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American tourist faces 12 years in prison after ammunition found in luggage in Turks and Caicos Islands

Valerie Watson returned to Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City in tears Tuesday morning, a stark departure from how she imagined her long weekend in the Turks and Caicos would end.

Watson is home, but her husband, Ryan Watson, is in jail on the island and faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years in prison after airport security allegedly found four rounds of hunting ammunition in his luggage at the beginning of the month.

“We were trying to pack shorts and flip-flops,” Valerie Watson told CBS News. “Packing ammo was not our intention at all.”

Valerie Watson, who learned Sunday that she would not be charged and would be allowed to return home, said the trip “went from what was supposed to be a dream vacation to a nightmare.”

The Watsons are not the only ones going through this ordeal.

Bryan Hagerich is awaiting trial after ammunition was found in the Pennsylvania man’s checked bag in February.

“I then spent eight nights in their local jail. Frankly, those were the darkest and most difficult times of my life,” Hagerich said. “The last 70 days have been kind of a roller coaster, just the pain and suffering of having family home and me here.”

Possession of a firearm or ammunition is prohibited in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but previously tourists could often only pay a fine. However, in February a court ruling ordered that even tourists leaving the country could face prison time.

Since November 2022, eight firearms and ammunition prosecutions have been filed against tourists from the United States, three of which are currently before the court, with each of the defendants out on bail.

Last year, a judge found that Indiana’s Michael Grim was in “exceptional circumstances” when he pleaded guilty to accidentally carrying ammunition in his checked bag. He served almost six months in prison.

“No clean running water. You’re kind of exposed to the environment 24/7,” he told CBS News. “Mosquitoes and tropical diseases are a real concern. There are hostile actors in the prison.”

The judge hoped to send a message to other Americans.

“(His) conviction was based entirely on the fact that I was an American,” Grim said.

The U.S. Embassy posted a travel alert online last September, warning people to “check your luggage for lost ammunition,” noting that it “would not be able to secure your release.”

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson told CBS News: “We are aware of the arrests of U.S. citizens in the Turks and Caicos Islands. When a U.S. citizen is arrested abroad, we are prepared to provide all appropriate consular assistance. In a foreign country, U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of their country, even if they differ from those of the United States. »

Last year, TSA found record 6,737 firearms at airport security, and most of them were loaded.

“I can’t even begin to think that this very innocent and regrettable mistake would prevent me from seeing my son graduate, teaching him how to shave or taking my daughter dancing,” Ryan Watson said. “It’s just unfathomable. I don’t, I can’t understand it.”

The Turks and Caicos Islands government responded to CBS News in a lengthy statement upholding the law and reiterating that even if extenuating circumstances are present, the judge is required to impose a prison sentence.

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