A sailor charged in connection with starting a fire that destroyed a Navy warship while docked in San Diego has been found not guilty.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays was acquitted of charges of willful endangerment of a vessel and aggravated arson, the Navy said in a statement after a court-martial in which a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that Mays set the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard . more than two years ago.
After the judge handed down the sentence, Mays collapsed on the table and sobbed, said his defense attorney Gary Barthel, feeling as if a thousand-pound weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Outside the courthouse, Mays said he was “grateful that this is finally over” and called it “the hardest two years of my entire life.”
“I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family and my entire naval career was ruined,” Mays said. “I’m looking forward to starting over.”
A spokesman for the Navy, Cmdr. Sean Robertson of the US 3rd Fleet told CNN in a statement: “Seaman Recruit Mays was found not guilty of the charges of willful endangerment of a vessel and aggravated arson. The Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
The fire aboard the amphibious assault ship raged for four days before it was finally extinguished, destroying the ship and forcing the Navy to scrap the billion-dollar vessel. The USS Bonhomme Richard had been in port for upgrades to accommodate Marine Corps F-35B fighter jets when the fire broke out.
A year after the fire, the Navy charged that Mays was responsible. Mays had been a member of the ship’s crew at the time.
But Mays’ defense attorney said the evidence was never strong and the judge recommended at the preliminary hearing that the case not go forward.
“My view of this case from the beginning is that it was a weak case,” Barthel said.
Still, the command pushed forward with the court-martial, leading to the two-week trial and ultimately a not guilty verdict.
Barthel said the Navy needed someone to blame for a fire that destroyed an entire ship, instead of acknowledging the problems aboard the ship that allowed the fire to spread.
A Navy investigation released last October found that the fire was “clearly preventable” and was the result of a series of systematic errors.
The cascade of failures and breakdowns involved 36 Navy personnel, the investigation found, including the commander of the USS Bonhomme Richard and five admirals, who failed to maintain the ship, ensure adequate training, provide shore support or conduct proper oversight.
Even before the fire, the ship’s condition had “significantly deteriorated,” the investigation found, including firefighting equipment, heat detection capability and communications equipment, which allowed the flames to spread more quickly. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew had failed fire-fighting drills, including a repeated failure to use fire-fighting chemicals during drills on 14 straight occasions leading up to the fire.
In July, the Navy announced it would punish more than 20 sailors for the fire. The most serious actions focused on the leadership of the warship and the fire response team. The ship’s former commanding officer, Capt. Gregory Scott Thoroman, and former executive officer, Capt. Michael Ray, received letters of reprimand and forfeiture of pay. The former command master, Jose Hernandez, received a letter of reprimand.