U.S. tourist faces 12-year sentence for bringing ammo to Turks and Caicos

Click to play video: 'U.S. tourist faces 12 years in prison after Turks and Caicos authorities find ammunition in luggage'
U.S. tourist faces 12 years in prison after Turks and Caicos authorities find ammunition in luggage
An American tourist who travelled to Turks and Caicos for a birthday celebration was detained by authorities after airport staff found ammunition in his luggage — violating a new law that comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years – Apr 25, 2024

An American traveller to Turks and Caicos is facing a potential mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years in prison for bringing hunting ammunition into the British territory.

In an interview with NBC10 Boston, Ryan Watson, who travelled to Turks and Caicos with his wife Valerie Watson on April 7, called the incident a “bonehead mistake.”

Ryan and Valerie Watson were arrested in Turks and Caicos on April 12, 2024, after hunting ammunition was allegedly discovered in the couple’s carry-on. GoFundMe via Jessica Byrd

Ryan and Valerie were stopped by airport security in Turks and Caicos on April 12 ahead of the couple’s flight home to Oklahoma. When officials searched their carry-on bag, they found a Ziploc bag of ammunition that Ryan said was from hunting whitetail deer.

Story continues below advertisement

Ryan maintains he did not know the ammunition was in the bag. Regardless, officials said the couple broke strict laws in Turks and Caicos. The couple was detained on the island for over a week, charged with possession of ammunition and had their passports confiscated.

The Watson couple was in Turks and Caicos to celebrate the 40th birthdays of several friends, who were also on the trip.

Valerie’s charges were dropped on Monday, and she returned to Oklahoma the following day to be reunited with their young children.

Ryan’s charges still stand. He was granted bail on Wednesday after his hearing.

Valerie told NBC10 Boston she was “terrified” to learn of the potential 12-year prison sentence.

“We can’t both be in prison for 12 years. We have kids at home,” Valerie said, adding that they did not know the ammo was in their carry-on. “My immediate thought was our kids and them being parentless for that long.”

Valeria also worried a possible prison sentence in Turks and Caicos would put a financial strain on their lives.

“What if we lose our house?” she fretted. “When we moved to Oklahoma, we built a home that we thought was our forever home. And to think that this is going to ruin us.”

Story continues below advertisement

Ryan called the arrest “something that we may never recover from.”

His sister, Jessica Byrd, established a GoFundMe page to help support the Watson family in paying their legal fees and to “ensure the Watsons have the basic necessities during this challenging time.” The GoFundMe has raised over US$156,000 (about C$213,700).

In 2023, the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a reminder to American travellers saying not to bring firearms or ammunition to Turks and Caicos. The alert told Americans that “firearms, ammunition, and other weapons are not permitted in the Turks and Caicos Islands” and could be punishable by a minimum 12-year sentence.

“If you bring a firearm or ammunition into TCI, we will not be able to secure your release from custody,” the Embassy declared.

The Embassy’s alert came after another American citizen, Michael Grim, pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of ammunition and was sentenced to eight months in prison. Like Ryan, Grim said he was unaware the ammo had been in his bag. (Judges in Turks and Caicos can consider “exceptional circumstances” when deciding jail sentences for possession charges, thus why Grim did not receive a 12-year sentence.)

Turks and Caicos amended their laws surrounding weapons and ammunition in 2022, establishing stricter penalties for possession. Though it had already been prohibited for citizens of Turks and Caicos to possess a firearm or ammunition, tourists were previously able to pay a fine.

Story continues below advertisement

On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy issued another alert warning citizens not to bring ammunition or firearms to Turks and Caicos. The alert urged travellers to “carefully check your luggage for stray ammunition or forgotten weapons before departing from the United States.”

The U.S. State Embassy told NBC10 Boston they are aware of citizens who were arrested in Turks and Caicos but did not provide names.

“The U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” the statement read.

The Communications Directorate for Turks and Caicos on Wednesday said there are currently three American citizens on bail in the territory for possession of a weapon or ammunition charges.

“The Firearm Ordinance applies to all persons present within the Turks and Caicos Islands, regardless of status or origin,” the directorate wrote.

In the last two years, the directorate said five separate cases involving a charge of weapon or ammunition possession have resulted in only the issuance of fines without a prison sentence, given “exceptional circumstances.”

Since November 2022, there have been eight firearms and ammunition prosecutions involving Americans in Turks and Caicos.

Story continues below advertisement

Ryan’s next court appearance is reportedly scheduled for June 7.

Click to play video: 'AMA Travel: Star Wars Disneyland, Turks and Caicos'
AMA Travel: Star Wars Disneyland, Turks and Caicos

Sponsored content