U.S. tourist faces 12 years in prison after taking ammunition to Turks and Caicos

U.S. tourist faces 12 years in prison after taking ammunition to Turks and Caicos

An Oklahoma man faces up to 12 years in prison on a Caribbean island after customs officials found ammunition in his luggage.

Ryan Watson traveled to Turks and Caicos with his wife, Valerie, to celebrate his 40th birthday on April 7. They went with two friends who had also turned 40.

The vacation came to an abrupt end when airport staff members found a zip-close bag containing bullets in the couple's carry-on luggage. Watson said it was hunting ammunition he had accidentally brought with him — but under a strict law in Turks and Caicos, a court may still impose a mandatory 12-year sentence.

"They were hunting ammunition rounds that I use for whitetail deer," Watson told NBC Boston in an interview conducted last week that aired after their first court appearance Tuesday.

"I recognized them, and I thought, 'Oh, man, what a bonehead mistake that I had no idea that those were in there,'" he said.

The couple were arrested and charged with possession of ammunition. Authorities seized their passports and explained the penalties they faced.

Valerie Watson said in the interview: "When I heard that, I immediately was terrified, because I was like we can't both be in prison for 12 years. We have kids at home, and this is such an innocent mistake."

The charges against her were dropped, and she returned home to Oklahoma City on Tuesday after the court hearing to be reunited with her two young children.

"Our goal is to get Ryan home, because we can’t be a family without Dad," she said.

The couple also spoke about the financial burden of a much longer-than-planned trip. "This is something that we may never recover from," Ryan Watson said.

The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a warning to travelers in September about a law that strongly prohibits possession of firearms or ammunition in Turks and Caicos, an overseas British territory southeast of the Bahamas that is a popular vacation spot.

It said: "We wish to remind all travelers that declaring a weapon in your luggage with an airline carrier does not grant permission to bring the weapon into TCI [Turks and Caicos Islands] and will result in your arrest."

The embassy added: "If you bring a firearm or ammunition into TCI, we will not be able to secure your release from custody."

The embassy and the government in Turks and Caicos did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The same thing happened to another American, Bryan Hagerich, of Pennsylvania, who was arrested after ammunition was found in his luggage before he tried to board a flight out of Turks and Caicos in February. He said he accidentally left it in his bag.

Hagerich was on a family vacation with his wife and two young children but has now been in the country for 70 days. He spent eight days in prison before he posted bail.

"It’s incredibly scary. You know, you just don’t know what the next day may bring — you know, what path this may take," Hagerich told NBC Boston.

"You know, it’s certainly a lot different than packing your bags and going away with your family for a few days. It’s been the worst 70 days of my life," he said.

Hagerich, once a professional baseball player, was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the MLB 2007 June amateur draft from the University of Delaware.

His case goes to trial May 3.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com