Sailor accused of setting ship on fire faces court martial

SAN DIEGO — A 20-year-old sailor will face a military trial for deliberately setting fires that destroyed a $1.2 billion warship on the San Diego waterfront in 2020, the police announced Friday. Marine.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, a former deckhand on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, is charged with aggravated arson and willfully endangering a ship in connection with the four-day blaze that destroyed most of the ship. Vice Admiral Steve Koehler, commander of the US 3rd Fleet based in San Diego, ordered the case to be sent to trial on Wednesday, according to court documents.

“After careful consideration of the preliminary hearing report, (Koehler) referred the charges” against Mays, said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, 3rd Fleet spokesman. “Charges were brought in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire that broke out on the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) on July 12, 2020.”

Mays was notified on Friday, said Gary Barthel, Mays’ San Diego-based civil attorney. Mays denies the charges against him, Barthel told the Union-Tribune in an interview.

“He maintains his innocence, he always has,” Barthel said when reached by phone on Friday. “He’s not happy to be court-martialed but he’s determined to prove his innocence.”

The trial notification came as a surprise to Mays, Barthel said, because a military judge recommended against going to trial.

At a preliminary Section 32 hearing at Naval Base San Diego in December, Navy prosecutors argued against Mays before a hearing officer, Navy Judge Captain Angela Tang. During the three-day hearing, prosecution and defense witnesses testified about the fire and comments Mays allegedly made in the days and weeks that followed.

In the military justice system, Section 32 hearings fulfill the role of a grand jury in the civilian system, except only one person—in this case, Tang—evaluates the evidence and testimony and recommends if there are enough to proceed to trial, or court martial.

In this preliminary hearing, Navy prosecutors only had to prove that they had probable cause to send Mays to trial. At trial, as in the civil system, this standard of proof is raised to the strictest “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

According to Barthel, Tang’s report recommended against going to trial due to concerns about the evidence.

“She put a lot of time and thought into her report,” Barthel said. “She was meticulous during the preliminary investigation and reviewed the evidence. She not only listened to the witnesses, but took the time to question them. Her recommendation to the Navy was that the case not go to trial. due to evidentiary issues.”

In the military system, legal matters rest with a single “convening authority” who makes the final decisions on whether to refer a case to trial and whether or not a guilty verdict is upheld. In this case, that authority is 3rd Fleet Admiral Koehler.

Koehler’s spokesperson declined to comment on Tang’s recommendation and, citing the integrity of the judicial process, declined to comment on Barthel’s claim that she was concerned about the strength of the evidence against Mays. The Navy and Barthel also refused to provide the Union-Tribune with a copy of Tang’s report. Robertson, Koehler’s spokesman, said only that the admiral’s decision was made after “a thorough review of the hearing officer’s report in its entirety.”

Barthel also pointed out that Mays’ rank as provided by the Navy in his biographical sheet – seaman recruit, or E-1 – differed from that of his indictment sheet, which still reflected seaman apprentice, or E- 2. Mays’ rank was the subject of confusion during his December hearing, as the Navy said he was an E-2, but he appeared in court with the rank insignia of a sailor, or E-3.

Prosecutors told Tang at the time that showing up to his own hearing in the wrong uniform was an example of Mays’ attitude toward the Navy. They also said Mays had recently tested positive for the drug in a recent urinalysis, although they did not charge him with the offense.

According to his Navy biography, Mays was demoted to his current rank on January 11. Barthel declined to say whether Mays was demoted as a result of a non-judicial sanction, an administrative action military commanders can take outside of the military justice system.

Sailors first reported seeing smoke aboard the Bonhomme Richard – whose primary mission was to transport Marines and deliver them to a beachhead in amphibious vehicles and aircraft – just after 8 a.m. morning on Sunday, July 12, 2020, near the ramp descending to its lower vehicle storage area, or “Lower V”. The ship was nearing the end of a nearly two-year, $250 million upgrade to accommodate the Marine Corps’ F-35B fighters. A Navy investigation found that the ship and her crew were ill-prepared to fight the fire, with sailors slow to respond and fire stations on board lacking equipment or out of service that morning.

Two hours passed before firefighters from the San Diego Fire Department put water on the flames for the first time. By then it was too late and the ship burned for over four days before the fire was extinguished. Everything from the waterline was destroyed. In December 2020, citing potential repair costs, the Navy announced that the 22-year-old ship would be scrapped.

She was decommissioned and towed out of San Diego in April.

At Mays’ Section 32 hearing, an arson investigator from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the fire was deliberately started in the Lower V of the ship. A sailor on watch at the top of the ramp leading to the lower V testified that he saw Mays – and only Mays – coming down the ramp with a bucket just before the fire started.

Prosecutors allege Mays was unhappy working as a deckhand on the ship. He joined the Navy in May 2019 to become a SEAL, but left the notoriously demanding Underwater Demolition/Basic SEAL course shortly after starting it in September of that year. He reported on board the Bonhomme Richard in March 2020 for the ship’s deck department.

The sailor on watch the morning of the fire testified that he heard Mays say “I like the bridge” as he passed.

Dozens of Navy officers as well as civilian Navy employees were named in the Navy’s investigation of the fire as contributing to the conditions that left the ship vulnerable to fire.

No action has been announced by the Navy regarding these cases.

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©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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