A sailor accused of starting a fire on a Navy warship that exploded in San Diego harbor was found not guilty on all charges.
After a court martial, a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays of willful hazarding of a vessel and aggravated arson in connection with the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard more than two years ago.
Mays, according to his defense attorney Gary Barthel, “collapsed on the table and sobbed” after hearing the verdict, as if a weight of a thousand pounds had been lifted from his shoulders.
Mays, speaking outside the courthouse, expressed relief that “the hardest two years of my entire life” were behind him.
I haven’t spent as much time with my pals as I’d like to regret it. Unfortunately, I’ve had to say goodbye to some good friends. Mays lamented, “My entire Navy career was ruined, and I’ve lost time with my family. I’m excited about a clean slate.
Cmdr. Sean Robertson of the US 3rd Fleet, the Navy’s official spokesman, told CNN in a statement, “Seaman Recruit Mays was found not guilty on the charges of willful hazarding of a vessel and aggravated arson.” Due process and a fair trial are values that the Navy will always defend.
After four days of burning, the fire on board the amphibious assault ship was put out, but the ship was a total loss and the Navy had to scrap the billion-dollar vessel. The USS Bonhomme Richard caught fire while docked for upgrades to accommodate F-35B fighter jets of the Marine Corps.
The Navy blamed Mays for starting the fire a year after it happened. At the time, Mays served aboard the ship.
However, Mays’s defense attorney claimed the judge at the preliminary hearing recommended dropping the charges because the evidence was weak.
Barthel stated, “My impression of this case from the start has been that it was a weak case.”
In spite of this, the command continued with the court martial, which resulted in a two-week trial and a not guilty verdict.
The Navy, according to Barthel, was looking for someone to blame after a devastating fire sank an entire ship, rather than admitting there were issues on board that contributed to the blaze.
A Navy investigation published in October found that the fire was “clearly preventable” and was the result of multiple, interconnected breakdowns.
The investigation concluded that a total of 36 Navy personnel, including the USS Bonhomme Richard’s captain and five admirals, were to blame for the chain of errors and breakdowns that ensued.
The investigation revealed that the ship’s condition, including firefighting equipment, heat detection capability, and communications equipment, had “significantly degraded” even before the fire. This accelerated the spread of the flames. On the other hand, the crew had failed firefighting drills for 14 times in a row before the fire occurred, and had repeatedly failed to use firefighting chemicals during these drills.
The Navy announced in July that it would be punishing over 20 sailors for the blaze. Attacks on the warship’s command staff and the fire brigade were the most severe. Both Captain Gregory Scott Thoroman and Captain Michael Ray, the ship’s previous CO and XO, were issued reprimanding letters and had their pay docked. Jose Hernandez, the former command master chief, was given a stern letter of reprimand.