SAN DIEGO — The sailor accused of starting a fire that essentially destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 41,000-ton amphibious assault ship, was found not guilty on Friday of starting the fire that burned for days.
US Navy Captain Derek Butler has found deckhand Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, not guilty of aggravated arson and willfully endangering a vessel.
“I’m so grateful that it’s finally over,” Mays said in court Friday at Naval Base San Diego.
The Navy’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service focused its investigation on Mays, but a command inquiry in 2021 also found that 17 sailors and five admirals failed in responsibilities that contributed to the July 12 fire. 2020. Most have been disciplined.
The investigation revealed that the ship harbored improperly stored hazardous materials, clutter and missing fire hoses. Nearly 90% of its fire stations were not operating the morning of the blaze, the agency said. Sailors were not properly trained and ready for the calamity, he said.
The presence of contemporary tinder – lithium-ion batteries near the cardboard boxes – may have contributed to the intensity and scope of the fire, investigators found. The total destruction was preventable, the command’s investigation concluded.
Gary Barthel, a civilian attorney who served as a defense consultant, said questions about the origin of the fire never seemed to be answered by the Navy.
“There are questions as to whether Ryan Mays started this fire,” he said in mid-September.
In a statement Friday, Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, spokesman for the US 3rd Fleet, said, “The Navy is committed to the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
Mays, who was 19 when the fire broke out and sent smoke over San Diego for days, remains in the Navy. He was demoted to enlisted sailor from apprentice sailor on 11 January.
He was assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard after dropping out of SEAL training, and Navy prosecutors said in charging documents he was “unhappy” as a result.
His defense team said Mays was no more upset than any other sailor assigned to cleanup duties, as he was.
On Friday, the Washington, DC-based Brandon Caserta Foundation, founded to promote mental health in the military, lambasted the Navy for pursuing the case against Mays.
“Blaming the loss of a ship on a former Navy SEAL candidate because he was considered ‘unhappy’ is one of the worst things the Navy can do,” said association president Teri Caserta, in a statement. “There was no evidence that Mays was an arsonist.”
Seventeen sailors and four civilians were injured in the fire which destroyed at least 60% of the ship. The 840ft vessel, which displaces around 41 tons and was designed to help land US Marines on combat missions, remained watertight.
In late 2020, the Navy decided it would be more profitable to scrap the billion-dollar ship than to rebuild it.
Mays said Friday that his career in the Navy had been “ruined” by the charges.
“I can’t wait to do it again,” he said.
West Point law professor Gary Solis said he was surprised to see the Navy not prosecute after two years.
“I’m more than surprised,” he said over email. “But in criminal trials, military or civilian, the question is not ‘did the defendant do it?/ but ‘can the government prove they did it?’
Eric Mendoza, Melissa Adan and beak feather contributed.