SAN DIEGO (AP) - A sailor accused of starting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard will face a court martial for arson, the Navy said Friday.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, 20, faces two counts in military court for the July 2020 blaze that injured dozens of personnel aboard the amphibious assault ship as the fire burned for five days and sent acrid smoke wafting over San Diego.
It marked one of the worst noncombat warship disasters in recent memory and the vessel had to be scrapped.
Navy prosecutors have said Mays set the fire because he was disgruntled after dropping out of Navy SEAL training. His defense lawyers said there was no physical evidence connecting him to the blaze.
Mays was charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel.
Defense lawyer Gary Barthel said the decision to proceed to trial came despite a hearing officer's recommendation that there wasn't enough evidence to win a conviction after a preliminary hearing in December.
“In our perspective it’s that the Navy’s not looking for justice in this case," Barthel said. “What the Navy’s looking for is to make Mays a scapegoat.”
Mays, who is not being held at the brig, is disheartened by the decision, Barthel said. He maintains his innocence and looks forward to proving it at trial.
Over a three-day hearing in December, one witness placed Mays in the area where the fire broke out aboard the ship and another said he later made a seeming confession to igniting it.
Sailor Carissa Tubman said Mays mumbled to himself: “I’m guilty, I guess. I did it” as she escorted him to the brig in August 2020. She said he then said: “It had to be done.”
Mays was stunned he was being locked up at the time and was being sarcastic, defense lawyers said.
The lead federal fire investigator for the government determined the fire was started July 12, 2020, by someone who ignited carboard boxes in a vehicle storage area below deck. The defense presented evidence from experts that the blaze may have been sparked by an electrical malfunction.
About 160 sailors and officers were on board when the fire erupted. More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
The 840-foot (256-meter) vessel had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade.