Helicopter drops water on USS Bonhomme Richard
An MH-60S helicopter from drops water on the fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in 2020. Photo credit: U.S. Navy

A Navy prosecutor said Thursday that a young sailor set fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard because he had fallen short of his Naval aspirations and was in a post he considered “beneath him.”

A defense attorney, though, said the case against the sailor was rife with investigatory missteps and clouded by bias.

They delivered closing arguments Thursday in the court-martial of Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, who 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 has denied any role in the fire.

With his bench trial wrapping up, Mays’ fate will be decided solely by a military judge, Capt. Derek Butler, who did not give a timetable Thursday morning on when he might render his verdict.

Prosecutors have alleged Mays set the blaze because he was disgruntled with the Navy after dropping out of the SEAL training program. Defense attorneys say there was another, more likely arsonist, though they contend that the prosecution had not proven that the fire was arson at all.

Capt. Jay Jones, for the prosecution, argued that Mays joined the Navy “for a very specific reason” and when that didn’t materialize, he found himself in the Bonhomme Richard’s Deck Department. Jones described the assignment as “about as far away as you’re ever going to be from the SEALs.”

Prosecutors have alleged that Mays was spotted by another Deck Department sailor, Petty Officer Kenji Velasco, who said he saw Mays walk toward the ship’s Lower Vehicle Storage Area – where investigators say the fire originated – just prior to the blaze breaking out.

Velasco alleged Mays was carrying a bucket while walking toward the “Lower V” and said “I love Deck” in a sarcastic tone.

Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, one of Mays’ defense attorneys, said Velasco’s statements are the only thing the prosecution has tying Mays to the fire.

Torres said no other sailors saw Mays near the Lower V and that Velasco did not initially say he saw anyone either. The attorney said that only after rumors surfaced that he may have set the fire did he tell investigators about the interaction with another sailor, though he initially said he didn’t recognize who it was.

He identified Mays as that sailor after an NCIS investigator asked him to “speculate,” Torres said.

Prosecutors allege Mays set the fire by touching an open flame to combustible tri-walls. The prosecutor said the cardboard tri-walls were doused in an accelerant such as paint thinner, which Jones said was a chemical to which Deck Department sailors would have ready access.

Throughout the trial, defense attorneys pointed to other potential, inadvertent sources of ignition, such as lithium ion batteries and forklifts that may have sparked in the Lower V, or cigarettes and other smoking materials.

Torres said investigators had not properly ruled out any of those potential fire sources, which Jones denied, stating that significant testing had been undertaken to eliminate each alternative theory.

Once Mays had been pegged as the arsonist, Torres said investigators examined each piece of evidence to fit their preconceived beliefs.

“No one can reasonably say how this fire started,” Torres said in his closing argument. “But the evidence at this court-martial shows that this sailor didn’t do it.”

If it was arson, the defense alleged the Navy failed to investigate another 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.”

Jones said that sailor was investigated, but the only way he could have set the blaze was with some sort of timed delay ignition, which he said there was no evidence of.

Another sailor claimed Mays admitted to setting the fire after he was arrested, though Torres alleged the prosecution was twisting a statement laced with sarcasm. The attorney said that after repeatedly denying his role in the fire during a lengthy interrogation, Mays was arrested, and said, “I’m guilty. I did it, I guess.”

– City News Service


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Ellen Bullock