A military-appointed judge on Friday pardoned a sailor of arson in a fire that engulfed the USS Bonhomme Richard, a disaster for the Naval force as it faces claims of improper training and upkeep of the $1.2 billion assault ship.
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, took a heavy sigh of relief when the decision was announced, put two hands on the guard table, broke into tears, and embraced allies in the crowd at Naval Base San Diego. Outside the court building, Mays read a short proclamation to journalists and declined to respond to questions. He didn’t address any plans from this point forward.
“I can say that the past two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life as a young man. 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,” he said.
Investigators were unable to produce any actual proof during the nine-day preliminary that the sailor set the vessel ablaze, while the defense worked on the validity of a key witness, Sailor Kenji Velasco, who changed his record after some time. Gary Barthel, a past Marine judge advocate who addressed Mays at a preliminary hearing, said undermining Velasco’s validity was critical. Barthel has said the appointed authority in the preliminary hearing advised against a court-martial, however, Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, the previous captain of the San Diego-based U.S. third Armada, had the last say.
The vessel’s vehicle storage area “became a junkyard and I believe throughout this entire process the Navy was attempting to clean up their mess by accusing Seaman Mays of these allegations,” Barthel told journalists. Prosecutors didn’t make any remarks after the decision was announced. The Naval force said through a representative, Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, that it “is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
Prosecutors said Mays was furious and vindictive about his failing to become a Navy SEAL and being relegated to deck responsibility, provoking him to light a fire on cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020, in the lower vehicle storage on the ship, which was anchored in San Diego while going through $250 million in upkeep work.
The prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, recognized in court an official Navy report last year that concluded that the fiery blaze was preventable and that there was a lack of training, coordination, correspondences, fire readiness, gear support, and generally order and control. The inability to smother or contain the fire resulted in temperatures surpassing 1,200 degrees in certain areas, dissolving segments of the boat into liquid metal that poured into other areas of the boat. Navy leads ended up disciplining over 20 senior officials and sailors.
Jones let the judge know there is no question that the Navy force “loses the ship. That sucker punch from behind, that’s what the Navy could have never prevented” early that day, however, Mays is at fault for lighting it.
Mays believed he would leap out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, however rather he was chipping paint on the deck of a boat, and he despised the Navy force for that, Jones said.
“When on deck, you are about as far away from the SEALs as you are ever going to be,” Jones said.