A 21-year-old sailor has been found not guilty of setting a devastating fire that destroyed the $1.2 billion USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship in California, a Navy judge ruled Friday.
Ryan Sawyer Mays, who had been charged with arson and the willful hazarding of a ship over the July 2020 inferno, broke down sobbing as the ruling was handed down following a nine-day trial at Naval Base San Diego.
“I am so grateful that this is finally over,” Mays said outside court, according to USNI News. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”
The sailor added that the last two years “have been the hardest of my entire life” and that he was grateful to the judge for clearing his name.
“I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends,” Mays said. “I’ve lost time with family, and my entire Navy career was ruined. I’m looking forward to starting over.”
Prosecutors had painted him as a disgruntled and arrogant sailor who was furious about being assigned to deck duty after failing to become a Navy SEAL.
They accused the then-19-year-old Mays of setting cardboard boxes alight in a lower vehicle storage area to drive home an earlier text message he’d sent his division officer that the ship had become so cluttered it was “hazardous.”
The prosecution presented no physical evidence tying Mays to the fire on the ship — a fact his defense team ran with throughout the trial.
Mays was formally charged in July 2021 after a fellow sailor had claimed to have seen him in the lower deck region.
His defense team argued during his trial that investigators had rushed to judgement and failed to collect evidence that may have shown lithium ion batteries or a sparking forklift could have been the source of the blaze.
His lead defense attorney, Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, argued in closing statements that “apparently having a lighter makes you an arsonist” — referring to the fact investigators had found a small lighter among Mays’ personal possessions.
“Seaman Recruit Mays was found not guilty on the charges of willful hazarding of a vessel and aggravated arson,” Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, spokesman for U.S. 3rd Fleet, said in the wake of the ruling.
“The Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
The blaze, which ended up burning for nearly five days and injuring more than 60 sailors and civilians, broke out when the USS Bonhomme Richard was docked and undergoing maintenance.
Prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that a Navy report last year concluded the blaze was allowed to burn for days due to a series of individual and systemic failures — including that crews will not trained properly in fire preparedness.
More than 20 senior officers and sailors were disciplined in the wake of the blaze.
With Post wires
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