Navy sailor acquitted of setting fire that destroyed $1.2bn warship
A military court judge on Friday acquitted a US navy sailor charged with intentionally setting a fire that destroyed a billion-dollar warship and injured dozens onboard.
During a nine-day trial at California’s Naval Base San Diego, military prosecutors argued that 21-year-old Ryan Mays ignited the USS Bonhomme Richard on purpose in the summer of 2020 because he was upset that he had dropped out of Navy Seal training.
The defense team countered that there was no physical evidence linking Mays to the blaze – instead, prosecutors’ case relied on an eyewitness whose account shifted numerous times and who admitted to feeling “pressured” by authorities when he named Mays as the main suspect, the San Diego television news station KFMB reported.
Military judge Derek Butler sided with the defense, ruling that prosecutors lacked enough hard evidence to prove the charges of arson and willful hazarding of a vessel that they had filed against Mays.
Mays could have received a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
“I am so grateful that this is finally over,” he told reporters after the judge in his case announced the acquittal. “I could say the past two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life.”
Adding that the prosecution cost him friends and time with relatives, Mays also said: “My entire navy career was ruined – I am looking forward to starting over.”
The fire that started on the Bonhomme Richard in San Diego Bay on 12 July 2020 began in the amphibious assault ship’s lower vehicle deck and within two hours had spread out of control. It burned for nearly five days, leaving more than 60 sailors and civilians with heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and other minor injuries.
The flames also inflicted extensive structural, electrical and mechanical damage to the Bonhomme Richard, and the $1.2bn ship was scrapped, capping off the worst non-combat US military warship fire that many could remember.
Investigators could not find any physical evidence that illustrated what started the immense fire. They did speak with an eyewitness who, after multiple interviews, claimed to have seen Mays walk down into the lower vehicle deck while holding a bucket shortly before smoke began billowing out of that part of the ship.
Prosecutors charged Mays and tried to convict him based on that witness’s statement, saying he had both the opportunity and a motive – his failure to complete Navy Seal training – to start the fire.
Besides highlighting inconsistencies in the main witness’s statement and getting him to admit he felt he was under pressure when he identified Mays to authorities, the defense established that investigators had developed another compelling suspect.
The suspect had purportedly been seen “sprinting” from the lower vehicle deck on the same morning of the fire. But the investigation into that other sailor stopped when he was discharged from the navy – the military branch lost jurisdiction over him, and he was ruled out as a suspect, KFMB reported.
The Associated Press contributed reporting