American arrested for ammunition in Turks and Caicos Islands avoids prison

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands — An American man will avoid spending more time behind bars, a judge ruled Friday, after the Oklahoma resident was arrested on the islands with four cartridges found in his luggage.

Judge Lobban Jackson sentenced Ryan Watson, 40, to prison and a $2,000 fine, or $500 for each round, which he paid shortly after court adjourned.

Watson left the islands and returned home to the United States around 3:30 p.m. local time.

Ryan Watson changed out of his suit and tie after leaving court.Juliette Arcodia/NBC News

“So happy that the judge took a comprehensive approach. It was still distressing to know that the prosecution was still pursuing a 12-year prison sentence,” a relieved Watson told reporters outside court.

“I’m going to pay this fine, go home and see these kids,” Watson added.

Watson’s wife, Valerie, shed tears of joy as Judge Jackson ruled from the bench. His wife was holding the hand of Sharitta Grier, a grandmother from Florida who was also arrested recently on the islands when she was found in possession of two cartridges.

“The greatest feeling of relief, this moment that I have been waiting for for a very long time,” said his wife Valerie Watson.

Watson was arrested in April during an island getaway under the territory’s gun law, raising the specter of a possible 12-year prison sentence.

Two other cases of Americans detained in similar circumstances recently resulted in judges granting clemency to the men.

Finding that there were exceptional circumstances justifying no prison sentence, Judge Jackson said 12 years behind bars would be “arbitrary and disproportionately” harsh.

The judge also said she considered the statements of more than a dozen character witnesses who vouched for Watson.

US Senator. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said Watson has “impeccable character” with a “history of service to his community” that includes outreach to the homeless.

The governor of Oklahoma. Kevin Stitt described his constituent Watson as “of unwavering moral character.”

Ryan Watson and Sharitta Grier talk about their experiences with NBC News.NBC News

Watson said he was grateful to all his supporters, on the island and at home in the United States.

“Oklahoma has stepped up throughout this campaign,” he said. “There are people on this island who have reacted in ways that are beyond our understanding.”

Watson had several loved ones in the gallery to support him, including his wife, mother, father-in-law, sister, brother-in-law and several friends.

Judge Jackson repeatedly mentioned in her decision the possibility of a 12-year prison sentence, putting loved ones on the edge of their seats.

When she finally handed down the suspended sentence, her loved ones finally breathed a sigh of relief.

“I want to jump for joy,” said Susan Fendley, Watson’s mother. “I thought he would go to prison for 12 years.”

A well-dressed Watson donned a suit and tie, wearing a pocket square and tie bar during his time in court.

But minutes after court adjourned, he adopted a decidedly more Oklahoma look with jeans, a cowboy hat and boots.

Watson was arrested after a search of his duffel bag at the airport revealed a plastic bag containing four rounds of ammunition. Watson said it was for deer hunting and had been left in the luggage by mistake.

It is illegal to possess ammunition in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a Caribbean archipelago and British overseas territory, and the law provided for a mandatory 12-year prison sentence unless in exceptional circumstances.

The government this week amended its law to remove the mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years.

Even before that, Americans Bryan Hagerich and Tyler Wenrich were not sentenced to additional prison time after authorities said they smuggled bullets into the country. Hagerich was given a suspended sentence and Wenrich was given three weeks in prison.

Hagerich, a former Major League Baseball rookie from Pennsylvania, and Wenrich, a paramedic from Virginia, pleaded guilty to an ammunition charge.

In both cases, a judge found that exceptional circumstances did not allow them to be sentenced to prison terms.

A total of five Americans have been arrested in the territory since December on suspicion of possessing ammunition in violation of the law.

The other two cases, against Sharitta Grier of Florida and Michael Lee Evans, are pending. Grier did not plead guilty and Evans pleaded guilty but was not convicted. Neither is in prison. Evans was cleared to return to Texas for medical reasons.

Amid the media coverage, Prime Minister C. Washington Misick sought to assure the American people that the precious territory is visited by visitors from around the world.

Misick said in a statement last month, before the mandatory 12-year sentence was removed from the law, that judges were allowed to use their discretion.

“In fact, in the cases that occurred before the five cases that received media coverage, the mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years was never imposed by the Court because the judges determined in each case that exceptional circumstances justified shorter sentences,” he said.

About a million people visit the Turks and Caicos each year, he said, and about half of them are American.

Watson and his wife were among them. They and some friends came here to celebrate his 40th birthday.

Watson and his wife, Valerie, were initially charged with possession of ammunition, but the charges against Valerie were dropped and she returned home to Oklahoma City to be with their two children, ages 9 and 7.

A number of American passengers traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands last month to advocate for the release of the five Americans.

Juliette Arcodia reported from Providenciales, Phil Helsel from Los Angeles and David K. Li from New York.

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