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Sailor found not guilty of starting 2020 fire that destroyed a $1 billion U.S. Navy vessel

SAN DIEGO — The sailor accused of starting a fire that essentially destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 41,000-ton amphibious assault vessel, was found not guilty Friday of starting the blaze that burned for days.

U.S. Navy Capt. Derek Butler found deck seaman Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, not guilty of aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel. 

“I am so grateful that this is finally over,” Mays said outside court Friday at Naval Base San Diego.

The Navy’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service focused its probe on Mays, but a command investigation in 2021 also said 17 sailors and five admirals failed responsibilities that contributed to the blaze on July 12, 2020. Most were disciplined.

The ship was home to hazardous materials improperly stored, clutter and fire lines that were missing, the investigation found. Nearly 90% of its fire stations weren’t working the morning of the fire, the agency said. Sailors weren’t properly trained and ready for the calamity, it said.

The presence of contemporary tinder — lithium ion batteries near cardboard boxes — may have contributed to the fire’s intensity and reach, investigators found. The total destruction was preventable, the command investigation concluded.

Gary Barthel, a civilian lawyer who served as a consultant for the defense, said questions about the fire’s origin never seemed to be answered by the Navy.

“There are questions about whether Ryan Mays started this fire,” he said in mid-September.

In a statement Friday, Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, a spokesman for U.S 3rd Fleet, said, “the Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”

Mays, who was 19 when the fire started and sent smoke over San Diego for days, remains with the Navy. He was demoted to seaman recruit from the rank of seaman apprentice Jan. 11.

He was assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard after dropping out of SEALs training, and Navy prosecutors said in charging documents he was “disgruntled” as a result.

His defense team said Mays was no more disgruntled than any other sailor assigned to cleanup duties, as he was.

On Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based Brandon Caserta Foundation, founded to promote mental health in the military castigated the Navy for pursuing the case against Mays.

“To blame losing a ship on a former Navy SEAL candidate because he was considered ‘disgruntled’ is one of the most evil things the Navy could do,” the nonprofit’s president, Teri Caserta, said in a statement. “There was no evidence of Mays being an arsonist.”

Seventeen sailors and four civilians were injured in the fire that gutted at least 60 percent of the ship. The 840-foot vessel, which displaces roughly 41 tons and was designed to help land U.S. Marines during combat missions, remained watertight.

In late 2020, the Navy decided it would be more cost-efficient to scrap the $1 billion ship than to rebuild it.

Mays on Friday said his Navy career had been “ruined” by the accusations.

“I’m looking forward to starting over,” he said.

West Point law professor Gary Solis said he was surprised to see the Navy fail to prosecute after two years.

“I am beyond surprised,” he said by email. “But, in criminal trials, military or civilian, the question is not ‘did the accused do it?/ but, ‘Can the government prove that he did it?’

Erick Mendoza, Melissa Adan and Bill Feather contributed.



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