Arrests of US tourists in Turks and Caicos for carrying ammunition prompt plea from three governors (2024)

By The Associated Press and SUDHIN THANAWALA

Published: May. 17, 2024 at 12:06 PM CDT

(AP) - Five Americans are facing prison sentences of up to 12 years in the Turks and Caicos Islands on charges they illegally carried ammunition during recent trips to the popular, upscale tourist destination about 600 miles (965 km) southeast of Miami.

Three of the arrests have prompted pleas for mercy from the governors of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In a letter Tuesday to the islands’ governor, they said the three men charged from their states maintained they inadvertently took ammunition with them on vacation. They did not have firearms.

“The punishment here is just absurd,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt told NewsNation’s “Morning in America” during an appearance on May 7. He suggested the U.S. consider banning travel to the islands.

Here’s a look at the arrests and their fallout:

Arrests of US tourists in Turks and Caicos for carrying ammunition prompt plea from three governors (1)

WHO ARE THE FIVE PEOPLE FACING CHARGES?

One of the men, Ryan Tyler Watson, of Oklahoma, went to the Turks and Caicos with his wife and other couples to celebrate several people’s 40th birthdays, his sister, Jessica Byrd, said on a GoFundMe page she set up to raise money for his legal defense.

As Watson and his wife were heading home in April, airport security found four rounds of ammunition that had been unknowingly left in a duffel bag from a deer hunting trip, according to the page. Watson’s wife, Valerie, was released and returned home. He made bail, but remains on the islands, with a hearing scheduled for June.

The Turks and Caicos government has identified the three other men as: Michael Lee Evans, 72, of Texas; Bryan Hagerich, of Pennsylvania; and Tyler Scott Wenrich, 31, of Virginia.

Evans had a court hearing in April and has pleaded guilty to possessing seven 9mm rounds of ammunition, and Hagerich pleaded guilty to possessing 20 rounds of rifle ammunition and was scheduled to be back in court on May 3, according to an April 26 news release from the Communications Directorate. The release said Evans and Hagerich were also on bail.

The fifth American, Sharitta Shanise Grier, 45, of Orlando, Florida, was arrested Monday during a routine search at the airport, the Royal Turks and Caicos Island Police said in a news release posted to X on Thursday. She was charged with one count of possession of ammunition and was due back in court in July, the release said.

WHY ARE THE AMERICANS FACING 12 YEARS IN PRISON?

The British territory significantly tightened its gun laws in 2022 following a jump in gun violence and weapons trafficking. The strict penalties were meant to protect the community by deterring gun crimes, the government has said.

In gun and ammunition cases, courts have sentencing discretion for “exceptional circ*mstances,” but they cannot limit punishment to a fine with no prison term, the country’s Court of Appeal ruled in February. That means the Americans may not get 12 years in prison, but they also likely won’t be able to pay a fine and return home.

WHAT HAS THE TURKS AND CAICOS GOVERNMENT SAID?

A woman who answered the phone Thursday for the Office of Premier C. Washington Misick, the head of Turks and Caicos’ government, said she could not comment on any pending cases. She declined to give her name, but took a message that was not immediately returned. An email to the office was also not immediately returned.

The country’s former premier, Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, defended tougher gun penalties in a May 13 editorial in the local Sun newspaper.

“The mandatory 12 years may appear harsh to persons, but in this climate, deciding what is just, is not easy,” she wrote, noting the country was experiencing “senseless killings in broad daylight, violent gangs and innocent bystanders being shot and sometimes killed in their own home.”

WHAT HAVE OFFICIALS IN THE U.S. SAID?

The U.S. State Department has urged travelers to the Turks and Caicos to exercise increased caution because of crime, including avoiding walking alone at night. It has also warned them to be vigilant about guns and ammunition in their luggage.

In bulletins issued in September 2023 and April, it alerted travelers of the potential 12-year sentence and told them to carefully check their bags for stray ammunition or forgotten weapons.

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

In their letter on Tuesday, the governors of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia called on Turks and Caicos to reconsider the charges against Hagerich, Wenrich and Watson and expedite their release. Doing so will “create the necessary recognition of your laws that will impact the future actions of travelers and continue our mutual interest in justice and goodwill between our jurisdictions,” the letter said.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida questioned why Americans would travel to the islands now in a post Wednesday on X that included a news story about Grier’s arrest. The post urged the State Department to demand the release of the Americans.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Arrests of US tourists in Turks and Caicos for carrying ammunition prompt plea from three governors (2024)

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Last Updated:

Views: 6188

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Birthday: 2001-01-17

Address: Suite 769 2454 Marsha Coves, Debbieton, MS 95002

Phone: +813077629322

Job: Real-Estate Executive

Hobby: Archery, Metal detecting, Kitesurfing, Genealogy, Kitesurfing, Calligraphy, Roller skating

Introduction: My name is Gov. Deandrea McKenzie, I am a spotless, clean, glamorous, sparkling, adventurous, nice, brainy person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.