American tourist charged with bringing ammo to Turks and Caicos avoids jail time, fined $2,000

Ryan Watson, a father of two from Oklahoma, was arrested on April 12.

June 21, 2024, 11:09 AM

Ryan Watson, an American charged with bringing ammunition to Turks and Caicos, and who has remained on the islands since his arrest in April, avoided jail time in his sentencing Friday.

Watson was fined $2,000 -- $500 for each of four bullets discovered in his luggage -- with the judge citing "exceptional circumstances" to avoid a potential minimum sentence of 12 years in prison. Watson would face 13 weeks imprisonment if he commits a crime in Turks and Caicos in the next nine months. He was expected to pay the fine Friday and return to the U.S. immediately.

Watson, a father of two from Oklahoma, was arrested on April 12 while returning with his wife from a trip to Turks and Caicos to celebrate several friends' 40th birthdays. Four rounds of ammunition were found in his carry-on bag at the Howard Hamilton International Airport, police said.

Watson -- who was among several Americans arrested in recent months under Turks and Caicos' strict firearms ordinance -- has said he didn't realize he had the hunting ammunition in his bag and pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition. He was released on a $15,000 bond following his arrest but has remained on the islands amid the legal proceedings.

A day ahead of his sentencing, Watson told "Good Morning America" that he was feeling anxious but also hopeful that he may avoid any prison time and return to his family.

"Whatever tomorrow brings, we'll get through it. But I pray that I get to go home tomorrow," Watson told "Good Morning America."

Ryan Watson speaks with ABC News, June 19, 2024.
ABC News

Since his arrest, two other American tourists who were also charged and detained on the islands after inadvertently traveling with ammunition have been able to return home. Last month, Tyler Wenrich was sentenced to time served and fined $9,000, while Bryan Hagerich was sentenced to a suspended 52-week sentence with a fine of $6,700. The court found there to be "exceptional circumstances" in their cases that made a mandatory 12-year prison sentence unjust and disproportionate to the crime committed.

Last week, the Turks and Caicos government approved a bill that amends a section of their firearms ordinance, clarifying that the court has more discretion in sentencing people convicted of violating the law when "exceptional circumstances" are found. Previously, the law allowed discretion for a lesser prison sentence than the mandatory 12-year minimum, though it still required the court to impose both a prison sentence and fine, according to the Turks and Caicos attorney general. Under the amended law, the court has the "widest possible breadth of discretion" and can impose either a fine, custodial sentence or both, the attorney general said in a statement.

Ryan Watson booking photo.
Turks and Caicos Police Department

Prosecutors argued during a presentencing hearing on Wednesday that the amended law should not apply to Watson's case because the crime occurred prior to the amendment passing and said there should be no exceptional circumstances found.

Defense attorney Oliver Smith, meanwhile, said that Watson has taken responsibility for his actions, was carrying ammunition only used for hunting and detailed the toll Watson's detainment has taken on patients in his work as a salesman for a medical device company and on his two children.

Watson said the recent amendment and sentences for Wenrich and Hagerich give him hope, though he added he has learned in the weeks since his arrest that he and his family have to "temper our expectations."

"It's still nerve-wracking regardless of how those outcomes were. There's still a lot at stake," he said. "I've definitely [got] a lot more hope and faith today than I did two months ago because two months ago the conversation was very different. Two months ago, it was, 'This is a sure thing, and you're going to jail for 12 years, no ifs, ands or buts.' That was told to us and repeated to us over and over again from people here on the islands."

His wife, Valerie, told "Good Morning America" that the past two months have been a "roller coaster of emotions."

"We want him home so bad. The kids and I have been missing him like crazy," she said. "We're ready for him to come back home to us. I'm trying so hard not to get my hopes up."

Watson said the first thing he plans to do once he can go home is hug his children.

"I just want to help them get back to normal life for a moment," he said. "I want to cook them some dinner."

Ryan and Valerie Watson talk to "Good Morning America," June 20, 2024.
ABC News

He said he also hopes to have a reunion with the other Americans, like Wenrich and Hagerich, who were charged under the law. The couple is also praying that Sharitta Grier -- another American charged after ammunition was found in her luggage who remains on the islands released on bail amid court proceedings -- is able to return home soon.

Watson, who spent Thursday with his wife donating bibles to a local church, said his faith has been the one thing that has gotten him through this ordeal.

"I just want to be a good conduit, I want to help others," he said. "If we can make a difference in somebody else's life, to help spread faith, then hey, it's worth it. It's been tough, but it'll be worth it."