Trial began Monday for a young Navy sailor accused of setting a fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, faces charges of arson and willful hazarding of a vessel for allegedly setting the blaze that began July 12, 2020, and burned for several days while the warship was docked at Naval Base San Diego.
Mays’ trial is expected to last two weeks and his fate will be decided solely by a military judge, rather than a jury panel of fellow servicemembers. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors have alleged that Mays set the blaze because he was disgruntled with the Navy after dropping out of the SEAL training program.
Cmdr. Leah O’ Brien, for the prosecution, described the alleged arson in her opening statement as “a mischievous act of defiance gone wrong.” After failing to attain his ultimate goal of becoming a Navy SEAL, Mays was assigned to the Bonhomme Richard’s deck department, a job he had “a visceral hatred” for, she alleged.
The prosecutor said the ensuing investigation left “no doubt this fire was arson” and was most likely caused by touching an open flame to combustible material, as well as using an accelerant like paint thinner or gasoline.
Mays has denied any role in the fire. His attorneys say investigators overlooked another potential suspect and failed to properly determine whether the fire could have been sparked inadvertently.
One of Mays’ attorneys, Lt. Tayler Haggerty, said the prosecution was relying on a single witness who alleges he saw Mays enter the ship’s Lower Vehicle Storage Area — where investigators say the fire originated — just prior to the blaze breaking out.
That sailor allegedly said he saw Mays walk toward the “Lower V” while carrying a bucket and heard him say “I love Deck” in a sarcastic tone.
Another sailor who escorted Mays to the brig after he was arrested alleged Mays admitted to setting the fire, though Haggerty contended Mays always maintained his innocence. The defense attorney claimed Mays said, “If I’m going to the brig, I guess I did it,” and that investigators were using the statement against Mays “while ignoring the obvious sarcastic nature and context.”
Mays’ defense team has contended that once NCIS investigators pinned Mays as the perpetrator, they ignored another Bonhomme Richard sailor who they allege is a more likely suspect.
Haggerty said that unlike Mays, the other sailor frequented the Lower V as part of his duties, and worked in another area of the ship where a different fire occurred in June 2020. The cause of that fire, which originated in a Styrofoam cup, was never determined.
The attorney said this sailor, who was also disgruntled with the Navy, made internet searches just prior to the Bonhomme Richard blaze regarding “fire color heat scale” and could be linked to graffiti scrawled in portable toilets on and near the ship that read, “I did it. I set the ship on fire. (Expletive) the ship. 1 down, 3 to go.”
Haggerty said investigators also ignored a possible connection to another July 12 fire that occurred on the USS Essex, which was docked about a mile away from the Bonhomme Richard. She said that fire — which was set on a mattress — was determined to be arson and that investigators sought to link Mays to that fire, but could not.
Gary Barthel, an attorney who previously represented Mays in the case, told reporters outside the Naval Base courtroom that in his opinion, Mays was being used by the Navy as a “scapegoat” in order to “deflect further negligence away from themselves.”
Barthel said the Lower V had become a “dumping ground” of material that “should not have been stored down there” and “might have been the cause of the fire in this case.”
While Mays is the only person criminally charged in the fire, the Navy issued a letter of censure earlier this year to the former commander of its U.S. Pacific Fleet, alleging leadership failures stemming from the fire, and also issued 27 “individual disposition decisions” regarding fire prevention, readiness and response efforts aboard the ship.