Sailor acquitted of setting fire that destroyed a large ship

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A military judge on Friday acquitted a sailor of arson in a fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a blow to the Navy as it faces allegations of improper training and maintenance of the amphibious assault ship on the 1, 2 billion dollars.

Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, took a deep breath as the verdict was read, placed both hands on the defense table, sobbed and hugged supporters in the audience at Naval Base San Diego.

Outside the courthouse, Mays read a brief statement to reporters and declined to answer questions. He did not act on his plans.

“I can say that the last two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life as a young man,” he said. “I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family and my entire naval career was ruined. I’m looking forward to starting over.”

Prosecutors presented no physical evidence during the nine-day trial that the sailor set fire to the ship, while the defense disputed the credibility of a key witness, Seaman Kenji Velasco, who changed his account over time.

Gary Barthel, a former Marine judge advocate who represented Mays at a preliminary hearing, said undermining Velasco’s credibility was key. Barthel has said that the judge in the preliminary hearing recommended a court-martial, but Deputy Adm. Steve Koehler, former commander of the San Diego-based US 3rd Fleet, had the last word.

The ship’s lower vehicle storage area “became a junkyard, and I think throughout this process the Navy was trying to clean up their mess by accusing Seaman Mays of these allegations,” Barthel told reporters.

The prosecutor did not comment after the verdict. The Navy said through a spokesman, Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, that it “is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”

Prosecutors said Mays was angry and vengeful at failing to become a Navy SEAL and be assigned to deck duty, prompting him to set fire to cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020, in the lower vehicle storage area of ​​the vessel, which was docked in San Diego. while it was underway. $250 million in maintenance work. They said he wanted to drive home his text earlier to his divisional officer that the ship was so cluttered with construction materials that it was “dangerous as (expletive).”

The prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, acknowledged in court a Navy report last year that concluded the inferno was preventable and unacceptable, and that there were lapses in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and overall command and control. The failure to extinguish or contain the fire led to temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees (649 Celsius) in some areas, melting parts 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 there is no doubt the Navy “lost the ship” that morning, but Mays is to blame for setting it on fire.

“That sling shot from behind, that’s what the Navy could never have prevented,” he said.

Mays thought he was going to jump out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead he was peeling paint on the deck of a ship, and he hated the Navy for it, Jones said.

“When you’re on deck, you’re about as far away from the SEALs as you’re ever going to be,” Jones said.

Defense lawyers said the trial only exposed a sloppy investigation by government investigators who rushed to judgment and failed to collect evidence showing that the culprit could also have been lithium-ion batteries or a sparkly forklift.

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