Defense expert witnesses in the case of a Navy sailor accused of setting last year’s fire that ravaged the USS Bonhomme Richard testified today that more analysis of the fire scene should have been completed before investigators ruled out possible accidental causes of the
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, is charged with aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel for allegedly setting the July 12, 2020, fire, which burned for several days while the warship was docked at Naval Base San Diego.
Mays appeared in a Naval Base San Diego courtroom this week for an Article 32 hearing, during which evidence was presented to determine whether Mays should face further criminal proceedings.
Capt. Angela Tang, who oversaw the hearing, will recommend whether the case should proceed to a court martial. Her ruling is expected in the next few weeks.
Wednesday’s testimony included two expert witnesses who challenged findings that the blaze was an incendiary — or deliberate — fire.
Andrew Thoresen, a forensic electrical engineer who examined the ship about six months after the fire, testified Wednesday that there were two potential sources that may have sparked the fire accidentally within the ship’s “Lower V” area.
Thoresen referred to a corroded cable inside the engine compartment of a forklift in the Lower V, as well as numerous lithium ion batteries found at the scene, both of which he said should have been examined and tested more thoroughly before being ruled out as possible causes of the blaze.
Phil Fouts, a private fire investigator who previously worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified that he also examined the ship, and disagreed with ATF investigators’ findings that the origin of the blaze could be localized to a specific portion of the Lower V.
Earlier this week, Special Agent Matthew Beals, a certified fire investigator with ATF, testified that the fire was sparked by someone touching an open flame to an ignitable liquid applied to tri-wall containers in the Lower V.
Fouts said that without additional testing to eliminate other potential hypotheses, he could not come to a conclusion of the fire’s cause.
When questioned by prosecutors though, neither man said they could definitively rule out the possibility that the fire was an incendiary blaze either.
Prosecutors have alleged that Mays was “disgruntled” with the Navy after dropping out of the SEAL training program.
While Mays has denied any role in the fire, other sailors have testified to seeing him enter the Lower V just prior to the blaze, while another sailor who escorted Mays to the brig after he was arrested alleged Mays said, “I’m guilty.”
According to a search warrant affidavit unsealed earlier this year, Mays was interviewed regarding the blaze and maintained his innocence, while denying being in the Lower V that day and stating “that he was being set up.”
Other details in an affidavit indicate that firefighting equipment may have been sabotaged. Firefighting stations in the Lower and Upper V areas were found to be “not in their normal configuration,” while firefighting hoses connected to the stations were found cut or disconnected.
A Navy official told ATF investigators that he believed the stations were “purposely tampered with and/or disconnected.”
While Mays is the only person criminally charged in connection with the fire, a Navy investigation determined that failures regarding training and oversight, among other factors, also contributed to the ship’s destruction.
City News Service contributed to this article.