US delegation travels to Turks and Caicos after five tourists detained over ammunition

US delegation travels to Turks and Caicos after five tourists detained over ammunition
A United States Congressional delegation meets with government officials in Turks and Caicos, May 20, 2024. (Turks and Caicos Islands, Governor’s Office/Facebook)

(NEW YORK) — A Congressional delegation traveled to Turks and Caicos over the fate of five U.S. tourists detained there for ammunition charges that carry a minimum 12-year sentence in prison if convicted.

The bipartisan delegation met with government leaders in Turks and Caicos on Monday, where they called for leniency for the Americans who they said inadvertently had ammunition in their luggage.

Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, one of the members of the delegation, told ABC News’ Good Morning America that he left the meetings feeling like they “didn’t find a real path forward” and are considering next steps if they can’t reach a solution.

“I felt like they were doing their job, which is representing Turks and Caicos. We went there doing our job, representing the United States with real concerns,” he said. “I mean, you have currently five Americans being charged … and among them all they had less than 20 bullets.”

In addition to Mullin, the U.S. delegation included Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa.; Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa.; Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.; Rep. Josh Brecheen, R-Okla.; and Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas — who all have constituents who are among the detained Americans.

Fetterman said he left the meetings feeling “optimistic that we can get this resolved.”

“We had the opportunity to meet each of the detained Americans, who were in good spirits but want to go home,” Fetterman said in a statement. “These people did not set out to break the law. They are people who made a mistake and now face substantial time in prison because of it. As we articulated to TCI officials, I urge the court to be lenient when addressing this case.”

In the most recent case, Sharitta Shinise Grier, of Orlando, Florida, was visiting Turks and Caicos with her daughter for Mother’s Day when, during a routine search at the Howard Hamilton International Airport on May 13, officials claim to have found two rounds of ammunition in her bag, police said. She was charged with one count of possession of ammunition and released on $15,000 bail. She has been ordered to remain in the Caribbean territory until the completion of her case, police sources said.

Ryan Watson, of Oklahoma, was arrested on April 24 after hunting ammunition was allegedly found in his carry-on bag before flying home with his wife. He was released on $15,000 bond but remains on the islands as his court case continues. Watson told ABC News he didn’t know the ammunition was in the bag.

Tyler Scott Wenrich of Virginia was charged on April 23 when officials found illegal ammunition during a checkpoint on Turks and Caicos while he was traveling on a cruise, investigators said. His plea hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Bryan Hagerich, of Pennsylvania, is awaiting sentencing on the islands after pleading guilty to possession of 20 rounds of ammunition. Hagerich, who was arrested in February, told ABC News he forgot hunting ammunition was in his bag while he was traveling. His next hearing has been scheduled for Friday.

Michael Lee Evans, of Texas, also pleaded guilty to possession of seven 9mm rounds of ammunition in his luggage and is awaiting sentencing.

Mullin said one family has already spent more than $100,000 in attorney fees, while a father has had to borrow money to be able to stay on the island while his son’s case plays out and is “literally living off hot dogs and rice.”

“We have to find some type of a solution here,” Mullin said, adding that it is “unacceptable” that one American from Indiana has already served a six-month prison sentence on the ammunition charge.

Two years ago, the Turks and Caicos government tightened their gun laws and prohibited civilian firearms or ammunition. If convicted, offenders are sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison.

Mullin said they were pushing for Turks and Caicos officials to have more leniency when it comes to people mistakenly traveling with ammunition.

“We thought we could find some type of common ground to separate the two — ones with the intent and one with no criminal intent,” Mullin said. “We weren’t able to get to that conclusion. So their whole point was that, let the system work.”

Mullin said the next step might be warning American citizens about traveling and doing business in Turks and Caicos.

“I don’t think we’re to that point. But if we can’t come to a solution, that’s the next option for us,” he said.

Following the meeting with the Congressional delegation, the Turks and Caicos governor’s office said in a statement that the government has “clear laws prohibiting the possession of firearms and/or ammunition and strict penalties are in place to serve and protect all who reside and visit the Turks and Caicos Islands.”

The office said the government officials “appreciated that the circumstances for U.S. nationals who find themselves in this position can be difficult but were aware that U.S. officials are providing consular support to each of the individuals.”

“Where the court finds there are exceptional circumstances, the sentencing judge does have discretion, under the law, to impose a custodial sentence and a fine that are fair and just in the circumstances of each case,” the governor’s office added.

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