Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, is accused of arson in the July 12, 2020, fire that consumed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a blaze that took five days to put out. Photos from GoFundMe, US Navy.
A witness standing watch the night fire erupted on the USS Bonhomme Richard told a military courtroom Tuesday, Dec. 14, he was “100%” certain that he saw Ryan Sawyer Mays headed toward the otherwise unoccupied area minutes before fire erupted.
But after two days of testimony at an Article 32 hearing in San Diego, the Navy has yet to tie Mays, 20, to the blaze with any direct, physical evidence. Mays’ lawyers worked hard Tuesday to poke holes in the story of Petty Officer Kenji Velasco, the sailor who’d been standing watch the night of the fire.
The fire on the Bonhomme Richard began in a compartment known as the lower vehicle storage area on the night of July 12, 2020, spread rapidly through the ship, and burned for five days. Initial firefighting efforts were hampered by a reduced crew for the ship, which was in drydock for an overhaul. The damage to the billion-dollar warship was so extensive that the ship was retired rather than repaired. Mays was arrested on July 29 and charged with starting the fire. Prosecutors painted Mays as “disgruntled” aboard the ship, where he was assigned after dropping out of Navy SEAL training.
Velasco testified Tuesday that he had been on watch in the upper vehicle storage area when a sailor in blue coveralls walked past him and made a joke in his direction, saying, “I love deck.”
The man disappeared down the ramp that led to the lower vehicle storage area and did not reappear before signs of the fire were reported, Velasco said.
Velasco told Capt. Angela Tang, the investigating officer overseeing the hearing, that he was “100%” certain the man was Mays.
However, under questioning from one of Mays’ attorneys, Velasco admitted he had been less sure in the immediate aftermath. In initial interviews with naval investigators soon after the blaze, Velasco did not name Mays.
However, as Velasco thought back on the episode in the days and weeks after giving those statements, he became more convinced that the man he’d seen was Mays, Velasco said.
Two senior sailors also testified Tuesday, covering both the technical inner workings and layout of the ship and interactions with Mays. Senior Chief Lino Aguilarbarron described Mays as “disgruntled” but said he was similar in that regard to many failed SEAL candidates who find themselves in “fleet” jobs.
The defense and prosecution also argued over the meaning of a conversation Aguilarbarron recalled having with Mays. Aguilarbarron said Mays had claimed in a conversation that he had been working the day before the fire, but ship logs, cellphone data, and Mays’ financial records appeared to indicate Mays was not aboard the Bonhomme Richard July 11. Prosecutors pointed to that statement as an example of deception, while Mays’ attorneys argued it showed only faulty memory.
“Sometimes people say things that might not be accurate; that doesn’t mean they are lying,” Gary Barthel, one of Mays’ lawyers, said.
UPDATE, 8:00 p.m. EST, Tuesday, Dec. 14: Details from the hearing’s afternoon session have been added to this story. Also, the type of uniform which Petty Officer Kenji Velasco testified to have seen was clarified as being coveralls.
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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