Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire sweeping the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. The Wasp-class vessel was undergoing what the US Navy calls a maintenance availability, which began in 2018 and was expected to revamp the warship. US Navy photo by Lt. John J. Mike via Getty Images.
SAN DIEGO — A petty officer emerged as a star witness for the prosecution during the fourth day of the court-martial trial of Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, the sailor accused of burning down the amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard two years ago.
Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Kenji Velasco testified Thursday, Sept. 22, that he'd been standing morning watch on board the Wasp-class vessel on July 12, 2020, when he'd spotted Mays in “boot camp coveralls” descending a ramp into the lower vehicle stowage area — the “lower V” as sailors called it — roughly 20 minutes before smoke began rolling through the warship.
In the first three days, prosecutors sought to pin a motive on Mays as a disgruntled non-rate who sparked a blaze on the warship to get even with the US Navy for flunking him out of initial SEAL training.
They salted the trial with senior sailors in Mays' Deck Department who've portrayed him as a brash malcontent who texted that his living quarters on board the ship were "fucking trash" and "hazardous as fuck."
The amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard burns in San Diego in July of 2020. US Navy photo.
Prosecutors also drew attention to a bucket Mays toted into the lower V as a possible source of the accelerant used to fuel a fire that caused $3.2 billion in damage to the warship.
Velasco’s 45 minutes on the stand Thursday were designed to do something else — establish that Mays had the opportunity to commit arson.
Velasco appears to be the only person who's tried to place Mays at the scene of the fire. But defense attorneys quickly pounced on his previous testimony, painting him as an unreliable witness with a string of recollections that kept shifting long after federal agents began probing the cause of the conflagration.
Lead defense attorney Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres reminded Velasco that, when investigators initially asked what he'd seen on the morning of the fire, the petty officer never mentioned Mays.
“I was scared,” Velasco testified, adding that he also never wanted to get any fellow sailors in trouble.
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, is accused of setting a fire on board the amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard on July 12, 2020. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Velasco told Torres he recalled saying it “could have been Mays” to Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Matthew Betz and Operations Specialist 2nd Class Andrew Cordero during a meeting at the base theater shortly after the fire broke out.
Those words echoed what Betz and Cordero said on the stand Wednesday.
They testified it was Mays’ boot camp coveralls that set him apart from other sailors and made them suspect he was the Bonhomme Richard’s firebug.
But throughout the investigation, Mays, 21, has maintained his innocence.
A golfer plays on as a fire sweeps the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.
Mays told agents he’d gone to fetch cleaning gear, which is why he was carrying a pail.
Mays has also insisted that, while he might've come off as disrespectful, he was just telling the truth that contracted welders performing hot work in the ship’s berthing area could spark a fire.
Defense attorneys have suggested the blaze began after lithium batteries haphazardly stowed in the lower V suddenly burst, making Mays a convenient scapegoat for an embarrassed Navy.
Prosecutors are expected to call their final witnesses on Friday.
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Tom Wyatt was a SkillBridge intern for Coffee or Die. He is an active-duty Naval Special Warfare boat operator and a proud father living in San Diego, California. Tom is a budding reporter, looking to pursue journalism and fiction writing upon exiting the Navy.
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