Ryan Sawyer Mays
Ryan Sawyer Mays. Photo via @sawyermays714 Instagram

A Navy sailor accused of setting a fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego was set to go to trial Monday.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, 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.

Prosecutors have alleged that Mays was “disgruntled” with the Navy after dropping out of the SEAL training program.

The USS Bonhomme Richard on fire at Naval Base San Diego. Photo courtesy San Diego Fire-Rescue

Mays has denied any role in the fire, though other sailors previously testified to seeing him enter the ship’s “Lower V” area — where investigators say the fire originated — just prior to the blaze breaking out. One sailor who escorted Mays to the brig after he was arrested in connection with the blaze alleged Mays said, “I’m guilty. I guess I did it … it had to be done.”

Mays’ trial at Naval Base San Diego is expected to last two weeks. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

At an Article 32 hearing held last year at the base, prosecutors alleged the blaze was sparked by someone touching an open flame to an ignitable liquid applied to tri-wall containers in the Lower V.

Defense expert witnesses challenged findings that the blaze was an incendiary — or deliberate — fire, and said further analysis of the scene should have been completed before investigators ruled out possible accidental causes of the blaze. They have also alleged that investigators overlooked another sailor who could have been a possible arson suspect.

While Mays is the only person criminally charged in connection with the fire, the Navy issued a letter of censure earlier this year to the former commander of its U.S. Pacific Fleet, alleging leadership failures stemming from the fire, and also issued 27 “individual disposition decisions” regarding fire prevention, readiness and response efforts aboard the ship.


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Ellen Bullock