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Navy sailor Ryan Mays acquitted in Bonhomme Richard fire – Reuters

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A military judge on Friday acquitted a junior sailor accused of setting fires that destroyed a $1.2 billion warship, a remarkable result for the Navy, which has found widespread command failures contributed to the fire, while seeking to pursue a single low-ranking crew member.

Rookie sailor Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, sobbed in relief as the verdict was read at Naval Base San Diego, the Associated Press reported. He was charged with arson in the 2020 fire that left the USS Bonhomme Richard in a scrap heap and faced the potential of life in prison. The prosecution has not presented physical evidence to support its allegation of criminal malfeasance, and a key witness changed his story over time, the AP reported.

“I can say that the last two years have been the most difficult two years of my entire life as a young man,” Mays said outside the courtroom, reading a brief statement, according to the AP. “I wasted time with friends. I have lost friends. I wasted time with my family and my entire Navy career was ruined. I can’t wait to start over. »

A Navy report last year said the fire was a “completely preventable” disaster. The ship, undergoing a quarter-billion-dollar upgrade on a San Diego pier, was ‘particularly vulnerable’ to fire, with its compartments festooned with combustible materials and the crew unprepared to fight an inferno , determined the investigators. Of 807 fire extinguishers on board the ship, 15 were working. Two response teams attempted to find a working hose in one of the ship’s 216 fire stations, but were unsuccessful, the report said. Only 29 of them were usable.

Capt. Jason Jones, the prosecutor, tried to block the presentation of the radical failures described in the command investigation, ProPublica reported. Jones argued that his efforts should not imply that “the Navy needs a scapegoat and so we chose an E-1”, referring to the lowest enlisted rank. Military justice experts have long criticized an unsolvable practice of shifting accountability down the chain of command while top leaders escape the gravest blame, a pattern often characterized by troops as “different spankings for different grades”.

The morning fire of July 12, 2020 spread through the minimally crewed vessel, burning for four days. The Navy ultimately punished more than 20 people, including three admirals, according to ProPublica. The ship’s senior management — the captain, executive officer and most enlisted sailor — have received letters of reprimand, ProPublica reported, which severely limits promotions and usually ends the careers of those who receive them.

But Mays became the most visible sailor linked to the disaster, with the Navy saying he set fire to cardboard in a lower compartment because he was angry at the Navy SEAL selection. Prosecutors pointed to a text message to his division officer as evidence, saying Mays was determined to prove his own assessment that cluttered compartments made the ship unsafe.

A Navy judge recommended against going to trial, citing a lack of evidence, but Vice Admiral Stephen T. Koehler, who had convening authority over the case, decided to proceed with the case, saying AP reported.

The Bonhomme Richard fire was the latest in a series of disasters that challenged the leadership and oversight of senior Navy leaders. Chief among them were collisions at sea in 2017 that killed 17 sailors aboard USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. Following these cases, several officers were fired and the Navy promised to refocus on seamanship.

The Navy was also responsible for flooding tap water with jet fuel at a base in Hawaii last year, sickening military families and prompting the Department of Defense to order the vast tank fields of underground fuel is emptied and removed.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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