SAN DIEGO — A military judge on Friday acquitted a sailor of arson in a fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a blow to the Navy as it faces allegations of improper training and upkeep of the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship.
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, took a deep breath as the verdict was read, put both hands on the defense table, burst into tears and hugged supporters in the audience at Naval Base San Diego.
Outside the courtroom building, Mays read a brief statement to reporters and declined to answer questions. He did not address his plans.
“I can say that the last two years have been the most difficult two years of my entire life as a young man,” he said. “I lost time with friends. I lost friends. I lost time with family and my entire Navy career was ruined. I can’t wait to start over.”
Prosecutors presented no physical evidence during the nine-day trial that the sailor set the vessel on fire, while the defense undermined the credibility of a key witness, sailor Kenji Velasco, who changed his account over time.
Gary Barthel, a former Marine judge advocate who represented Mays at a preliminary hearing, said it was critical to undermine Velasco’s credibility. Barthel said the judge at the preliminary hearing recommended against calling a court martial, but Vice Admiral Steve Koehler, former commander of the US 3rd Fleet based in San Diego, had the final say.
The ship’s lower vehicle storage area “became a dumping ground and I think throughout that process the Navy tried to clean up their mess by charging Seaman Mays with these allegations,” Barthel told reporters.
Prosecutors did not comment after the verdict. The Navy said through a spokesman, Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, that it is “committed to the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
Prosecutors say Mays was angry and vengeful for not becoming a Navy SEAL and being assigned deck duties, prompting him to set fire to cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020 in the lower vehicle storage area of the ship, which was docked in San Diego while undergoing $250 million in maintenance work.
They said he wanted to take his text earlier to his division officer that the ship was so cluttered with contractors’ equipment that it was “dangerous as (expletive)”.
Prosecutor Captain Jason Jones admitted in court to a Navy report last year concluding that hell was preventable and unacceptable, and that there were deficiencies in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and general command and control. The inability to extinguish or contain the fire led to temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees (649 degrees Celsius) in some areas, melting sections of the ship into molten metal that leaked into other parts of the ship . Navy leaders disciplined more than 20 senior officers and sailors.
Jones told the judge there was no doubt the Navy “lost the ship” that morning, but that Mays was responsible for setting it on fire.
“That punch from behind is what the Navy could never have prevented,” he said.
Mays thought he would jump out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead he chipped paint off a ship’s deck and he hated the Navy for it, Jones said.
“When you’re on deck, you’re about as far away from the SEALs as you’ll ever be,” Jones said.
Defense lawyers said the trial only revealed a shoddy investigation by government investigators who rushed to judgment and failed to gather evidence showing the culprit allegedly also could have been lithium ion batteries or a spark forklift.