A helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 battles a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, July 14, 2020. An Article 32 evidentiary hearing began Monday to determine whether to send Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays to a court-martial for arson and hazarding a vessel. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge.
SAN DIEGO — Defense lawyers representing the sailor accused of starting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020 don’t want his failed attempt to be a Navy SEAL mentioned in his arson trial.
In the first day of the Article 32 preliminary hearing for Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays, his defense team objected to several areas of evidence presented by the Navy, which is trying to convince a judge that there is enough evidence against the former sailor to proceed to a court-martial.
The Article 32 hearing will determine whether Mays will face court-martial on charges of aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel. In such a hearing, the prosecution lays out the results of its investigation for a judge, who then determines if evidence is sufficient for a general court-martial. The defense will not present its case but can object to inclusion of evidence.
The first objection made Monday, Dec. 13, by a lawyer for Mays was over his record from BUD/S, the Navy SEAL training program, which Mays left after only five days in 2019. The government maintains the records would help establish May’s state of mind when the fire started.
A fire began in the lower storage area of the 840-foot Wasp-class amphibious assault ship on July 12, 2020, while the Bonhomme Richard was docked at Naval Base San Diego. The ship burned for five days before the flames were finally extinguished. The billion-dollar vessel, which had been in the process of a $250 million upgrade, has since been decommissioned due to the extent of the damages.
The defense also objected to the playing of 12 clips from an eight-hour interview because they were not given enough time to review the segments in question.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent Matthew Beals testified on his assessment of the scene. Beals, a trained fire investigator, told the court his investigation led him to believe the Bonhomme Richard fire was caused by arson. He said he found a stack of heavy-duty corrugated tri-wall cardboard boxes in the starboard bulkhead on a lower deck of the ship, which he believes was the fire’s point of origin. He also said he found evidence of an accelerant, either mineral spirits or diesel fuel. Either would have been easy for a sailor to access aboard the ship.
Beals said he ruled out the possibility that electrical components or vehicles in the area could have caused the fire.
Prior to Beals’ testimony, the prosecution and defense sparred over the inclusion of three trial exhibits. The defense objected to presenting Mays’ record from BUD/S, the interview clips, and a screenshot of a text message to a superior officer in which Mays described his berthing area as “fucking trash” and mentions setting his rack on fire. The defense argued it was not relevant, but the government said it established his state of mind, as well as the intent to start a fire.
The judge had not issued rulings on these objections as of midday Monday.
Beyond the trial of Mays, who has maintained his innocence, dozens of Navy officers are facing disciplinary actions for systematic failures that led to the extensive damage and eventual scrapping of the warship.
Dustin Jones is a former senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine covering military and intelligence news. Jones served four years in the Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado and Columbia University. He has worked as a reporter in Southwest Montana and at NPR. A New Hampshire native, Dustin currently resides in Southern California.
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