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

By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

(CNN) — Five Americans were arrested in Turks and Caicos within the past six months because of tightened gun control laws in the territory that make bringing in firearms or ammunition without prior permission from police a crime with a mandatory 12-year prison sentence.

Michael Lee Evans, 72, of Texas; Sharitta Grier, 45, of Florida; Bryan Hagerich, of Pennsylvania; Ryan Tyler Watson, 40, of Oklahoma and Tyler Wenrich, 31, of Virginia, were all accused of bringing various amounts of ammunition to Turks and Caicos, a 40-island chain southeast of the Bahamas.

While some have pleaded guilty, paid fines or returned to the US, others await trial with the road ahead unclear.

But what is clear: all have said the ammunition recovered from their luggage was not intentionally packed, according to American lawmakers petitioning for their expedited release.

Here’s what we know so far about the Americans and the laws in Turks and Caicos:

No constitutional right to carry firearms in Turks and Caicos

Even though the territory doesn’t manufacture firearms or ammunition, the number of firearms finding their way to the islands has increased, Turks and Caicos Premier Washington Misick said. And that’s a worry for the British Overseas Territory.

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.”

Firearm and ammunition offenses carry a mandatory minimum custodial sentence of 12 years and a fine, according to the Turks and Caicos Island Government.

The mandatory sentence is in place to protect those on the islands, Gov. Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratnam said. Judges may 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,” Misick said.

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 United States citizens, Misick said last week, and none of them received the 12-year sentence.

While the US and Turks and Caicos collaborate 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.”

Here’s what we know so far about the Americans and the laws in Turks and Caicos:

Bryan Hagerich

Hagerich was the first of the five to return to Pennsylvania after he received a suspended 52-week sentence on Friday, which meant he wouldn’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 flew home Friday afternoon, 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 when he was reunited with his children. “A lot of memories to make together. Just so elated to see them. They’ve been so strong through all this.”

After Hagerich arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport on Friday night, he told reporters he was “absolutely elated” to have his two children jump into his arms, according to CNN affiliate WTAE.

Before Hagerich’s sentencing, his wife packed two suitcases – one if he was sentenced to prison and another if he were allowed to return home because the couple was unsure how the judge would rule when they walked into the courtroom on Friday, 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 on Tuesday to three weeks in jail and issued a fine.

The Virginia resident was fined $9,000, said Kimo Tynes​​​​, director of communications for the Government of the Turks and Caicos Islands in a news statement Tuesday.

Since he had already served three weeks in jail, the court recognized it as time served and he won’t be immediately incarcerated, the release said.

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 9mm rounds, according to the Turks and Caicos government.

Michael Lee Evans

Evans, 72, pleaded guilty to possession of seven 9mm rounds of ammunition and appeared before the court on April 24 via video conference.

The Texan was allowed to return to the United States on bail due to a “severe” medical situation, but will be required to return to Turks and Caicos for his next hearing set for June 18, his attorney Oliver Smith, King’s Counsel, said.

Ryan Tyler Watson

Watson, who lives in Oklahoma, was charged with possession of four rounds of ammunition.

The 40-year-old appeared in court on April 24, according to the TCGI, and is currently on bail.

Watson pleaded guilty at a hearing on Tuesday, Tynes, with the communications office of the Government of the Turks and Caicos Islands, confirmed to CNN. He will be sentenced in June.

Sharitta Shinese Grier

Grier was arrested two weeks ago and is awaiting trial after making bail, according to Tynes​​​​.

The Florida mother had no idea that two rounds of ammunition were at the bottom of her luggage when she traveled to Turks and Caicos, she told CNN affiliate WFTV earlier this month.

“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 she 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 on July 5, police said.

US lawmakers tried to free Americans

A US congressional delegation traveled to the islands last week and asked for the charges for the five Americans to be dropped.

One of the US lawmakers, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin, said in a statement, “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.”

In an interview with ABC News last week, Republican Congressman Rep. Guy Reschenthaler said, “It’s to the point now, (where) every third week an American is being detained wrongfully and Turks and Caicos.”

Reschenthaler told CNN the prison on Turks and Caicos has been flagged by the UN for humanitarian concerns.

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

Reschenthaler told CNN’s Manu Raju he wants to see a “resolution here where the Americans get zero amount of jail time. They should be given time served and be sent home to the United States.”

Reschenthaler continued: “They were innocent mistakes. 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 Tuesday, Mullin welcomed the news of Wenrich’s release, saying it’s “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.”

CNN’s Sahar Akbarzai, Michael Rios, Holly Yan, Fabiana Chaparro, Amanda Musa and AnneClaire Stapleton contributed to this report.

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