Sailors and federal firefighters combat a fire on board the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross.
SAN DIEGO — The court-martial of the sailor accused of setting the USS Bonhomme Richard on fire began Monday, Sept. 19, at Naval Base San Diego, with the defense choosing to put the fate of Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays in the hands of a single judge rather than in the hands of a jury.
Mays, who faces life in prison on charges of arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel, could have asked for a jury trial but instead opted to have the case decided by a military judge.
Mays is accused of setting a fire on board the Bonhomme Rochard on July 12, 2020, that took firefighters five days to put out. The damage from the fire was so extensive that the Navy decided to decommission the ship rather than repair it.
Prosecutors alleged that Mays had set the fire in an “act of defiance gone wrong,” characterizing him as being resentful of the Navy after his failure at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S.
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.
The prosecution, led by Navy Capt. Jason Jones, kicked off the first day by presenting seven witnesses, all members of the Bonhomme Richard’s crew. All acted as first responders to the fire. Witnesses recalled the first signs of fire appearing sometime shortly after the workday began at 7:45 a.m.
“I saw white hazy smoke rising up from the ramp,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Beau Benson told the court, describing the initial smoke that rose from the ship's lower vehicle stowage area, or lower V.
The Navy has maintained that the fire began on the lower V.
Benson, who was Mays’ supervisor at the time of the fire, told the court that he didn’t recall seeing the defendant at the department muster the morning of the fire.
However, during cross-examination, defense attorney Lt. Tayler Haggarty pointed out that Benson had told the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, that he had seen Mays. “[NCIS] asked you who you had eyes on that morning, and you said, ‘Peneda, Lopez, Mays,’” Haggarty said during cross-examination.
Mays’ defense team returned several times to their argument that the Navy didn’t effectively determine the cause of the fire during its investigation. Additionally, the defense suggested the possibility of an overlooked suspect who worked in the area where the fire began. That sailor, the defense said, had also worked in another area where a previous fire had occurred.
“It appears that the government tried to hide that evidence during the course of their investigation,” Gary Barthel, a defense attorney who previously represented Mays, told reporters during a court recess.
Sailors on the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard after combating the 2020 fire that destroyed the ship. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Jeffrey F. Yale.
The defense’s cross-examination of the seven witnesses focused on inconsistencies in their testimonies as well as highlighting issues with the ship's onboard emergency systems and hazards in the lower V.
The lower V, typically used for transporting Marine Corps vehicles, had become an unofficial overflow stowage area, the witnesses said. Senior Chief Petty Officer Brian Six testified that he had visited the lower V on the Friday prior to the fire, recalling a variety of equipment and items across the stowage area, including cardboard shipping containers, deck lines, generators, and even “johnboats.”
Many of the witnesses, including Petty Officer 3rd Class Pablos Garcia, recalled numerous attempts to penetrate the thick smoke that engulfed the lower V after the blaze began. “It was like closing your eyes,” Garcia said of the visibility from when he'd descended into the stowage area. He attempted to reach the fire six times, he said.
Several witnesses were asked about Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenji Velasco, the sole witness to identify Mays as a suspect. Multiple witnesses testified that Velasco had been on watch near the ramp to the lower V on the day of the fire. However, none could recall Velasco ever saying that he had seen anyone enter the stowage area.
The trial is expected to last as long as two weeks, with technical experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testifying for the prosecution Tuesday.
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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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