Trial begins for sailor accused of setting fire to Navy warship

SAN DIEGO– Prosecutors say Ryan Sawyer Mays was an arrogant young sailor angry at being assigned to deck duty after failing to become a Navy SEAL — and he made the Navy pay big.

But the prosecution has presented no physical evidence proving that Mays, 21, set fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard, a fact that defense attorneys plan to highlight at the sailors’ court martial that will is scheduled to begin Monday at Naval Base San Diego.

The July 2020 fire burned for nearly five days and sent acrid smoke over San Diego, damaging the amphibious assault ship so badly that it had to be scuttled. This marked one of the worst non-combatant warship disasters in recent memory.

Mays is charged with aggravated arson and willfully endangering a vessel. He denied any wrongdoing.

Gary Barthel, a civilian attorney who represented Mays at a preliminary hearing to determine if there was probable cause to send the case to trial, said the Navy judge overseeing that process recommended that the case is not taken to court martial. But Vice Admiral Steve Koehler, the former commander of the US 3rd Fleet based in San Diego, who had the final say, ordered the court-martial.

Barthel said the Navy’s case relies heavily on the account of a fellow sailor who admitted to changing it several times. He said investigators ruled out that the lithium batteries were stored next to highly combustible materials such as cardboard boxes, in violation of ship protocol.

Barthel said he offered his services pro bono because he thought Mays wouldn’t be court-martialed, but he doesn’t have time with his full-time practice to continue representing the sailor, who uses a military lawyer. Still, he said he was speaking out because the Navy case was unfair.

“I think there are real questions about whether or not the fire was arson,” Barthel said. “And if it was deemed arson, there are questions as to whether Ryan Mays started that fire.”

Prosecution witness Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenji Velasco blamed his nervousness for the changes to his story and told the preliminary hearing he was now ‘100 per cent’ sure he had seen Mays go down to the lower vehicle storage area of ​​the ship on the day. fire.

Neither the military defense attorney nor the prosecution could be reached for comment.

Barthel thinks the Navy is using Mays as a scapegoat rather than admitting that it was solely the mismanagement of senior officers that led to the loss of the billion-dollar ship, or acknowledging that they blamed the bad person.

While investigators say Mays set the fire, a Navy report last year concluded the hell was preventable and unacceptable, and there were gaps in training, coordination, communications , fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and general command and control.

Navy chiefs disciplined more than 20 senior officers and sailors in what they described as widespread leadership failures that contributed to the disaster. The Navy spread blame across a wide range of ranks and responsibilities and directly blamed the ship’s three senior officers.

The ship was undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade in San Diego when the fire broke out. About 115 sailors were on board and nearly 60 were treated for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and minor injuries. The inability to extinguish or contain the fire led to temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas, melting sections of the ship into molten metal that sank in other parts of the ship.

Retired Navy Captain Lawrence B. Brennan, an adjunct professor at the Fordham Law School of Admiralty and International Maritime Law, said the prosecution had their work cut out for them.

“There are questions about identifying people in the vicinity of the fire and possible causes other than arson,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. and crucial evidence.”

The court martial is to last two weeks.

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