What we know about the Americans arrested for bringing ammo to Turks and Caicos

Five Americans have been arrested in Turks and Caicos over the past six months under gun control laws that make bringing firearms or ammunition into the territory without prior permission from police a crime.

Michael Lee Evans, of Texas; Sharitta Grier, of Florida; Bryan Hagerich, of Pennsylvania; Ryan Tyler Watson, of Oklahoma; and Tyler Wenrich, of Virginia, were all accused of bringing various amounts of ammunition to Turks and Caicos, a 40-island chain southeast of the Bahamas.

All have said the ammunition recovered from their luggage was not intentionally packed, according to American lawmakers who went to the British Overseas Territory in May as part of efforts to petition for their expedited release.

Though the infractions had carried a mandatory 12-year prison sentence and fine – with reductions only in “exceptional circumstances” – a mid-June revision clarified courts may impose a fine, a custodial sentence or both in exceptional circumstances, a member of the territory’s House of Assembly said June 14.

Four Americans arrested under the law have pleaded guilty, been sentenced and returned to the US, while the last is due in court next week. Here’s what we know so far about the laws in Turks and Caicos and the affected Americans:

No constitutional right to carry firearms in Turks and Caicos

Though the territory doesn’t manufacture firearms or ammunition, the number of firearms finding their way to the islands has increased – and that’s a worry, Turks and Caicos Premier Washington Misick said.

While it is legal to fly in the US with unloaded firearms and ammunition in checked baggage, according to the Transportation Security Administration, bringing firearms or ammunition into Turks and Caicos without prior permission from police is “strictly forbidden.”

The mandatory sentence was in place to protect those on the islands, Gov. Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratnam said. Judges could use their discretion to impose reduced sentences in “exceptional circumstances,” she said.

But no special treatment should be given to any group, the Turks and Caicos premier said: “The law must be applied even-handedly.”

Even so, the “amendment was introduced to address concerns about the rigidity of the previous sentencing framework, which mandated both imprisonment and financial penalties for all firearms offenses, regardless of the specific context or severity,” House of Assembly member Edwin Astwood said in a statement.

“This often resulted in disproportionately harsh sentences that did not always fit the nature of the crime or the circumstances of the offender.”

US citizens are not being targeted, Turks and Caicos officials have said. Of the 195 people sentenced for firearm-related offenses over the past six years, only seven were US citizens, Misick has said, and none got a 12-year sentence.

While Turks and Caicos collaborates with the US in battling narcotics, terrorism and money laundering, “our laws and processes are not congruent,” Misick said.

“We are a separate sovereignty. We respect the United States’ laws and we will never think to interfere in its operation.”

Bryan Hagerich

Hagerich was the first of the five to return to the United States after he received a suspended 52-week sentence in late May, which meant he didn’t face immediate incarceration, his representatives said. He was also given a $6,700 fine.

The father of two pleaded guilty to possession of 20 rounds of ammunition, according to the Turks and Caicos government.

Hagerich paid the fine and was allowed to leave the British Overseas Territory. He got home May 24, according to Johnathan Franks, a spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, a group that helps wrongfully detained Americans secure release.

“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Hagerich said. “A lot of memories to make together. Just so elated to see them. They’ve been so strong through all this.”

Before Hagerich’s sentencing, his wife had packed two suitcases – one if he was sentenced to prison and another if he were allowed to return home – they said in an exclusive interview with “Good Morning America.”

“It was dark; you have no concept of time,” Hagerich said about his week-long stay in jail in Turks and Caicos. “I was with three folks that were accused of murder. It was scary.”

Tyler Wenrich

Wenrich pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition while traveling to Turks and Caicos.

He was sentenced May 28 to three weeks time-served in jail and fined $9,000, said Kimo Tynes​​​​, a Government of the Turks and Caicos Islands spokesperson said that day in a statement.

He returned home to Virginia on May 30.

The Hon. Justice Davidson Baptiste cited exceptional circumstances in Wenrich’s case, saying, “Enforcing the mandatory minimum would have been arbitrary and disproportionate, and would not serve the public interest.”

Wenrich was charged with possession of two 9 mm rounds, according to the Turks and Caicos government.

Michael Lee Evans

Evans pleaded guilty to possession of seven 9 mm rounds of ammunition and appeared before the court on April 24 via video conference.

He was allowed to return to the United States on bail due to a “severe” medical situation and to attend his June sentencing hearing virtually, said his attorney Oliver Smith, King’s Counsel.

Evans got a suspended 33-month sentence, and his attorney believes it is unlikely he will have to serve time in jail.

Ryan Tyler Watson

Watson was visiting Turks and Caicos with his wife in April to celebrate several friends’ 40th birthdays when he was charged with possession of four rounds of ammunition. He plead guilty in May.

Watson soon returned home and reunited with his family, US Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said on X.

Sharitta Shinese Grier

Grier was arrested in mid-May and is awaiting trial after making bail, Tynes said​​​​.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen because I couldn’t believe it was in there,” she said. “They went through my bag and said they found rounds at the bottom of my carry-on.”

Grier was released on bail but can’t leave the island until her case concludes and must report to a local police station weekly, the station reported.

“I’m just broken,” Grier said.

Grier’s next court appearance is July 5, police said.

US lawmakers tried to free Americans

The Americans’ arrest has stoked tension between US officials and their counterparts just a few hundred miles away. A request by a US congressional delegation to the islands in May for charges against the five Americas to be dropped did not yield the desired result.

“Unfortunately, despite our willingness to work with Turks and Caicos officials to get our constituents home, we were not able to find a path forward today,” Republican US Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma said May 20 in a statement.

“It’s to the point now, (where) every third week an American is being detained wrongfully (in) Turks and Caicos,” Republican US Rep. Guy Reschenthaler told ABC News the same week.

In a House of Assembly address, the islands’ Misick said, “The (accusations) of congressman (Reschenthaler) against the government and people of the Turks and Caicos Islands are nothing more than diabolic falsehoods.”

“They were innocent mistakes,” he said. “Any other nation would handle this with a fine in sending that person back to the country of origin. Here, that’s not happening.”

On May 28, Mullin welcomed the news of Wenrich’s release, calling it “another step in the right direction,” according to a post on X.

“I again encourage TCI to address the unintended consequences of their law to prevent this from happening again.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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