Navy sailor Ryan Mays acquitted in Bonhomme Richard fire

A military judge on Friday acquitted a junior sailor accused of setting the fire that destroyed a $1.2 billion warship, a remarkable outcome for the Navy, which found widespread command failures contributed to the blaze yet sought to prosecute a single, low-ranking crew member.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, sobbed with relief as the verdict was read at Naval Base San Diego, the Associated Press reported. He was accused of arson in the 2020 fire that left the USS Bonhomme Richard a smoldering scrap heap and faced the potential of life in prison. The prosecution did not present physical evidence to back up its claim of criminal mischief, and a key witness changed his story over time, the AP reported.

“I can say that the past two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life as a young man,” Mays said outside the courtroom, reading from a brief statement, according to the AP. “I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family, and my entire Navy career was ruined. I am looking forward to starting over.”

A Navy report last year found the fire was a “completely preventable” disaster. The ship, undergoing a quarter-billion dollar upgrade at a pier in San Diego, was “particularly vulnerable” to fire, its compartments festooned with combustible material and the crew unprepared to battle an inferno, investigators determined. Of 807 fire extinguishers on the ship, 15 worked. Two responding teams tried to find a working hose at one of the ship’s 216 fire stations but failed, the report found. Only 29 of them were serviceable.

Capt. Jason Jones, the prosecutor, tried to block presentation of the sweeping failures described in the command investigation, ProPublica reported. Jones argued that his efforts should not imply “the Navy needs a scapegoat and therefore we picked an E-1,” referring to the lowest enlisted rank. Military justice experts have long criticized an intractable practice of shifting accountability down the chain of command while senior leaders elude the most serious blame, a pattern often characterized by troops as “different spanks for different ranks.”

The morning fire on July 12, 2020, spread through the minimally crewed ship, burning for four days. The Navy in the end punished more than 20 people, including three admirals, according to ProPublica. The ship’s senior leadership — the captain, executive officer and top enlisted sailor — received letters of reprimand, ProPublica reported, which severely limit promotions and typically end the careers for those who receive them.

But Mays became the most visible sailor tied to the disaster, with the Navy claiming he ignited cardboard in a lower compartment because he was angry over washing out of Navy SEAL selection. Prosecutors pointed to one text message to his division officer as proof, saying Mays was determined to prove his own assessment that the cluttered compartments made the ship hazardous.

A Navy judge recommended against going to trial, citing a lack of evidence, but Vice Adm. Stephen T. Koehler, who had convening authority over the case, decided to proceed with the case, AP reported.

The Bonhomme Richard fire was the latest in a series of disasters that has called into question the leadership and oversight of senior Navy leaders. Chief among them were collisions at sea in 2017 that killed a combined 17 sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. Following those cases, several officers were fired and the Navy promised it would refocus on seamanship.

The Navy also was responsible for flooding tap water with jet fuel at a base in Hawaii last year, sickening military families and prompting the Defense Department to order the vast fields of underground fuel tanks to be emptied and removed.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.