. “I couldn’t flip over.”

Watson said he had to find her.

“I knew what she was going through,” he said. “This situation is wildly overwhelming. The complexity of it. It doesn’t feel real.”

Grier prayed for God to send her someone, a guardian. And there was Watson’s mother, in tears, Grier said. They found her.

“Once we made eye contact, she was crying,” Grier said. “I was crying. It was just like a big relief.”

The Americans said having a shared experience has made the darkness of the episode easier to navigate as they awaited prosecution, alongside Hagerich, in their Airbnb.

“There’s a huge fraternity of us, and it’s the oddest fraternity I’ve ever been involved in but, you know, we all send prayers and support to one another,” Watson said.

Ryan gave Grier his bedroom, which had a bathroom, and they have coffee together every day.

“We go over each day, what the day lies ahead,” Watson said.

Strict penalty

All of the Americans are out on bail and have pleaded guilty, except for Grier, who has not entered a plea, officials said, and none has been sentenced.

Michael Lee Evans, a Texas man who was jailed in December, has returned to the U.S. for medical reasons ahead of his scheduled sentencing next month.

A plea hearing for Tyler Wenrich, who was also detained in April, took place Tuesday. The judge’s decision is expected to be delivered within 7 days of the hearing, according to the Turks and Caicos Islands Supreme Court Registrar. 

Watson is scheduled for a hearing in June. Grier’s next court date is in July.

U.S. lawmakers have tried to facilitate the Americans’ release, sending a delegation to the islands Monday. A statement from the governor’s office after their visit reiterated that the laws prohibiting firearms and ammunition are clear and the ”strict penalties are in place to serve and protect all who reside and visit the Turks and Caicos Islands.”

But it added that, “Where the court finds there are exceptional circumstances, the sentencing judge does have discretion, under a law, to impose a custodial sentence and a fine that are fair and just in the circumstances of each case rather than impose the mandatory minimum.”

Turks and Caicos Premier Washington Misick reiterated that point this week, and said no American has been sentenced to the full 12 years — a penalty that was increased from seven during the country’s 2022 crackdown on guns and ammunition, neither of which are made there.

‘That’s my brother out there’

The household awaits Hagerich’s sentencing, expected Friday, with some expectation that his sentence will tell them something about their own cases.

“That’s my brother out there,” Watson said. “I think it’ll shed some light on what could potentially happen in our cases, but it’s not a guarantee. So we keep making the joke, that if he goes to prison, I want to get in there as fast as possible so that we can be cell mates.”

For these compatriots, the people are better than the place.

“It’s the weirdest thing to be in this beautiful backdrop,” Watson said. “You know, you see beaches and sand and palm trees and it’s now become my prison.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *