Sailor acquitted of arson in San Diego Navy ship fire
A 21-year-old sailor was acquitted by a military court-martial on Friday morning on charges accusing him of setting the devastating 2020 fire on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard.
Rookie sailor Ryan Sawyer Mays was charged with aggravated arson and willfully endangering a vessel in July 2021, more than a year after the fire aboard the $1.2 billion vessel, which was then moored at Naval Base San Diego. The fire caused so much damage that the Navy elected to sell the ship for scrap.
Testimony and arguments for the two-week trial – set in a military courtroom just 1,000 feet from the pier where the Bonhomme Richard had been moored when it burned – ended Thursday morning. Capt. Derek Butler, the military judge overseeing the trial, began deliberating just before 11 a.m. Thursday and returned with his verdict at 9.22 a.m. Friday.
Mays broke down sobbing as the judge read out the not guilty verdict in court. He then entered the gallery, walked towards his mother and hugged her for a long time.
“I’m so grateful that it’s finally over – it’s been two long years,” Mays told reporters after the verdict in a prepared statement. “I lost time with friends, I lost friends, I lost time with family, and my entire career in the Navy was ruined.
“I can’t wait to do it again,” he said.
Other than a single witness, the Navy’s case against Mays was circumstantial, as Capt. Jason Jones, the lead prosecutor, acknowledged in closing arguments the day before. However, the defense team had other witnesses whose testimony contradicted the Navy’s version of events – including their own witness who said he saw a sailor bearing no resemblance to Mays near the scene where the fire started. this morning.
Lt Cmdr. Jordi Torres, Mays’ lead defense attorney, told reporters on Friday that the verdict confirmed that Mays did not set the fire.
“He is, in fact, an innocent sailor, and we couldn’t be happier for him,” Torres said.
Navy prosecutors did not comment on the verdict.
A Navy spokesman also declined to elaborate.
“The Navy is committed to the principles of due process and a fair trial,” said 3rd Fleet spokesman Lt. Samuel Boyle.
Mays, who was 19 at the time of the fire, faced life in prison if convicted.
It was unclear on Friday what was next for Mays – he is still on active duty but tested positive for drugs last year. He was demoted to Apprentice Marine, or E-1, in January. The Navy has a zero-tolerance drug policy, and Gary Barthel, Mays’ former civilian attorney, said it’s possible he could still be estranged from the Navy.
In further comments to reporters on Friday, Barthel said it was time for the Navy to take responsibility for the fire.
“I believe throughout this whole mess the Navy tried to clean up their mess by blaming Seaman Mays,” he said.
More than 20 naval officers – including the ship’s captain, executive officer and former commander of Naval Base San Diego – have been administratively sanctioned following the fire. The former commander of the San Diego-based Naval Surface Forces, retired Vice Admiral Richard Brown, was censured by the Secretary of the Navy in July.
The fire broke out on the 844-foot warship on the morning of July 12, 2020, as “the Navy slept,” Jones, the prosecutor, said during oral argument Thursday. It took firefighters two hours to get water on the flames, and by the time they did, it was too late to save the ship, a Navy investigation found.
The fire was declared extinguished after burning for more than four days. Shortly after, the ship was declared a total loss. It was decommissioned and scrapped last year.
The fire started in the vessel’s lower vehicle storage area, or “Lower V”, just after 8 a.m., investigators said. Amphibious assault ships are designed as mini-aircraft carriers, with a flight deck for helicopter and MV-22B Osprey operations. When deployed, the Bonhomme Richard would also carry Marines, who would launch and recover amphibious vehicles from the ship’s well deck.
The Bonhomme Richard had not been to sea for about two years at the time of the fire. The ship was nearing the end of a two-year, $250 million maintenance period during which it was upgraded for deployment with Marine F-35B Lightning II fighters.
Mays became a suspect shortly after the fire when a sailor told Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators that he saw someone matching Mays’ description descend into the Lower V about 20 minutes before seeing de smoke for the first time. The sailor, a deckhand named Kenji Velasco, was on watch in the upper vehicle storage area between the ramp leading to the ship’s hangar and that leading to the lower V, reports said.
Mays graduated from Navy boot camp in July 2019, according to his Navy biography. He graduated from a Navy SEAL prerequisite school in Illinois before reporting to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School in Coronado in September.
However, according to Navy prosecutors, Mays left BUD/S on his fifth day of training.
Sailors who do not pass the BUD/S are sent to the fleet as “non-designated” sailors, which means they do not receive specialized vocational training or secondary schools before reporting to their place of duty. assignment.
Mays reported to Bonhomme Richard in March 2020, according to his Navy biography. He was assigned to the ship’s deck duty as a deckhand – a job that primarily involves cleaning and painting the ship.
Reportedly, Mays disliked his new life as a fleet sailor. His dissatisfaction with his new role in the Navy is what motivated Mays to start the fire, Jones said Thursday.
“Deck Department on a large-deck amphib is about as far away from the SEALs as you can get,” Jones said during closing argument. Jones said Mays felt the Navy’s Blue Water mission was “beneath him.”
In the days leading up to the fire, sailors on the Bonhomme Richard were told they would have to return to the ship from their temporary living quarters on a nearby barge, according to accounts. Hearing this, Mays texted his division officer saying the ship was “dangerous as (expletive)” because a spark from a ships contractor had recently struck Mays while he was in his rack. on the docking deck, testified the former division officer.
Jones argued that Mays set the fire to “prove a point”.
During the trial, Mays’ defense team, led by Torres, pointed to what it called instances of “confirmation bias” among investigators. From investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to NCIS special agents, Mays’ attorneys argued, officials made a premature arson ruling and became obsessed with Mays without considering alternatives.
Defense fire investigators testified that fire-damaged lithium-ion batteries found in the area where the fire originated could not be ruled out as a potential cause of the fire, nor could a LiftKing forklift that could have shorted out and sent sparks into nearby flammable material.
The prosecution’s burden went beyond proving the fire was started intentionally – they also had to prove that it was Mays who started it. Velasco, who is now a Petty Officer 2nd Class, was the only prosecution witness to testify to seeing Mays near where the fire started.
Velasco testified that on the day of the fire he saw a person he believed to be Mays walking past him wearing a hat, mask and blue jumpsuit. He descended the lower V-ramp carrying a metal bucket in both hands. “I love Deck,” the person told her in passing, according to Velasco’s testimony.
Defense attorneys point out that Velasco initially told NCIS that he did not recognize the person he saw, but over the course of a series of interviews he became more certain that he did. was about Mays.
Mays was on duty that day, but another sailor from his duty section testified that Mays accompanied him to the bridge dock to collect cleaning supplies before the two parted ways.
The duty section muster was on the flight deck that morning at 7:45 a.m. Reportedly, it normally took up to 10 minutes to complete the muster and assign tasks.
Prosecutors say the fire was started just after 8 a.m.
Another witness said he saw another sailor running from the lower V just before the fire. The sailor she described was dark-skinned, taller and fatter than Mays, who is white.
Special Agent Maya Kamat, NCIS’ lead investigator, said in court that she investigated the second suspect, who at some point became the focus of the criminal investigation. Mays – who was taken into custody on August 20, 2020 – was released from the brig less than two months later as the investigation shifted focus.
The second suspect had Google searches for fire heat scales on his phone and a “burner phone” app, Torres said in closing argument. Data was also missing on the device at the time of the fire, Torres said.
NCIS stopped investigating the sailor when he was discharged from the Navy in the spring of this year, Kamat said – in part because once he left the service he was no longer subject military law and military law enforcement.
Jones acknowledged in his closing arguments that much of the evidence against Mays was circumstantial, but said that’s normal in arson cases, in which most direct evidence is destroyed by fire.
“Sunday morning, while the Navy was sleeping, Mays decided to prove that the Bonhomme Richard was dangerous as (expletive),” Jones told the judge.
Torres kept the focus on bias in his conclusion.
“This trial is a live-fire exercise in confirmation bias,” Torres said. “The evidence is not there.”