Two American Hunters Facing Prison Time in Turks and Caicos for Ammo in Luggage

Two American Hunters Facing Prison Time in Turks and Caicos for Ammo in Luggage

Ryan Watson and Bryan Hagerich didn’t know each other before they got arrested and jailed in Turks and Caicos earlier this year, but now they’re making plans to go elk hunting together as soon as they return to the United States.

Unfortunately, that first step–returning to the U.S.–feels like a bigger challenge than bagging the biggest bull in the mountains.

“Even to this day, I think I’m going to wake up from this and it’s going to be over,” Hagerich told MeatEater. “But it’s your new reality, and I don’t know if it will ever sink in.”

Watson and his wife, Valerie, gained international attention earlier this week when NBC Boston published a story on their predicament. Customs officials at an airport on the Caribbean Island found four rifle cartridges in their luggage, and police arrested the couple on charges under a law that bars the possession of guns and ammo in the British Overseas Territory. The law comes with a minimum sentence of 12 years in prison.

After posting bail and spending about a week on the island, Valerie was allowed to go home to be with their 7- and 9-year-old children. Ryan also posted bail, but his charges remained and he was forced to stay and await trial.

Ryan soon discovered that he wasn’t alone. The Watson’s story brought to light other Americans who since August of 2023 have been stranded on the island for similar offenses. Hagerich was one of them, and he’s been on the island for the past eight weeks with a 12-year prison sentence hanging over his head.

Arrested at the Airport

Both Hagerich and Watson had come to Turks and Caicos for vacation. Watson lives in Oklahoma, and he was with his wife and some friends celebrating their 40th birthdays. Hagerich, a Pennsylvania native, was with his wife, Ashley, and their two kids (three and five years old at the time), and they had visited the island on three previous occasions.

“It’s a place that we love. Lots of memories here. It was a special place for us leading up to all of this,” Hagerich told MeatEater.

Those memories were tainted eight weeks ago when Hagerich and his family tried to fly from Providenciales International Airport to Pittsburg. Hagerich heard his name over the intercom, and he went over to the ticket counter. Airport employees told him one of his bags had been selected for a “random search,” and he consented.

Officials found a full box of factory-loaded 6.5 PRC rifle ammunition in his checked bag, and he realized it was the same ammunition he had used during whitetail season last year. He told MeatEater he used that bag weekly during the season, traveling back and forth to his family’s hunting property.

“From there, chaos broke loose. All these people rushed in, and it sounded like they wanted to take me directly to jail,” Hagerich recalls. “I said I had a wife and two kids who are about to board a plane, and they need to be aware of what’s going on. After some pleading on my part, they got my wife and kids.”

Hagerich 1 Bryan Hagerich with his kids and a whitetail buck.

Officials allowed Hagerich a few minutes alone with his wife, but they wouldn’t let the kids join them. Hagerich gave her the car keys and told her he’d see her tomorrow.

Hagerich’s family was allowed to board a plane and leave, but for him it was “straight to the jail.”

“My wife was completely clueless. She had no idea where I was, no clue what was going on. No one reached out to her to explain anything,” Hagerich says.

Watson’s experience was similar. He and his wife were trying to fly home on April 12 when one of Watson’s carry-on duffle bags got flagged by security. After searching it for several minutes, the customs agent found four 6.5 Creedmoor cartridges. They were all in a small bag, and Watson says he had purchased the hand-loads from a shop in Oklahoma.

“I recognized the packaging and I was like, oh crap,” he said. “I told them I don’t need them, you can throw them away, I’m so sorry about this.”

The Watsons didn’t realize the seriousness of their situation until a plain-clothed police officer put them in a car and brought them to a police station. Watson asked what the fine would be, which is when the officer told them the offense came with a 12-year prison sentence.

Watson and his wife were both arrested because officials said they weren’t sure who the bag belonged to (Valerie had a number of her own items in the bag).

“Reason seemed to have gone out the window at that point,” Watson said. “I had no idea [the cartridges] were in the bag and no idea when they got in the bag.”

The law on Turks and Caicos requires a local resident to put up collateral for bail. Fortunately, the pair only spent about three days in jail before the driver from their vacation offered to put up the title of his car to get them out. Valerie had to stay on the island until April 23, when officials dropped the charges and she was allowed to fly home.

Hagerich wasn’t quite so fortunate. He spent eight days in jail in February before he made bail, and he told MeatEater it was nothing like he ever expected.

He was placed in a “pitch black” cell with, at one point, six other people, some of whom had been arrested for murder. They were given blankets (“if we were lucky”), and an exercise mat to sleep and sit on.

“The first night was the absolute worst. Countless people coming in and out. I didn’t sleep, but I was also fearful about who the next person was to come in,” he said. “It was quite terrifying to say the least.”

Fortunately, neither Hagerich or Watson report being injured or mistreated while in police custody.

Neither man had ever been in trouble with the law on U.S. soil, let alone foreign turf. “It was strange to be called ‘prisoner,’ strange to be in shackles. It was so foreign to me. None of this seems real, to be honest to you,” Watson said.

Watson 2 Ryan Watson with a whitetail buck.

The Firearms Ordinance

Both men are being represented by a lawyer named Oliver Smith, who has also represented the other Americans who have been arrested under the Firearms Ordinance.

Turks and Caicos passed an amendment to the Ordinance back in 2022, ostensibly as a way to combat gun-related violence on the island. The statute prescribes a mandatory minimum custodial sentence of 12 years in prison for anyone traveling with a firearm, ammunition, or other weapon.

The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas had previously released a travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to Turks and Caicos with firearms or ammunition, and they recently updated that warning to be even more explicit.

Watson and Hagerich say they were not aware of the law and had not seen the advisory.

They aren’t the only ones. The Turks and Caicos Attorney General published a press release earlier this week stating that five other individuals had been prosecuted under the ordinance but given reduced sentences due to “exceptional circumstances.”

Four of those individuals were hit with fines and allowed to return home. Watson and Hagerich say one was even allowed to leave the airport that same day. The other, an American named Micahel Grimm, was arrested in August of 2023 and given an eight-month prison sentence for bringing ammunition in his luggage.

“We’ve been told that a lot of these decisions were made to thwart the gun violence they were experiencing on the island, but I can’t make sense of it, and I don’t think we’ve been able to have a conversation with anyone who can,” Watson said. “There is not a gun within 1,000 miles that can fire that cartridge. At best, you could throw it at somebody. This is not what’s causing gun violence on this island.”

Watson has been in touch with U.S. Senator Markwayne Mullin (OK-R) and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, both of whom have been working behind the scenes to get the charges dropped. So far, the U.S. Embassy hasn’t been able to help because, according to Watson, they don’t want to get involved in the Turks and Caicos’ legal system.

“There’s got to be a way to come up with a logical solution to this,” Hagerich said. “This law wasn’t created with tourists in mind. It was created to address the smuggling of firearms and ammunition from other countries, which I understand and respect. But to lump everything into a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make logical sense.”

The director of public prosecutions said in a statement that, in total, eight firearms and ammunition prosecutions have been conducted involving tourists from the United States, three of which are currently before the court: Watson, Hagerich, and another more recent case. All three are out on bail.

Hope for the Hunt

If there’s one silver lining here, it’s that Watson and Hagerich have become good friends through their shared ordeal. They’re staying at the same Airbnb while they await their trials, and they share a love for the outdoors.

Hagerich (who showed up to our Zoom interview in a Sitka shirt but we won’t hold that against him) grew up hunting, but didn’t make it a lifestyle until he got a little older.

“You’re in nature, God’s greatest creation. It was a time to relax, reflect, share camaraderie with friends and family. It quickly became a huge aspect of my life,” he said. “It’s grown into more than a weekend hobby.”

Hagerich 2 Bryan Hagerich with an antelope.

Watson grew up hunting whitetail, upland birds, and turkeys in Oklahoma. Watson says he also has a huge passion for chasing elk but terrible luck doing it.

“My wife tells me that if I go on another elk trip and come home empty-handed that she’s going to leave me for a real elk hunter,” Watson said, laughing.

Hagerich drew a Montana archery elk tag last year and had a great hunt. Watson, meanwhile, just got an email from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish saying he hadn’t drawn the elk tags he’d put in for.

“[Hagerich] has been rubbing this in my face since we’ve gotten to know each other,” Watson joked. “More salt in this wound right now. Didn't draw again!”

Watson may be an unlucky elk hunter, but his son had a great turkey season. Watson proudly showed a photograph of his son with two jake turkeys on the ground, which he bagged on the same day this year.

“Talk about a proud dad. It was the hunt of a lifetime,” he said. “I just can’t imagine not having any more mornings like that.”

Watson 1 Watson with his son and a whitetail buck.

If You Want to Help

Hagerich’s trial is set to begin on May 4th.

“It’s both of our trials. I’m going to be sitting right there with him,” Watson said. “We’re still prayerful there’s an outside chance we get resolution before that, but we’re preparing ourselves. We’ve decided we’re in this together. We have the same goal in mind of getting back to our kids.”

Watson’s sister set up a GoFundMe to help pay for legal bills and living expenses as the family loses income from Watson’s absence. Watson also encouraged concerned Americans to get in touch with their elected officials and ask them to use their influence to get them home.

Once they get home, they’re already planning a hunt together.

“I need some of his luck in the elk woods,” Watson said, glancing at Hagerich. “I can’t wait. I’m strong in my faith and I remain prayerful that God has a plan for us in all of this, not only to get back to our families but to help anybody else who’s in this situation.”

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