A Navy judge ruled on Friday that a sailor who was charged with intentionally starting one of the worst noncombat fires in the history of the United States Navy, which led to the destruction of the $1.2 billion U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard in San Diego Bay, was not guilty of any of the charges against him.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, age 21, who was facing accusations of aggravated arson and deliberate hazarding of a vessel, cried with his head on the table of the defence team after hearing the judgement. Mays had been facing the possibility of life in prison if convicted of the charges. Then, clothed in a spotless white uniform, he rushed past the packed courtroom to greet his wife and his parents.
The nine-day testing took place a short distance away from the dock where the enormous amphibious assault ship caught fire in the year 2020 and burned for more than four days straight. Seaman Mays was portrayed by Navy prosecutors as a disgruntled young failure who had hoped to become a Navy SEAL but dropped out of the notoriously punishing selection course and was reassigned to mop floors and scrape paint below decks on the Bonhomme Richard. This portrayal was based on the fact that Seaman Mays had hoped to become a Navy SEAL but had dropped out of the selection course. He was so furious, they alleged, that he set his ship on fire.
The attorneys for the Navy argued in their defence that the fire was caused by negligence and complacency on the part of Navy officers, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the fire was intentionally set or that Seaman Mays was responsible for lighting it.
Prior to the beginning of the trial, it was abundantly evident that the prosecution would confront obstacles. Due to the lack of evidence, a preliminary hearing held in December by a Navy judge advised against moving ahead with the case. The judge said that a conviction was improbable due to the absence of evidence. Despite this, Vice Admiral Stephen T. Koehler, who was in charge of the case and had power to convene, made the decision to go forward.
The Bonhomme Richard was put into service in 1998 and included 14 expansive decks that were meant to transport aircraft, armoured vehicles, and about 2,000 Marines into battle. On July 12, 2020, a young sailor on duty saw smoke rising from the lower vehicle deck. This occurred in the middle of a two-year, $250 million restoration that was under progress at the time.
The fire swiftly spread and consumed a disorganised mess of cardboard, batteries, hand sanitizer, and construction equipment that had been crammed onto the truck deck. The crew was unable to extinguish the fire since the ship was not operating at its maximum capacity. The sprinkler system and the majority of the 807 fire extinguishers that were aboard were both inoperable at the time of the incident. It took two hours before the volunteer fire fighters could throw any water on the blaze, and by that time it was too late to save anything. The ship was reduced to a charred heap of wreckage as a result of the fire.
In December of the previous year, the United States Navy published a damning report that detailed a chain of errors and omissions that helped pave the way for the disaster. The Navy also formally disciplined a total of 28 individuals, including the highest-ranking commanders of the ship and the admiral who was in charge of the United States Pacific Fleet at the time.
In the weeks that followed the incident, agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service zeroed in on Seaman Mays after a young sailor who had been on watch reported seeing a person wearing a mask and coveralls carrying a bucket to the deck where the fire had begun. The young sailor said he saw the person carrying the bucket to the area where the fire had begun.
Special Agent Maya Kamat, the primary investigator in the case, testified at Seaman Mays’s trial that she had questioned the sailor four times, and that soon after the fourth interview, the sailor attempted suicide. This information was provided by the lead investigator in the case. A few days later, he was given a discharge from the Navy due to administrative reasons. The Navy decided to cease pursuing him since they were no longer able to exercise jurisdiction over him and instead turned their attention to Seaman Mays.
The fact that Seaman Mays had grown to despise the Navy was never a secret from anybody. The prosecution played video footage of him telling investigators in vulgar language that he considered the “fleet Navy” to be worthless and that the only sailors “doing real stuff” were the SEALs and other special operators. He also said that he thought the only sailors “doing real stuff” were the SEALs and other special operators. But the investigators could not find any physical evidence that linked him to the fire, and he denied responsibility for it on many occasions.
After the judgement was read out loud on Friday, the prosecution chose not to issue a statement to the general public.
After being found not guilty, Seaman Mays gave a short speech of gratitude on the steps of the courtroom. He thanked the judge and his attorneys.