San Diego, CA – A military judge acquitted a 21-year-old junior sailor on Friday on charges that he set fire to a $1.2 billion Navy warship at Naval Base San Diego in 2020.
The fire that Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays was charged with starting began on a lower vehicle storage deck inside the USS Bonhomme Richard just before 8 a.m. of July 12, 2020, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
There were 807 fire extinguishers on the ship but only 15 of them worked, The Washington Post reported.
Responding fire teams tried to find a working hose at one of the ship’s 216 fire stations could not, according to a Navy report on the fire.
Investigators later determined that only 29 of the 216 fire stations on the warship were serviceable, The Washington Post reported.
It took four days to extinguish the blaze and 63 sailors and civilians were injured during the incident.
There was so much damage to the warship that the Navy ultimately decommissioned it and sold the vessel for scrap, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Mays was accused of starting the fire and faced life in prison if he was convicted.
A sailor told investigators that he saw someone matching Mays’ description go into the area that caught fire about 20 minutes before he first saw smoke, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Mays had graduated from boot camp in July of 2019 and then graduated from a Navy SEAL prerequisite school in Illinois.
He reported to the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school in Coronado in September of 2019 but quit the rigorous program on the fifth day, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Mays was sent to the USS Bonhomme Richard in March of 2020 as an “undesignated” sailor with no specialized job training and was assigned to the ship’s Deck Department where he would paint and clean the ship.
Prosecutors said Mays didn’t like his new life as a fleet sailor and his dissatisfaction was what prompted him to commit arson, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
“Deck Department on a big-deck amphib is about as far from the SEALS as you can be,” the lead prosecutor, U.S. Navy Captain Jason Jones, told the court during his argument.
Jones said Mays felt the mission he had been assigned to was “beneath him,” according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Days before the fire, the sailors assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard were advised they were moving back onto the ship from temporary living quarters on a barge nearby, according to prosecutors.
Mays strongly objected and texted his division officer that the ship was “hazardous as (expletive)” and that a spark from a ship contractor had recently struck him in his bed on that warship, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Jones said that Mays set the fire on the billion-dollar ship to prove a point to the Navy.
But the defense team set out to prove that investigators had jumped to conclusions and pinned the fire on Mays before fully investigating its cause, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Defense attorneys argued the Navy was blaming Mays to get out of accepting responsibility for a lot of dangerous problems on the ship.
The Navy has already reprimanded 20 people, including the ship’s senior leadership, for their role and responsibility in the incident, The Washington Post reported.
Fire investigators for the defense testified the fire could have been started by fire-damaged lithium-ion batteries found near the point or origin or by a forklift that could have shorted out and sent sparks flying onto nearby flammable materials.
Despite witness testimony that Mays had been seen in the area of the fire shortly before it started, another sailor from his duty section testified that Mays had been with him getting cleaning supplies when the fire started in the other area, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Another sailor testified that she saw a dark-skinned person running from the arson scene just before the fire, but Mays is white.
“This trial is a live-fire exercise in confirmation bias,” defense attorneys argued. “The evidence is not there.”
A military judge, Captain Derek Butler, presided over Mays’ court martial and heard testimony and argument for two weeks, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Butler deliberated for just under 24 hours before returning a verdict of not guilty early on Sept. 30.
Mays broke down sobbing after he was acquitted, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
“I’m so grateful this is finally over — it’s been a long two years,” he told reporters outside after his acquittal. “I’ve lost time with friends, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost time with family and my entire Navy career was ruined.”
“I am looking forward to starting over,” Mays added.