[AP by Greg Risling and Ray Henry]
An Alabama man who served prison time in Australia for his wife’s drowning death during their honeymoon returned Thursday to the U.S., where he faces murder charges that could carry a much stiffer punishment.
Gabe Watson, 33, arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday morning after he was deported on a commercial flight from Melbourne, Australia. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Watson was accompanied by two Immigration Department staff and three Queensland state police officers. Watson cleared customs within an hour and was taken away in handcuffs.
He was booked at a local police substation after his arrival, said Los Angeles police Lt. Aaron McCraney. Watson will likely make a court appearance in Los Angeles before being sent back to Alabama.
Alabama hopes to arrange to bring Watson back to the state early next week, said Attorney General Troy King. King said Australian authorities showed too much leniency to Watson, who served an 18-month sentence in that country after pleading guilty last year to manslaughter. Tina Watson, 26, drowned in 2003 while scuba diving with her husband of 11 days.
Gabe Watson had been in immigration custody since completing a prison sentence earlier this month. Australia, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, delayed his deportation until it received a pledge that U.S. authorities would not seek the death penalty.
“The Australians extorted from the state and the victim’s family to water down our justice, just like they watered down theirs,” King said.
Gabe Watson will not fight extradition to Alabama because he wants to be home with friends and family, said his attorney, Brett Bloomston. Bloomston accused the prosecutor of grandstanding and trying to emotionally sway the grand jury by convening its session on the seven-year anniversary of Tina Watson’s death.
“His goal has been to get to Birmingham to get home to his family, to answer these charges immediately upon release of his custodial sentence in Australia,” Bloomston said.
Prosecutors said Watson was indicted by an Alabama grand jury on capital murder in the course of kidnapping, and capital murder for pecuniary gain. The charges were sealed until Watson reached the United States, and King refused to discuss the evidence in the case in detail.
But he said prosecutors believe Watson hatched a plan to kill his wife while they were in Alabama, which gives the state jurisdiction over her death.
“We’re obviously anxious to get him back to Alabama,” King said.
Bloomston said Watson acknowledged in his plea in Australia that he committed a negligent act, failing to do enough to save his wife. But Watson denies deliberately trying to kill her.
“It’s as ludicrous as it sounds for the prosecutor to allege that he traveled halfway around the world, was married to her for 11 days and committed this offense for either financial gain or any other reason,” Bloomston said.
Tommy Thomas, the 55-year-old father of Watson’s late wife, said he views the upcoming court proceedings as a chance to resolve unanswered questions about his daughter’s death. He believes she was murdered.
“Our focus and our goal throughout this entire ordeal has been to see justice done for Tina,” Thomas said. “And the only way that we can see that happen is for him to actually for the very first time — because he’s never done this — face the evidence before a jury and answer to that evidence.”
Gabe Watson, an accomplished diver, was dubbed the “Honeymoon Killer” by the Australian media after his wife drowned during a scuba diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef.
In 2008, the Queensland state coroner found there was sufficient evidence to charge Watson with her death, and he was officially charged with murder a few months later.
In 2009, Gabe Watson — who had remarried — traveled to Australia to face trial.
Queensland Coroner David Glasgow said a possible motive for the killing was Tina Watson’s modest life insurance policy. Bloomston said a $33,000 insurance payment was made to Tina Watson’s father, not her husband.
Tina Watson’s father said his daughter told him before she died that Gabe Watson wanted her to increase the value of her life insurance policy and name her husband as the beneficiary.
King has argued there are no international standards on double jeopardy that prevent Alabama from trying Watson again over the death.
“My role has been to ensure that we fulfill our treaty obligations. We’ve done that,” Bowen told reporters in Canberra. “Double jeopardy is not covered by our treaty obligations.”
Under Australia’s Extradition Act, a person cannot be deported to face prosecution on a capital charge unless there is an assurance the death penalty will not be imposed.
Henry reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles, and Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia.