U.S. tourist is freed after facing jail in Turks and Caicos for possessing ammunition

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos — An American man who was facing up to 12 years in jail on this Caribbean island for bringing 20 rounds of ammunition on a vacation has been freed after a court ruling Friday.

Bryan Hagerich was arrested in February while on a vacation with his wife and two children. He pleaded guilty to bringing the bullets in his luggage and argued that he should be released because of the time he’s already served and his admission of guilt.

At Hagerich’s sentencing hearing, at the nation’s Supreme Court on the island of Providenciales, Judge Tanya Lobban Jackson sentenced him to “52 weeks but 12 months suspended,” meaning he will not serve any time in jail.

Jackson said she found exceptional circumstances for Hagerich, and cited that he had unintentionally brought the ammunition to the island, the impact that his arrest has had on his daughter and that he has no criminal background.

Bryan Hagerich.
Bryan Hagerich and his wife.Courtesy Bryan Hagerich

The judge told Hagerich to “be more careful,” and released him. The Hagerich family were seen hugging and in tears after the decision.

Hagerich, a former MLB draftee, will now return to his two children in Pennsylvania after making a payment of $6,700, which his attorney said he is able to pay.

“This is a huge relief,” Hagerich’s father told NBC News in the courtroom.

No cameras were allowed inside court Friday.

After court, an emotional Hagerich told reporters he was “absolutely elated.”

“Can’t wait to get home — I have two kids that just can’t wait to jump into our arms,” he said while holding hands with his wife.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for for the last 101 days and to experience this here — in eight short hours to be home and hug my kids — it’s the best day,” Hagerich said.

Hagerich said his work isn’t done until all the other Americans detained in Turks and Caicos, whom he called his family, are released.

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who met Hagerich and other detained Americans in Turks and Caico Island this week, said the decision is “great news.”

“When we met with TCI officials a few days ago, they made clear that they wanted this situation resolved,” Fetterman said in a statement. “They recognized that Bryan and the other detained Americans are not gunrunners — they are just people who made a mistake. I’m grateful that the judge recognized that the right thing to do was to send Bryan home.”

Fetterman said he hopes the British overseas territory expedites the remaining cases of Americans detained there so they can also be reunited with their families.

Hagerich was the first of five American tourists facing punishment for taking ammunition to the country, which is forbidden due to recent legislation that carries a 12-year sentence for bringing unauthorized weapons or ammunition into the country.

The remaining four defendants were waiting nervously for the result of Friday’s hearing, which could provide a clue to how their cases might be handled.

All the tourists say their charges are the result of an honest mistake.

The most recently arrested of the five is Sharitta Grier, a Florida grandmother who was arrested while on a Mother’s Day trip when airport staff found two bullets in her carry-on luggage on May 13. Her next court appearance is scheduled for July.

Ryan Watson, from Oklahoma, who was arrested while on vacation to celebrate his 40th birthday, has a court appearance in June.

Watson said the ruling in Hagerich’s case gave him hope.

“I pray that I get the same opportunity to go home,” he told NBC News, adding that when he heard the judge’s decision in court he thought, “I’m one step closer to maybe seeing my kiddos.”

“I know that our cases are similar but they’re not exactly the same, so that doesn’t guarantee my fate,” he said. “So I just, you know, I just pray that I get to go home soon.”

A group of U.S. lawmakers visited Turks and Caicos this week in an attempt to secure their release.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a heated session of the House Committee on Appropriations, in response to pointed criticism of his department’s handling of the issue by Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., that his staff were doing all it could.

“We have a State Department and extraordinary men and women who every single day are working to get arbitrarily detained Americans back home with their families and loved ones,” he said.

The Turks and Caicos prime minister, Charles Washington Misick, appeared unmoved by U.S. attempts at lobbying for the tourists’ release, telling a session of the country’s legislature: “Judges can impose a custodial sentences of less than 12 years and a fine that they consider fair and just in accordance with sentencing guidelines in each case.”

“We do not target U.S. citizens, or any other nationality,” he said.

Although, Misick also said that the relatively new 12-year sentence for ammunition possession had never been imposed and could be overturned in “exceptional circumstances.”

The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a warning to travelers in September for Turks and Caicos. The overseas British territory southeast of the Bahamas has strict penalties for weapons possession.

Juliette Arcodia reported from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, and Patrick Smith reported London.

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