A Navy judge ruled Friday that a sailor was not guilty of setting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego in 2020.
The decision came after a nine-day trial at Naval Base San Diego. Ryan Sawyer Mays, who had been charged with arson and willfully endangering a vessel, sighed deeply, put both hands on the defense table and burst into tears. Mays embraced members of his defense team, then ran to his wife and parents, where they hugged and sobbed for several minutes. At one point, Mays’ mother was heard telling her, “I had no doubts.”
“Seaman Recruit Mays has been found not guilty on charges of willfully endangering a vessel and aggravated arson. The Navy is committed to the principles of due process and a fair trial,” said Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, spokesman for the U.S. 3rd Fleet.
Prosecutors accused Mays, then 19, of setting fire to cardboard boxes in a lower storage area of the vehicle to bring home an earlier text to his division officer saying the ship was so cluttered with stuff of contractors that he was “dangerous as (expletive)”. They argued that Mays was angry and vengeful for not becoming a Navy SEAL and being assigned to deck duty and set the ship on fire to send a message.
There is, however, no physical evidence linking Mays to the burning of the ship, which was docked and undergoing maintenance at the time.
Outside the Naval Base San Diego 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 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. »
The prosecution acknowledged that a Navy report last year concluded that the fire that destroyed the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship 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 .
More than 20 senior officers and sailors were disciplined in connection with the incident.
Defense attorneys argued the trial revealed a shoddy investigation by government investigators who rushed to judgment and failed to gather evidence showing the culprit could also have been lithium-ion batteries or a forklift instead of arson.
The prosecution said investigators found no scientific data to support the theory that batteries or a malfunctioning forklift started the inferno, while testimonies from shipmates bolstered the case against Mays in his own words as he was being escorted handcuffed and let loose, according to the sailor escorting him to the brig: “It had to be done.” I did it.”
The defense said Mays, known to be flippant, was being sarcastic after he denied doing so more than 150 times during the 10 hours of questioning by investigators.