SAN DIEGO – A sailor accused of starting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard will face a court martial for arson, the Navy said Friday.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, 20, faces two counts in military court for the July 2020 blaze that injured dozens of personnel aboard the amphibious assault ship as the fire burned for five days and sent acrid smoke wafting over San Diego.
It marked one of the worst noncombat warship disasters in recent memory and the vessel had to be scrapped. It would cost an estimated $4 billion to replace.
Mays set the fire because he was disgruntled after dropping out of Navy SEAL training, prosecutors said. His defense lawyers said there was no physical evidence connecting him to the blaze.
Mays was charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel.
Defense lawyer Gary Barthel said the decision to proceed to trial came despite a hearing officer's recommendation that there wasn't enough evidence to win a conviction after a preliminary hearing in December.
“In our perspective it’s that the Navy’s not looking for justice in this case," Barthel said. “What the Navy’s looking for is to make Mays a scapegoat.”
Mays is disheartened by the decision, Barthel said. He maintains his innocence and looks forward to proving it at trial.
A Navy spokesperson did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
Over a three-day hearing in December, one witness placed Mays in the area where the fire broke out aboard the ship and another said he later made a seeming confession to igniting it.
“I’m guilty, I guess. I did it,” Mays mumbled as he was being led to the brig in August 2020, Sailor Carissa Tubman testified. Mays then said: “It had to be done.”
Mays was stunned he was being locked up at the time and was being sarcastic, defense lawyers said.
Mays is no longer being detained. He was demoted after the December hearing, though the Navy has declined to say why.
The witness who placed Mays near the start of the fire offered conflicting statements about whether he was certain it was Mays. Another sailor credited Mays with saving him from the fire.
The lead federal fire investigator for the government determined the fire was started July 12, 2020, by someone who ignited carboard boxes in a vehicle storage area below deck. The defense presented evidence from experts that the blaze may have been sparked by an electrical malfunction.
Mays told investigators he became aware of the fire while in the hangar bay and said he alerted one crew member and helped fight the blaze, according to court documents.
About 160 sailors and officers were on board as strong winds whipped flames into an inferno that sparked explosions. More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
The 840-foot (256-meter) vessel had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade.
A report found that while the fire was intentionally set, an inadequately prepared crew failed to extinguish the blaze and three of four fire stations appeared to have been tampered with. Hoses had been disconnected and one was cut, according to court documents.
Dozens of Navy officials, including several admirals, have faced disciplinary action for failures that investigators said prevented the blaze from being put out sooner, according to investigators.
Mays, who is from Kentucky, voluntarily dropped out of SEAL training, though he told fellow sailors he had been injured during the grueling “Hell Week.” He was reassigned to deck duty to clean the Bonhomme.
Witnesses said he did not want to be there and was not liked.
Mays was “selfish, whiney and mad because he dropped out of the SEALs,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Betz testified in December.
Defense lawyers said his peers considered Mays arrogant because he trained as a SEAL. They disputed that he hated the Navy more than other sailors assigned to cleaning duties.