SAN DIEGO – A military judge on Friday acquitted a sailor of arson in a fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a blow to the Navy facing allegations of improper training and maintenance of the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship. .
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, exhaled deeply as the verdict was read, putting both hands on the defense table, bursting into tears and hugging supporters at the hearing at Naval Base San Diego.
Outside the courtroom building, Mays read a brief statement to reporters and declined to answer questions. He didn’t address his plans.
“I can say that the last two years have been the most difficult two years of my entire life as a young man,” he said. “I wasted time with friends. I wasted friends. I wasted time with family and my entire Navy career was ruined. I really want to start over.”
Prosecutors did not present physical evidence during the nine-day trial that the sailor set the ship on fire, while the defense undermined the credibility of a key witness, sailor Kenji Velasco, who changed his story over time.
Gary Barthel, a former Navy attorney who represented Mays at a preliminary hearing, said undermining Velasco’s credibility was key. Barthel has said that the judge at the preliminary hearing recommended against a court-martial, but Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, former commander of the US 3rd Fleet based in San Diego, had the last word.
The ship’s lower vehicle storage area “became a junkyard and I think throughout this whole process the Navy tried to clean up their mess by charging Seaman Mays with these allegations,” Barthel told reporters.
Prosecutors did not comment after the verdict. The Navy said through a spokesman, Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, who “is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
Prosecutors said Mays was angry and vindictive for not becoming a Navy SEAL and being assigned to deck duty, which led him to set alight cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020, in the lower vehicle storage area at the ship, which was docked in San Diego while undergoing $250 million in maintenance work.
They said he wanted to take home his earlier text message to his division officer that the ship was so full of contractors’ material that it was “dangerous as (expletive)”.
The Prosecutor, Chap. Jason Jones, acknowledged in court a Navy report last year that concluded the inferno was preventable and unacceptable, and that there were failures in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and the overall command and control. The failure to extinguish or contain the fire caused temperatures to exceed 1,200 degrees (649 Celsius) in some areas, melting sections of the ship into molten metal that flowed into other parts of the ship. Navy leaders disciplined more than 20 senior officers and sailors.
Jones told the judge that there is no question that the Navy “missed the boat” that morning, but Mays is to blame for turning it on.
“That punch from behind, that’s what the Navy could never have prevented,” he said.
Mays thought he would be jumping out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead, he was chipping paint off a ship’s deck and hated the Navy for it, Jones said.
“When you’re on deck, you’re as far away from the SEALs as you’ll ever be,” Jones said.
Defense attorneys said the trial only exposed a shoddy investigation by government investigators who rushed to judgment and failed to collect evidence showing the culprit could also have been lithium-ion batteries or a powered forklift. sparks.